The power of creative explanations

The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

Just take 8 minutes out of your busy day and watch this awesome explanation of The Higgs Bosun and what they’re up to over at the Large Hadron Collider. For those of us who are constantly trying to find ways to celebrate clever-endeavour and the joy of intelligent curiousity, this creative and engaging animation is a pretty good way to start.

Just imagine the discussions that could stem from this…


Enhancing the flow of learning through ‘Phased Disclosure’


Those of you who know me will know what a hopelessly visual-biased learner I am.  I adore the way we can communicate complex ideas in a multi-layered way through a simple illustration, shape or diagram. The popularity of info-graphics and data visualisations reflect an increased interest in communicating ideas and messages in an easily accessible format.  More on this in a post to follow, but visual representations or pictorial short-hand are by no means new or unfamiliar.

I was watching the BBC documentary series ‘The Tube’ recently and episode 5 included a great piece on the work of Paul Marchant who is Head of Product Design at Transport for London.  He gave a fascinating explanation of how the signage throughout the whole London Underground system is designed.  The signs are deliberately designed so as to give just the right amount of information at the right time as you travel through the system to get to the right train.  Not only that, but the information is deliberately designed according to the best distance to be able to read it, so the size of the lettering (the ‘X heights’) is meticulously calculated to give people enough time to read the information whilst still keeping them flowing through the system.

In his piece to camera, he explained that without the signage, the commuter wouldn’t be able to make their individual decisions at the specific point that they needed which would result in an interruption to the flow of the system, which would then start to back up.  The signage enables the system to work more efficiently.”People think this just happens…” he said, but the process that underpins how to increase the efficiency in the flow of commuters through the system is very deliberate indeed.  As you would expect, this made me think about learning design…

He used a great phrase for the design principles he uses, “Phased Disclosure”.

It made me think that if we were to apply theses same principles to how we deisgn learning, I wonder if we could increase the flow of learning in lessons?

So here’s an enquiry question: “How do I increase the flow, and therefore quality of learning through my lesson design?”

And my initial thoughts on what success could look like…

1. More opportunities for quality reflection and reduction of interruptions (by teacher and learner)

2. Greater autonomy for learners to make choices (select from the 4 T’s of Autonomy: TEAM: who they work with; TIME: when they get the work done, TECHNIQUE: how they work and TOPIC: what they work on) that will lead to an increase in choices offered and improved decision-making

3. Higher levels of sustained engagement by all learners, working at their own pace and leading their own learning

I’ve had a first go and aligning the ‘flow’ of a commuter through the underground system that Paul Marchant explained to the flow of learning.  I’d be interested to hear what you think:

(1) ALL OPTIONS DISPLAYED: Go through the gate line – graphic representations of all possible travel options that are available to you (BIG PICTURE & the WHY, HOW and WHAT of learning*)

*See Simon Sinek’s great TEDx Talk about this model and his website and book “Start with the Why?”

(2) DECISION MAKING POINT: colour coded, suspended signs indicate the route to follow for the desired choice of tube line (AUTONOMY & INDEPENDENCE: 4 T’s of CHOICES: TIME, TECHNIQUE, TEAM, TOPIC*)

*Daniel Pink talks about the ‘Four T’s’ in his brilliant TED Talk (also well worth a watch in animated form in the RSA Animate series) and he has written about motivation in “Drive”

(3) REASSURANCE: as you move down the escalator, there are larger suspended signs that everybody moving down the escalator can read as they descend towards the platforms. These reinforce the information you already have and reassure you that they you moving in the right direction (QUESTIONING & FEEDBACK: LEARNER-TO-TEACHER)

(4) DECISION MAKING POINT: colour coded again and suspended, these provide you with options of northbound or southbound pltaforms (REFLECTION & RESILIENCE: PROGRESS & INTELLECTUAL RISK-TAKING)

(5) BIG PICTURE: as you walk onto your platform, you can check that you are heading the right way for this part of your journey by looking at large static ‘maps’ of the tube route on your desired line, in the direction you have opted. (REFLECTION, ADAPTATION, AMENDMENT & SUCCESS CRITERIA)

This is all very early days in my thinking, but I wonder if this gives us another way to look at how and why) we need to personalise and differentiate?

Perhaps we should be thinking about learning as ‘phased disclosure’? But exactly who gets to do the disclosure is the next challenge…

The best teachers are the greatest learners & vice versa

I have always loved the work of the Innovation Unit. One of the most inspirational talks I have ever heard was from Valerie Hannon at a Cape UK where she delivered a powerful keynote speeches at a conference about 4 years ago. It was here that she referred to the need, in the 21st Century, for the ‘Expert Pedagogue’. It is this concept that I had been working on for many years, but framed as she did on that day, I was use her words and thinking to bring together a whole range of ideas and approaches that have continued to shape my thinking and my own work to this day.

Anyway, rather than go on here about the great work of The Innovation Unit, why not go and take a look at some of their projects? A good place to start is their partnership with The Paul Hamlyn Foundation on ‘Learning Futures’ (with @DavidPriceOBE).

But before you leave this post, take a look at this video (you’ll also find it on their site).

What a way to promote the essence of excellence in learning and education and big up, deservedly so, the qualities of all the fabulous educators around the world. I’m sure I’ll be using this as an inspirational film ahead of INSET and twlights…I’ll let you know what happens when I do! If you use it – please let me know!

Learning discernment

Sebastian Wernicke: 1000 TEDTalks, 6 words 

I use the Hemmingway activity Sebastian refers to in his talk a lot. It can be used in lots of different ways.

To capture learning and check progress, it’s a great activity to use with learners to summarise their learning so far from the lesson in no more or less than six words. It also works well for revising whole topics, processes, principles or complex methods.

As a starter activity, it can work really well to assess prior learning. Put the topic you are about to cover on the board and, following a small group discussion, ask learners to summarise, in six words, what they think the topic is about or PREDICT what important information they will need to know or be able to do. That way, you can start from where they are, rather from where you might have ordinarily assumed they are. You can also ask them to connect the topic to prior learning in…yes, that’s right, no more or less than six words. Whenver we place restrictions on divergent thinking tasks, we immediately give additional challenge and purpose to the creative thinking we are hoping to witness. You could, for example, up the challenge by asking learners to summarise a topic in six words (no more, no less) but also include a number, a musical note, a colour, an emotion, a chemical compound….whatever is appropriate. The important aspect of thinking in this way is, of course, the PROCESS, rather than the PRODUCT. And that’s using the Hemmingway “6 words” activity can do.

The talk itself raises the issue of the Information Age – what to do with SO much information? How do we make sense of the knowledge that’s out there? What skills do we and our learners need to mindfully practice in order to exercise some form of control (self-efficacy) over their own information-drenched lives?

The learners of the 21st century need to be discerning in how they respond, receive, search out, use and create new knowledge. An exercise such as Sebastian Wernicke endeavours to accomplish really shows us the challenges ahead of our learners as they forge their own unique pathways through the internet galaxy.

Oh, and for the record, my six word autobiography reads as follows:

“Should have played cricket for England.”



One hour well worth it: a great educational conversation from LWF 2011

Learning Without Frontiers (@LWForg) is an organisation who describe themselves as: “… a global platform for disruptive thinkers, innovators and practitioners to share knowledge, ideas and experiences about new learning.” 

Every year, in addition to leading many projects, LWF hold a conference over a long weekend in January that brings together many of the leading thinkers, advocates, actvitists, researchers and practitioners in education. After the conference, they post many of the talks and events online to create a rich array of ‘think-pieces’ from which everybody can continue learning.

This discussion is just one of many that took place at the LWF 11 last year.

So, why don’t you make yourself a hot drink, pull up a chair and engage in some refreshing personal CPD for an hour with Keri Facer, Mick Waters and Sir Ken Robinson.

And, if you enjoy learning and thinking in this way and would like to do some more in a more bite-sized way, why not pop over to for some smaller chunks of learning? On this site, I’ve put together a collection of TED Talks (each of them last between 5 and 18 minutes) that are connected to learning themes. They are even more powerful if you sit and watch one of these talks with some colleagues/ students/ parents & carers…just think, you could structure a whole personalised CPD programme around this style of learning…high quality, world class thinking available to you in your school at the click of a mouse.


Oh and if you have come across a TED Talk that you think would work well on this site, please let me know, or even better, write a reflection on it and drop me a line so I can include it as a guest post!

Keep on Learning

Many exciting learning developments and projects are now underway and I am ready again to share some of my thinking and reflections on the great big world of learning of which I am very privileged to be a part.

I’ve been working with many great thinkers and practioners over the past few months with a focus on action research and professional enquiry. Adopting this approach with teachers, teaching assistants and school staff is at the heart of much of my work to ensure sustainable school improvement.

Here are just a few of the benefits of working in this way:

1. The research is owned and designed from the outset by the person leading it. In this way, the researcher has genuine autonomy in how they pose their questions, collect evidence and collate findings. 

2. The researcher is supported by an enquiry framework (provided by me in this case*) which gives them an understanding of the process of research but, more importantly, gives them a new way of thinking about their practice.

3. The research is never additional to what they are already doing. It gives them a methodology that enables them to delve deeper into their existing practice, revealing additional, often more pertinent questions to emerge and follow up. The start point is always a micro-enquiry, where the researcher might focus in on one part of one lesson, observing just two or three pupils. It is the fact that the researcher is able to pause and ‘notice learning’ that is important. This will inform the next steps of their enquiry. Developing practictioners who are keen-eyed ‘noticers’ of learning is an immediate benefit from the tiny beginnings of this approach.  

4. The research groups are established as supportive communities within and/or between schools. The scale of these varies, but the central component of every group is a safe leanring community where individual reflections and findings are openly shared. These are sensitively but honestly challenged, checked-out and refined.

5. The outcomes of the research are never pre-determined. In this way, the authenticity of the research process is maintained and the learning is very real and ‘pure’. For those of us who like to know what’s going to happen, this can be particualrly challenging, so we call it ‘exciting’ and accept it as what learning should be.

6. In undertaking research, the individuals involved are able to re-connect with what it means to be a learner again. This, in itself is a powerful experience, developing greater emphathy with the learners with whom they work on a daily basis and reminding them of the delightful complexity of learning.

7. As an integral part of the way in which we research individual pedagogy and practice, a key ingredient has to be the inclusion of learner-voice. In this way, the educators are encouraged to lead quality learning conversations with their learners. They then become very skilled in leading, facilitating and ultimately, coaching learners to articulate their thinking about their own learning. The learners themselves benefit from the opportunity to learn about learning and find a way to talk about it.

8. Another by-product of the action research framework we use is that the practitioners must design learning opportunities for classes where they are able to stand back, be quiet and observe the learning taking place. This results in the regular design of rich learning tasks and truly learner-led activities that, by definition, rely on the learners working collaboratively with each other and letting go of dependence on their teacher. In addition, the practitioner doesn’t have the need to intervene or take over because they have their own job to do – to actively observe the learning (we have designed some handy capture sheets to support practitioners in doing this as part of the framework).

9. Action research within and between schools offers an inclusive approach to professional development. Teachers, teaching assistants, administrators, parents, carers, students…anybody who is a part of the school community, in fact, can get involved in a programme of action research to improve and build on effective practice, at whatever level of experience or competence they might be. 

10. Once the group has experienced this way of working, the aspect of the process that really sticks is a new way of thinking. And that’s the bit that lasts and grows across the school to enhance a learning culture for everybody who is a part of the community.

Matthew Taylor has written about the importance of Learning about Learning in his blog and I happily echo his sentiments.

I fully endorse adopting action research as an integral part of (if not, simply ‘AS‘) professional development. After all, it allows us all to keep on learning with and for our learners and learning communities.

*The enquiry framework we use is a hybrid of several frameworks, but greatly influenced by the fantastic work of Pat Cochrane and Pete McGuigan at CapeUK and their Learning to Enquire resources and the Enquiry Projects undertaken as part of the Creative Partnerships Programme.





Guest post from Matthew Bebbington @Bebbmeister: The power of data pictures

Hans Rosling’s belief is that ‘making information more accessible has the potential to change the quality of the information itself.”  I believe he is right. Rosling’s work provides a unique slant on how to present data in an exciting way that could purposefully enrich the way in which the 21st Century learner and teacher examines and display data.  One question you should ask yourself, as an educator, should be ‘ how can I use Rosling’s work to stimulate learning in the classroom?’

I could (hopelessly) try and describe his work but I think his TED biography summarises it brilliantly:

“Even the most worldly and well-travelled among us will have their perspectives shifted by Hans Rosling. A professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, his current work focuses on dispelling common myths about the so-called developing world, which (he points out) is no longer worlds away from the West. In fact, most of the Third World is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the West did.”

What sets Rosling apart isn’t just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presents them. Guaranteed: You’ve never seen data presented like this. By any logic, a presentation that tracks global health and poverty trends should be, in a word: boring. But in Rosling’s hands, data sings. Trends come to life. And the big picture — usually hazy at best — snaps into sharp focus. 

Rosling’s presentations are grounded in solid statistics (often drawn from United Nations data), illustrated by the visualization software he developed. The animations transform development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear, intuitive and even playful. During his legendary presentations, Rosling takes this one step farther, narrating the animations with a sportscaster’s flair. Rosling developed the breakthrough software behind his visualizations through his nonprofit Gapminder, founded with his son and daughter-in-law. The free software — which can be loaded with any data — was purchased by Google in March 2007. (Rosling met the Google founders at TED.)

As if all this weren’t enough, the irrepressible Rosling is also an accomplished sword-swallower — a skill he demonstrated at TED2007.

So please, watch, learn and be amazed! – download graphs to your desktop for free & use offline also.  There are also examples of gapminder being utilised by educators on the ‘For Teachers’ tab & a 2 minute video tutorial displaying the various uses of the interactive graphs.