Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Cohort

Seth Godin talks quite a lot about cohorts: “The people who get you. The ones who have been through it with you. Who see you.” An emphasis on peer-relationships is one of the defining features of his highly rated and very-low-drop-out-rated online workshops.

He’s got me thinking again about the value of a group of people doing similar work, with similar levels of experience. These are people – ‘fellow travellers‘ – who can relate to your struggles, share what they know, encourage you to keep going, push you to get put there and do better work. By turns they might be sounding-boards, collaborators, mentors, sympathetic ears, or champions of your work.

Where’s your cohort?

It’s relatively easy to find them among peers when your training for something – in school, on a course (although I’m agnostic about finding them on an online course), in your time in the army (!), or in the trenches doing your job. When I was teaching, colleagues at about the same stage of their careers were definitely my cohort.

But having a good cohort becomes harder if you move around, or as you start to manage and lead – by default there will be fewer ‘people like us’ around, and there are fewer natural opportunities to meet. Maintaining a cohort becomes something that you need to do deliberately by seeking people out and having conversations, by asking questions, looking for opinions and advice, and sharing resources with people who find them helpful.

Five Questions and – slowly – the Driverless Crocodile podcast are a way of doing this.

That saying (wherever it’s from) might be right: “… if you want to go far, go together.” Find friends for your work.

What’s it worth? (2)

The way of thinking I described yesterday also applies to buying equipment, services and training in an organisation. The question isn’t simply “How much does this cost?” (which usually feels like a lot), but rather “How much is it worth it to us to have this problem solved?”

The obvious thing to look for is the gain in productivity that the new training or tool will bring: “What will this enable us to do, and is the gain worth the cost?” – if this isn’t clear, it’s probably not worth considering until it is.*

It’s sometimes less clear what a new tool will allow you to stop doing – will it cut several steps out of a process, need less maintenance, reduce physical waste, remove a bottleneck, stop someone from being interrupted to fix its problems?

Then there’s the inverse-opportunity cost of the new tool: what will someone from your team be able to do more of with the time and attention that’s freed up by the new asset? If the new tool frees up time to create assets, build connections, serve others, or run other important processes better, you might find suddenly that its worth several times its price.

Buy time. They’re not making any more of it.**

*And it’s essential to remember that the cost is more than the price – how much space does it take up, what support will it need, what maintenance to keep it working, what does it use up? – see Whole-life cost.

**With apologies to Mark Twain.

What’s it worth? (1)

$50 for a pair of jeans.
£100 for a pair of shoes.
£250 for a smartphone – if you’re thrifty.

The prices of these and many other things make me wince when I think about buying new ones, but they probably shouldn’t.

Imagine there was a toll booth just inside your front door, and you had to put money in a box to rent each of those items each day you used them. What are they worth? Would you pay a pound to have shoes on your feet for the day? That sounds like a good deal to me. How about putting a dollar in the box to be able to use your smartphone?

Let’s say you wear those shoes three times a week for eight hours, and they last you a couple of years. That’s three-hundred-and-twelve days of use, at 32 pence per day – four pence an hour.

Jeans are cheaper still.

And the smartphone? Let’s say a very conservative two hours a day of some kind of use (in my case emails, whatsapp, podcasts, browsing, maps)… and at least two-years between phones (I’ve gone four years in the past, but my current phone is dying after two-and-a-bit)… that comes in at about 32p a day as well.* And that’s not counting the value of a phone even when you’re not using it – you’re contactable**, you can contact others, you have information at your fingertips, you can leave your address book, map book, reading book, audiobook player, newspaper and television behind when you go out…

That Moto G7power (amazon) would be cheap at twice the price.***

*DriverlessCrocodile’s Law: Many useful things cost about 32p a day. Your read it here first. Please write to me if this turns out to be true.
*Okayokayokay, you need to factor in the cost of data, but the point still stands.
**Not necessarily desirable
***And why not throw in a pair of JBL Endurance Run or Sprint headphones (amazon) while you’re at it? DriverlessCrocodile Podcast Guest Victoria Patience was right, they’re great… but I wouldn’t stump up the extra for bluetooth.



Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Wisdom, for now and later


Eat honey, my child, for it is good;
    honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.
1Know also that wisdom is like honey for you:
    If you find it, there is a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs (of Solomon) – Tanakh / Old Testament

I read this the other day, and got to thinking: I could do with a bit more of two types of wisdom.

Wisdom for now

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
    note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
    for that food is deceptive.

Most of the time I think about wisdom as short term: knowing the right (or best) thing to do in a given situation, and being able to do it. Things like judging fairly, or staying calm in a disagreement, knowing when to let something drop or when to fight your point, and how to do it well. And this type of wisdom is really important – there are loads of proverbs about it.

Wisdom for later

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
   after that, build your house.

Critical path theory, c. 600 BC

But this proverb gets at a different sort of wisdom: the make-good-decisions-when-it’s-not-urgent-to-avoid-difficulty-later sort of wisdom. And proverbs is full of these too. On reflection, maybe they’re the same kind of thing, and only different because the consequences are felt in the short or longer term – easier today or easier tomorrow.

This wisdom for later is about doing the right things daily, about building things for tomorrow, about doing the boring work of maintenance or the hard, slow work of building foundations so that tomorrow will be better. It’s about staying away from the things that will hurt us now, and also about making decisions now that will help us to avoid the risk or temptation of trouble later – about applying the right kind of thin end of the wedge. It’s about investing in important things so that you can enjoy treasures that are all too rare, and things that are necessarily rare, because they’re what you built:

By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

May your treasures be beautiful and rare, and the honeycomb sweet.

Driverless Crocodile Podcast Special #1: Useful things with Victoria Patience

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This special episode is a tribute to Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder’s Cool Tools. Apologies for the variable sound-quality of this podcast – see Doing to See for more information.

Victoria Patience is a Spanish-to-English translator and author’s editor who helps Latin American intergovernmental organisations, non-profits and academics reach English-speaking audiences.

Victoria lives on the outskirts of Buenos Aires with her husband, two children, two cats, three dogs, and a flock of chickens whose numbers have been dwindling since dog number three arrived. When not searching texts for stray commas or searching the floor for stray Lego, she might be found cooking or vegetable gardening with a podcast in the background.

Show notes below.

Tool 1: Hori-Hori knife

AU$ 42 from forestrytools.com.au

Wikpedia says: “The word “Hori” (ホリ) means “to dig” in Japanese and “hori-hori” is the onomatopoeia for a digging sound. The tool itself is commonly referred to as a レジャーナイフ, “leisure knife” or a 山菜ナイフ, “Sansai(=Mountain-vegetable)knife” in Japan.”

Tool 2: Wallet App by Budgetbakers

US$ 40ish / year

Tool 3: Aeropress

UKP 30 from amazon.co.uk – Image from aeropress.com

Tool 4: Aaptive workout app and JBL Endurance Sprint Bluetooth headphones

aaptive screenshot
UKP 40ish (amazon)

Doing to see

My sister and I just recorded a special episode for Driverlesscroc Podcast(‘Useful Things’), learnt a lot doing it, including:

  • That recording both ends of a skype call is a viable way to work over distance
  • The importance of triple-checking your mics after I made a schoolboy error and plugged my mic into a headphone jack. I could see that I was recording something, but it turned out to be my laptop’s built-in mic rather than my lapel mic, resulting in a voice-track that sounds like it was recorded in a bucket
  • That Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder do a really good job of keeping their Cool Tools show tight – we were trying hard to stay focused but easily racked up 40 minutes.
  • That Audacity projects are big (we hit a couple of gigabytes for all the uncompressed audio and project files).
  • That (I think) Audacity doesn’t play well with syncing to the cloud – some of the source-files for my project file somehow got corrupted and I almost lost it all – fortunately I’d made an almost-finished .wav of the whole thing so it was saveable.
  • That ‘ship the work’ sometimes means ‘finish the project’ – get it done, learn from it, move on. This project doesn’t exactly have a ‘client’, and its main audience is us – so we can say ‘not quite good enough – but finished’ with a clear conscience. I’ll post it to the podcast for completeness, and as a reference for anyone interested in the journey.

The idea that doing helps you see – that experience counts for a lot – is pretty obvious in lots of areas of life. You can’t understand being on stage, or driving a car, or playing in a sporting contest, until you’ve done them.

But we tend to forget how true this is for almost everything, and how context-specific our experience tends to be. By doing, we see.

Cutting edge – learning and change

The edge on a knife is important – it’s the sharp end (okay, side) where the cutting actually takes place. It needs to stay sharp, and keeping it sharp takes care and regular maintenance because it dulls quickly from use and corrosion.

The other parts of the knife – spine and heel, bolster, tang, handle – receive less attention. They change more slowly and require less maintenance but are more important in the long run: a sharp edge on a bad knife doesn’t last for long.

The person using the knife is more important again. They decide the important things: what and where and when to cut, and who or what we cut for. They keep the knife sharp or let it rust.

These things are true of most of the tools we use, and of our skills.

Cutting-edge skills – using the latest technology or media, understanding the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – will help you cut, but they’ll change relatively quickly, meaning that you’ll need to work on them regularly to keep them sharp.

Deeper skills last longer. Critical among these are structural literacy of the world in general and your field in particular, an understanding of systems and people, and communication and leadership skills. These skills – alloyed with curiosity and a commitment to learning – allow you to keep the cutting edge sharp and to help others to do the same. Without them you’ll have – at best – a sharp edge on a cheap knife.

Deeper still, ask questions of the person holding these tools: what will you use them to achieve, where, when, and who or what for? A good knife is worse than a bad one in the wrong hands, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It might help to work backwards from the cutting edge:

  1. Which skills do I feel pressured to acquire? Which activities do I feel the world is pushing me to do?
  2. How do these fit into the bigger picture and broader trends? If I don’t have it already, where can I acquire the structural literacy to be able to answer that question?
  3. Is this even a game I want to be in in the first place? How does it square with my values? What’s the hard and important part of the work that I do, and will this technology make a difference to that – is it signal or noise?

DCPodcast howto – recording via skype

Happy to report that we’ve just recorded a special-edition first episode of the Driverlesscroc podcast and it went off without a hitch.

Recording between Jakarta and Buenos Aires meant that we couldn’t trust the VoIP connection (in fact, Skype held up really well), so we made two separate recordings.

Setup

Stu: Skype with headphones on my Android phone, with a separate wired mic (the sub $20 Boya BY-M1 – amazon) recording to Audacity. (see incredibly important note below)

V: Used a mic-and-headphones headset for both Skype in Windows 10 and Audacity to record the input from the mic.

Lessons Learned from recording

  1. Recording the introduction is the hard part – once we got into the conversation it was easy.
  2. Keeping it concise is harder than we thought. We tried to keep the conversation tight but still ran almost double the length of a normal Cool Tools episode. Mark Fraunfelder and Kevin Kelly manage the balance between going into technical detail and keeping things moving really well, and I couldn’t have seen this until I’d tried to record something similar.*
  3. Another time I might try Cube Call Recorder to record audio from skype as a backup.
  4. It was fun and worth doing for the conversation alone (a good sign?)
  5. Done is better than perfect!

Lessons learned in post production

  1. It turned out I plugged the mic into the headphone jack and recorded the whole thing with my laptop’s built in mic. It could be worse, but the proper mic makes a big difference. The noise reduction made a huge difference improving the sound.
  2. Noise reduction takes quite a while for a longer file – several minutes.
  3. Outtakes are hilarious

*See also: Doing to see