Visual Study Skills: bringing words and pictures together (pt2)

Sunni Brown’s TEDx talk needs to be linked up with her great article entitled, “The Miseducation of the Doodle” (you can follow her on Twitter @SunniBrown) all of which are great for the linking of pictures and words. It ties in with some work I am currently developing around how we design learning opportunities that foster visual thinking to represent information. There’s much to this, plus all the joys you’ll find in the field of infographics and a whole host of visual interpreters who are developing their techniques in an effort to make sense of the enormity of the information available to us in the digital world.

I’m sure I’ll find some more links to bring it together. But for now, it makes me think that this is an area that I need to spend more time on when I’m designing learning. One of the integral qualities of a discerning learner is their ability to sort, sift and select the most meaningful tenets of information so that others might access the knowledge that they have discovered, re-interpreted or even created from scratch. For me, this demands that we consider the ways in which we offer opportunities to our learners to be able to present their information. Such presentations of understanding can certainly serve as a valuable and public validation of learner-thinking. In addition, such visual presentations will help to consolidate their own knowledge and deepen their understanding.

The importance of being able to identify the relationships between concepts, ideas and knowledge is a valuable part of the process of understanding. To do this visually not only provides us with the opportunity to ‘show’ our thinking, but enables us to create a very uniques and personal expression of our understanding. With a class full of 30 students, the diversity of the individual expressions is a discussion point in itself. It’s a bit more than thought-showers and mind maps and, as such, seems to be something that I can certainly consider designing as a focus area for deliberate practice in lessons.

Sunni Brown is a business owner, creative director, speaker, and co-author of one of Amazon’s Top 100 Business Books in C&I titled GameStorming: A Playbook for Rule-breakers, Innovators and Changemakers. She’s best known for her large-scale live content visualizations at meetings and events, and she is also the leader of The Doodle Revolution—a growing effort to debunk the myth that doodling is a distraction. She plans to teach the world how to master “strategic doodling” in her 2nd book, The Doodle Revolution.

Autonomy: trusting that students really CAN do it for themselves

Sugata Mitra shares his findings from the “Hole in the wall project”. If ever we needed evidence that standing back and allowing learners to explore, discover and learn for themselves, this is it.

So what is the role of the teacher? Has Sugata provided us with evidence that teachers are redundant? Well, no. But it does provide us with an important message about who should be doing WHAT in the classroom and what the role of the teacher needs to be. I think of the role of the teacher in the 21st century as an ‘Expert Pedagogue’. 

It connects, for me, to the work undertaken by John Hattie, found in ‘Visible Learning’. Some of the most powerful findings from this work for me are as follows…

Teaching is an intrusive intervention – I think of this as more of an ‘interruption’ in another person’s thinking. Because of this, we (practitioners) must make sure that these interruptions are both mindful and deliberate. Just as a teacher intervention has the power to accelerate the thinking of a student, so, too can it obstruct the thinking of a student.

Now this is nothing new, I admit. But what it does do for me is to remind me about the importance of every interaction between teacher and student. As far as possible, I need to ensure that each and every one of my interruptions is deliberate and really well planned. These interruptions really need to earn their place in the classroom to make sure that they result in the progression of thinking, rather than the halting of thinking. 

If I mistime my intervention, I may well shut down any deep thinking. I may detract from the requires time and reflection that is integral to the learning process. So for me, it’s about asking myself:

How often do I deliberately hold back and allow people to ponder? When working with teachers, this is can be a particularly challenging thing to do as often, I find it hard to resist the temptation to jump in, push on and ‘get though the stuff…’

What can I do in the learning opportunities that I design that will create and nurture the space and time that is necessary for deep, ponderous thought? What does a ‘Pondering learning environment’ look, sound and feel like? And how would it be judged by others?

What do I need to do to establish a ponderous climate for learning that is both thoughtful and purposeful? 

How much courage will it take to really step back, to observe with my eyes and ears in order to inform my interventions? (And how will this feel for me and for the learners?)

Do I have the courage to test Sugata’s theory that, if left to their own learning resources, learners (adults and young people) will be able to progress their own learning? This will hinge on achieving, as with all the good stuff, a quality balance between mindful interventions and thoughtful observations.

The role of the expert pedagogue is characterised by this delicate balance between the observation of learning and provision of timely quality feedback. This is rests on the ability to foster quality learning conversations that both progress thinking and promote self-efficacy in/ for all learners.

Much to ponder…

Climate for creativity: permission to copy

Johanna Blakley offers some fascinating insight here into how we can make a distinction between creative innovation and copying. She explores the relatively free-of-copyright world of the fashion industry and suggests that it is this very freedom that forces innovative thinking and discovery. 

Within the context of the classroom, this open-sharing can be a real challenge. When we ask our students to research information that will inform their thinking, we are, in truth, asking them to first discover and second draw upon this existing knowledge to help them construct their own, new (to them, at least) knowledge. What we are desperate to avoid in this process, however, is a student simply copying the information that they discover and replicating what is already known. We want all our students to demonstrate a sophisticated degree of discernment in how they consider and select information as a part of their personal knowledge-construction.

When it comes to asking students to think creatively, then, what must we do? I think that Johanna’s observations here might help. She presents the case that in the least regulated industries, we find the greatest degree of innovation. Why? Because if your idea is easy to copy, then people will copy it. But they will do it within their own context, using the resources available to them and inevitably, it will be an adaptation of the original. It is at the point of adaptation that creative thinking takes place. Just as when 30 students are asked to write their own critical analysis of the same piece of prose, you know that you’ll get thirty different responses. 

This makes me consider the age-old difficulty of how we assess creativity. What must we ask in order to test the quality of creative thinking?

Well, Johanna’s talk prompted me to ponder this (and I am in no way certain as to whether this works or not, so bear with me, please)…

If you come up with something that is truly innovative, something that is underpinned by considered and sophisticated thinking, then this will be far harder to adapt and certainly, harder to replicate. In that way, it can stand alone and become a trend-setter in its own right and, if you’re lucky, not only stand the test of time but reach iconic status, and you with it. It is the depth of thinking that underpins the innovation that is put to the test here, alongside the creative output itself.

So I wonder how we go about assessing the quality of thinking (not limited to creative thinking alone, here). Once we have asked students to draw upon existing knowledge and to collaborate with each other to generate ideas, perhaps we can ask a few ‘test-the-thinking’ questions. These might look like this:

How easy will this idea be to copy? (Show me how you might do this)
How might you improve upon it and make it more accessible, more functional, more relevant etc? (Have a go at making the necessary improvements and adaptations and explain why you’ve made these decisions and changes)
What elements of the original idea will stand the test of time? (Identify these and explain the ways in which you think these elements will ‘stick’)
What might be created in time to replace this? (Create a design/ rationale/ proposal for a replacement idea/ concept/ design and explain how this supersedes the original)

The ideal conditions for this creative thinking to happen are openness, sharing and collaboration. A very different physical and pedagogical model from my own school experience. If this is the case, this serves as a great rationale to use when designing learning environments and considering our pedagogy so that it deliberately facilitates collaborative learning. 

As Johanna states in her talk, the democratisation of fashion leads to the development of trends; people copy others, but as they do, they place their own personal ‘twist’ on the original. To move from trend-follower to trend-setter, you need to stay ahead of the trends. It is here that new innovations are born. But what is also noticeable here is that it is the trend that drives the innovation, not the other way round. 

This makes me reflect upon moving my own pedagogical practice forward. It makes me wonder whether I can use this to reassure myself that the best kind of professional development comes about as a result of the prioritisation of teacher action research and enquiry in and between our own schools. When we think and discuss our world of learning in such an open and collaborative manner, then learning could well start to develop as our very own innovative global brand.  Perhaps it already has? As such it is characterised as a powerful movement membership to which is what everybody craves. After all, if we return to Johanna’s talk and the reasons why fashion is so copyright-free, learning is surely far too utilitarian to be copyrighted. 

So if we can continue to learn together within the open and accessible education community supported by Web 2.0 technologies (blogs and twitter at the very least) and through the establishment of professional learning networks then I reckon we will succeed in maintaining authentic participatory access to the brand of learning to as wide an audience as possible. 

Democratisation of learning is characterised by a shared ownership that cuts across all backgrounds, ages and culture. From within the existing masses of followers of our very own innovative learning brand, we may be starting to see the trend-setters emerging. These are the innovators, the collaborators and the applied ideologists. It is from here then, that new systems of learning will grow and develop which will indeed stand the test of time.

Well, that’s what I was thinking about when I listened to this talk. Thank you to @ICTtower for recommending it. 

Serious Play: Freeing up thinking

Tim Brown gives some great insight here into practical creativity in his work place at IDEO. I’ve used many of the activities he showcases here with teachers and students. The 30 Circles activity is a particular favourite of mine. It’s a divergent thinking activity which forces you to generate as many ideas as possible within a given time limit, whilst switching off your integral quality-sensor. So often, we become inhibited by our own preconceived ideas about what is ‘good’. For many, this quality-sensor mechanism is one of the biggest hurdles for us to really tap into our creativity.

I used the activity with a group of teachers recently and they ‘wasted’ 27 seconds of the allotted minute before they made any mark on their paper at all. They spent this time looking nervously around the room at their peers, checking to see if they were ‘right’ in what they thought they had to do. Even though there was no right or wrong. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no judgement here from me on this as all it did was remind me of how great fear of getting things wrong can be when it comes to thinking.

I’ve included the template I use for the 30 circles activity. The only thing you need to remember when using this is:

(1) Be clear that any approach is the ‘right’ approach
(2) Restrict the the time to one minute
(3) Invest in feedback: How did it FEEL to think like that? How confident were you in completing the activity? What were your concerns? In what ways did you feel pressure (from others/ yourself/ me…?)
(4) How could you adapt this and make it a subject/topic specific activity to free up thinking and establish a ‘safe-to-try’ culture of learning?

Relevant Learning: Pirates and superheroes to inspire

Dave Eggers set up his pirates shop as a way to secure a property to house his writing workshops, as you will learn from this video. Since this, a crop of similar projects have sprouted, including a superheroes shop in New York and a whole diverse range of chapters under the 826 umbrella.

Making learning relevant to learners is one of the hardest tasks we have. Dave Eggers discovered, by accident, the lure of practical imagination alongside the power of mentoring. His discovery was to go beyond just asking children to write down or to talk about their imaginative musings but to actively imagine that they can step into their very own imagination and take an active role in them. Alongside this, he put people who had already found their passion for writing in the same space as those who were yet to find theirs. Together, they get to scope ideas, draft their dreams and publish their imaginations. 

When we ask students to get creative or ‘use their imagination’, what is it that we are asking them to do? What do we hope to see? What do we want them to show us? How do we want them to feel about their learning when they activate their imagination? How can we give them the necessary space and time to develop the confidence to really develop their most powerful ideas? How far can we let them really run with their ideas? How far could they go…? If thinking creatively is all about making connections between previously unrelated concepts or objects, then what Dave Eggers has done here works really well.

Consider the topic of Pirates or Superheroes and how you might make some links to curriculum topics and the characters themselves:

Maths: What kind of insurance plan would Batman need for Robin? What sort of premium would he need to pay to protect against damage to the Bat Cave ?

Geography: What route should Captain Jack Sparrow take if he sailed from the Bahamas to the South Coast of Ireland?

RE: What code of ethics would Spiderman enforce if he were made Prime Minister? 

Citizenship: What role in government would The Green Lantern be most suited to?

PSHE: What health issues would Blackbeard need to be educated about and how could he and his crew make sure they stayed healthy?

History: What knowledge, dispositions and skills would a superhero have needed to prevent WW2?

Science: What physiological differences exist between the Justice League of America? Compare these with X-Men and evaluate the ways in one group might be more powerful than the other.

And so on…if you have more reflections or inspirational ideas connected with this, please leave a comment.


Teaching with passion: passionate learning

Emily Pilloton shows just how an individual’s passion can influence and bring about significant change on a local, regional and national level. For me, this talk summarises what is really means to be passionate about a subject or activity. Her focus here is on how the power of teaching design can bring about positive engagement from individuals and communities. But I reflected on the fact that it is her passion for what she does that brings about real change above all else.

After I watched this talk the first time, I made a promise to myself to stop being apologetic about being SO into all-things-learning. It is hard but I really think it is working.

Whereas once I would introduce a video clip, a resource or a book to a group of teachers with the self-deprecating mantra, “…it’s because I have no life that I find these things interesting…” I now simply say, “Watch this, it’s really great. I think you’ll enjoy it., I did”. Or words to that effect.

I love to be inspired by people, young and old. It is for this reason that I watch so many people speak online or at conferences or read what they write. The inspiration I experience often comes not from the subject that they talk about but from the passion with which they talk about it. In this way, I manage to get my regular fix of inspiration from a diverse range of people from a diverse range of fields. I also know a lot more about quantum physics than I ever thought I would, but that’s another story.

What this talk does is show how passion can change not only your own life but the lives of those around us. Sir Ken Robinson talks about this very subject in his book, “The Element’. Perhaps if we have the courage to teach with such passion, we will also be and see just such changes occurring around us.

Collaboration: as with all learning, is too important to be left to chance

Jane McGonigal presents a great argument here that attempts to demonstrate the potential force for good that could exist within games-playing. Games like World of Warcraft require a commitment on the part of the participants to collaborate with their fellow players in order to achieve their goals.

For me, this brings me back to considering the power of games-dynamics in themselves and of the need for students to get as many opportunities as possible to learn together, in groups. The structure and integral components that underpin interactive games-playing might be translated into a some form of taxonomy of learning design. Here’s a very rough draft of what it might look like:


  • Identifies what needs to be done in order to achieve goals
  • Recognises that attainment of goals cannot be done independently of others
  • Identifies who and/or what can help in the attainment of such goals
  • Adapts own behaviour so as to foster collaboration from others
  • Collaborates with others to achieve own goals
  • Works effectively with others to achieve own goals
  • Is prepared to offer collaborative expertise to achieve goals of others
  • Recognises that working with others is more effective than working independently
  • Actively seeks out further collaborative opportunities with others


And so on.

And what if we created a game-scenario that was intended to solve some of the world’s greatest problems and handed this over to our students? How might this encourage learners to engage with the wider world and begin a process of problem solving from which innovative solutions might emerge? We know it works, after all. Consider the way in which the human gene was finally coded, or the creation of WIkipedia or…well, you know what I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we should ditch the curriculum and get students to start playing WoW. What this talk does make me think about, however, is how collaborative skills need to be deliberately practised just as much as skills in calculus, research or reading. As I’ve said before in posts and I’m writing about in other forms at the moment, if we can design learning in such a way that it offers engaging opportunities for students to mindfully practise the skills required to collaborate, then surely that’s one step closer to their readiness to both give and take from the world everything it has to offer?

Other TED Talks on related to this and that have similar connections to learning include Seth Priebatsch and Tom Chatfield.

Engaging learners: games dynamics & lesson design

Seth Priebatsch gives an enthusiastic talk about the way in which business is learning from games dynamics. For me, from the start of his energetic talk, I simply substitute ‘learning design’ for ‘business’ and keep on listening. I write a lot more about this in my book but for now, this talk gives a great illustration of the way in which humans are engaging in Web 2.0 or rather, how Web 2.0 is encouraging engagement from humans.

There’s much here to consider, but the highlights include his explanation of how a simple progress bar can be incorporated into daily activities to encourage us to finish them. I’m working with a school who are doing just this in a project with some gifted and talented learners to encourage them to take the time to actively reflect on their learning and complete a personal learning blog. Before it becomes a habit, we need to practice and get good at an activity. When we do this, we start to experience a greater, deeper sense of achievement and we want to go back back for more. And that’s what we want. A learning addiction. That’s what I want, anyway! There’s some great ideas here that can easily be incorporated into the way in which we design learning. 

Nice if learning became as big as Nike or Adidas or Nintendo or Apple or…well, you get what I mean.

Engaging learners & leading changes

Simon Sinek unpicks the importance of why we do what we do in his talk about leading change here. In using the brain as a model, he provides a powerful insight into how leaders should construct their message or sell their product. In doing so, he highlights the way in which we are physiologically wired to respond to the world we encounter.

We first experience the world through our emotions. The part of our brain that is activated when we find ourselves in a new situation is our most primitive, reptilian brain, the amygdala. Very soon after this, our rational, language-functioning part of the brain starts to make sense of what we are feeling and sensing. Finally, we formulate a considered response and can make an informed decision about what we are going to do or say. All of this happens in a matter of milli-seconds (probably less, I’m sure somebody can tell me).

On watching this, I wondered whether we could design and then communicate learning in a similar way. If we did, it would look something like this:

(1) WHY are we learning this today? This appeals to the emotional brain of our learners. Particularly if it is reinforced with a smile, a greeting and energy that betrays our own excitement and passion for what the lesson is about to cover.

(2) HOW are we going to learn today? At this point, we are appealing to the rational brain of our learners. We all like to know if we are going to be asked to actually DO or SAY publicily when we are in a new situation. Just think about any workshops you’ve attended. You get that sinking feeling when the presenter, having led the session from the front for 20 minutes, without warning, asks you to interact with the people sitting near us. And this after you had understood you could get away with being an entirely passive recipient throughout the whole session. The thing is, we all like to know from the outset what will be asked of us. We need to be emotionally prepared to be sociable, whatever our age or experience.

(3) WHAT are we going to learn today? Finally, we communicate the context and the content of what we are going to learn. The WHY has put us at ease by the expert emotional stage-setting led by the person at the front. We know HOW we are going to learn; with whom and with what and where. Now, we are emotionally prepared and engaged so we can get into the ‘stuff’ of the learning.

I’ve started to use this as a framework for lesson design and it really seems to work. Admittedly, I do still find it uncomfortable as it contradicts what I was always told, particularly when using group work, “Don’t mention group work until the last minute otherwise you’ll lose ten minutes of the lesson to your students arguing over this when you’re trying to convey the lesson aims.” But I now find that if I have organised the groups effectively, and established a culture where group work is a regular feature of learning, any discussion of the groups by the students is simply a vital component of their emotional readiness to learn. If the WHY is explained well enough, you cut down on much of any consternation expressed by the students.

Grouptalk: Creating learning through ‘liquid networks and nurturing ‘slow hunches’

Steven Johnson provides us with a fascinating journey through the history of ideas.

In this talk, he makes some very pertinent observations about the architecture of spaces. For me, this raises the question of how we consider working with our existing (and new) learning spaces; nothing new there, granted. But the heart of this talk is to observe the way in which humans as a social species use their social spaces as an opportunity to collaborate and spark off each other in order to innovate.

How, then, do we organise learning so as to incorporate the physical aspects of learning with the emotional aspects (including the emotional responses we have to the spaces themselves) to ensure that the spaces themselves work for us to encourage the establishment of networks and the collision of ideas and nurturing of ‘slow hunches’. I have a few ideas about this, but in the meantime, make a cuppa and put your feet up for 20 minutes and enjoy learning from another great talk. 

There’s also an RSA Animate version of this talk (by the marvellous people at Cognitive Media) which is well worth a watch by you and your students. It’s a great way to emphasise the importance of talk and listening skills PLUS an example of ‘Draw Your Learning’ which is one of my fave plenaries when you set it up at the start of the lesson.

(Adapted from an original post on