Is that an interesting and important question?

There was a time, not long ago, when ‘knowing the correct answer’ was the pinnacle of education. Information was stored in encyclopaedias or in your head – and so there was a premium placed on memory recall.

The world has changed. Education is changing.

Our students’ future success will depend less on reciting what they know and more on asking what they don’t know.

Whilst creativity and innovation begin with a foundation of knowledge, their life-source is curiosity. The ability to solve interesting and important problems begins with the skill of asking interesting and important questions.

So it’s critical that educators consider how effectively their students are learning this skill? How often are they practising it? How much lesson time is dedicated to this skill? How is it being assessed and how is feedback being provided on this skill?

All, it would seem, very interesting and important questions.

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PS Here is a little sample of interesting questions students are exploring in a school I visited recently:

    • Why don’t you do the things you know you should be doing?
    • What don’t you know about ________?
    • If you weren’t scared, what would you do?
    • Is it possible that what you know about _______ is wrong?
    • What would happen if we ________?
    • Is it possible that there’s another way to ________?

Careful, not too far

When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.

This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.

But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.

Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.

Why did the human cross the road?

If you’ve ever visited Vietnam you’ll be familiar with the ‘experience’ of crossing the road on foot. If you haven’t, you might struggle to imagine what it feels like to walk out into a swarm of oncoming motor scooters that seem to be oblivious to the laws requiring vehicles to stop at pedestrian crossings.

Against your instincts, locals will tell you to step confidently out into the scooter-stream, look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace across the road. Somehow, scooters rapidly zip behind and in front of you – as if perfectly choreographed. It sounds and seems crazy, but it works.

It works because everyone knows the intention and direction of each other. The scooter-riders know that you are trying to get from one side to the other. And they know that you are going to walk straight and steady. You know that they are going to steer around you – as long as you walk straight and steady.

In amongst the apparent chaos, these predictable behaviours create an effective and efficient system. Everyone gets where they need to go safely and reliably.

There are times in our lives when it makes sense to embrace experimentation, growth, challenge, and innovation. And there are other times when it makes sense to keep our head down and walk straight and steady…just to get to the other side.

RPM

The rate of spin on a ball that a golfer hits off a tee affects the distance the ball travels. Lower spin rates mean greater distance. Professional golfers hit a ball off a tee with about 2680 RPM (revolutions per minute). I hit the ball off a tee with about 3300 RPM. But I’m getting better.

I enjoy going to the golf simulator which allows me to hit a real ball into a screen – surrounded by sensors that measure the direction and spin of the ball. The incredible level of accuracy and instantaneous nature of the feedback allow me to continuously tweak and improve my swing. I’m getting measurably better, hour by hour.

Imagine if we could apply similar technology to teaching. Imagine if we could harness cutting-edge human-awareness and biometric technology to measure student engagement and to parse classroom language in real time. Imagine if a teacher could slightly tweak their methodology and get instant feedback on the effect on student engagement and learning. Imagine if, for example, as teachers experiment with different ways to ask questions, they could get accurate, live data on average student RPM (responses per minute).

Imagine if even experienced teachers were getting measurably better, lesson by lesson.

Whilst there are ethical issues still to resolve, this future is coming.

17.9 billion reasons

Mind if we do a few sums? Let’s start with some statistics.

  • In Australia, there are approximately 180 school days in a year.
  • The average salary for a school teacher is approximately AUD$65,000 ($68,000 for high school and $63,000 for primary).
  • There are approximately 276,000 teachers (full-time-equivalent) in about 9,480 schools (primary and secondary).

So here we go with the maths…

On average:

  • Each school has 29 teachers (276,000 teachers ÷ 9,480 schools = 29)
  • A teacher’s daily salary is $361 ($65,000 ÷ 180 working days)
  • Each school pays $10,469 per day in salaries (29 teachers x $361 daily rate)

interesting…but wait for this…

Overall, Australian schools spend a tick under 100 million dollars per day on salaries alone! Check the sums: 276,000 x 361 = $99,636,000. Then you multiply that number by 180 teaching days and we get the annual figure of $17,934,480,000. Yep, that’s 17.9 billion dollars on teacher salaries. And that includes neither the money spent by schools on normal operations, such as maintenance, construction, supplies, energy; nor related peripheral costs such as money spent on fuel driving kids to school.

The total number is hard to calculate but the annual amount spent on the Australian school system may well come close to the country’s total yearly military expenditure of around $35 billion (which is the 13th highest in the world).

So what? Why does this matter?

Well, if, as a country, we’re going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $20-30 billion a year on a system, it better be good. If we’re going to all this effort of bringing together five million people (teachers, students, support staff) across 9,480 schools every day, it better be a damn good system.

And this is the reason why we have to continue to ask hard questions. This is the reason why it’s not okay to simply accept the status quo. This is the reason why we must be courageous in challenging broken parts of the system. This is the reason why we cannot tolerate any teaching that is not highly professional, prepared, engaged, focussed, and enthusiastic.

This is reason why we have to remain curious and always open to the possibility that there is a better way.

What if we work together instead?

The International Space Station (ISS) is, arguably, the most incredible feat of human engineering ever. It is also the most expensive single item ever constructed – costing over US$150 billion to construct. It is also, potentially, the most valuable tool available to humanity. Already, medical and environmental discoveries have been made onboard – and the scientific research that the ISS enables, may one day lead to us populating other planets. Amazing.

And it has only been possible because of cooperation instead of competition. The ISS is a joint project involving four countries; Canada, Japan, Russia, USA. The ISS was realised because these four countries worked together (along with the European Space Agency) to fund, design, and construct it.

It simply would not exist in a competitive environment.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider the widely accepted notion in schools that competition is critical because it ‘builds character’ and ‘produces excellence’.

Actually, much of the evidence relating to schools suggests that competition tends to: suppress innovation, reduce standards of excellence, harm self-esteem, reduce teamwork, limit empathy, and increase anxiety. And numerous studies have shown that, when students are cooperating and supporting each other rather than trying to beat each other, they not only perform better but enjoy the activity more.

If you delete competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation, all we have left as a motivational catalyst is meaning and purpose. When a child or adult is doing something that they feel inherently makes sense and it matters, competition becomes redundant. In fact, when we’re doing something that feels like it really matters we are instinctively compelled to work with others, not against them, because we know the force-multiplying effect that cooperation unlocks.

Ultimately, the building of character and production of excellence requires, not competition, but the fostering of cooperation, empathy, interdependence, and a sense of united purpose. When we get this right, amazing things happen in schools and International Space Stations get built.

Tinkering is not innovation

I have a one-year old daughter who is quite playful. She likes to pick up objects and experiment with different ways of using them. She is too young to have any clear purpose underpinning her play. This is tinkering.

I also have a three-year old son who is quite playful. He likes to play with toy cars. He has a favourite purple Hotwheels car that he loves to zoom across the lounge room floor. He enjoys experimenting with different techniques with the clear purpose of trying to maximise the travel distance of the car. In a recent extended play session, he realised that using a ‘backhand’ technique allowed the car to travel straighter and therefore further than a ‘forehand’ technique. Now, he only ever uses the backhand zooming method. This is innovation.

Both tinkering and innovation are sparked by curiosity. But innovation alone, in car zooming or schools, is guided by purpose – by a bigger ‘why’.

Until you have a clear purpose, stop tinkering.