Uber, Dyson and a new front door.

What do these three things have in common? They are solutions to “wicked problems”*, and the more straightforward the solution, the better.

In the last post I highlighted the need to do your research – theoretical, document, artefact and field research. From these enquiries, the big questions and the big problems that require your attention should emerge.

The mythology that surrounds the origin of Uber is well documented but suffice to say, Uber solves the problem most of us have experienced with a solution that utilises a free resource in plentiful supply – other peoples’ cars. The story goes that a group of tech-entrepreneurs were tossing around start-up ideas and among the many schemes was the notion for an on-demand car-service app. Except for one person, the idea did not particularly stand out. That one person did pursue the idea and eventually Uber was born.

Dyson is famous for rethinking the familiar – be it the wheel barrow, the vacuum cleaner, the personal fan or more recently, the hand-held hairdryer. Dyson starts with the original purpose of these common household items and seems to pretend the item has never been invented or its look never designed – in James Dyson’s words, “Our motto remains fairly simple, we constantly question the things that exist and we think about how we could improve them…. We are only seeking to improve the common objects that surround us …” (2014 – http://www.plastics-themag.com). The new Supersonic Hairdryer is amazing, both in terms of what it promises to deliver but also in its daring to rethink what we presume the solution should look like. The brief was to produce a hand-held dryer that was more compact, more powerful, more efficient than any other on the market. Dyson spent four years in a special lab producing 600 prototypes of an object that we though had been designed as much as it could have been. No longer is the dryer shaped like an oversized pistol but instead it looks more like a bubble-blowing machine.

Now, to the door. The problem I was trying to solve was how to create a more positive and welcoming experience for our students and parents and visitors. The office was small, cramped and with only one entrance. The solution was simple. We created a community reception area that was more effective and a better experience for users. This was achieved with the installation of an additional entrance door, the removal of a wall and the sacrifice of one private office. Within a few days we had created two reception areas, one for staff and one for our community. Most schools and organisations with more contemporary facilities have these double receptions but for those without, I would encourage you to think about creating these two distinct zones. It demonstrates thoughtful respect for the needs of two different groups of people and allows the opportunity for you to create two different approaches to the services that support them.

Finally, selling the solution is key. Not only do you need to present the advantages of the new idea but you also need to be mindful that your solution may be addressing a problem that others have not yet articulated. If you feel you have solved a problem, then present your solution as a positive and timely innovation that will build on the benefits enjoyed by the previous situation. For those who shared your concerns, they will be relieved to see the “wicked” problem solved.

*A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.

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Two years spent putting my own advice into action.

It has been a long time since I have had the time to write about shaping places where we work, live and learn. Why the long silence? The very simple answer is that I accepted a job as principal of a P-12 school and this school was in need of a significant amount of “placeshaping”. The brief was to refresh, refurbish, replace, revitalise and thereby stimulate growth.

Now that I am three years into the job, a reasonable amount of that task has been completed and I return to this blog armed with new insights and experiences. I have strived to put my own advice into action – making the school a place for community, a place for work, a place for learning and most importantly, a place where people want to return to every day.

The first tip I can share about being an effective leader faced with a big challenge is simply “get started on something” and that something should have immediate positive impact on as many people as possible. This something should focus on the core purpose of a school – that is, providing all students with quality opportunities to learn. The results of your first significant action will give you keen insight into the existing culture of change and how enthusiastically new ideas are embraced.

How did I select that first, significant action? Firstly, before the staff and students returned for the new year, I spent two weeks completing a series of audits and inventories. I looked at the main processes, procedures and policies already in place for managing the organisation. I inspected every inch of the property. I made lists, took photographs, made notes and talked to people. I was actually conducting field research in my own school. (A Mind the Gap note: This was also particularly important for me since I knew the school well, having been the deputy for many years. I needed to see the school with fresh eyes and from a different angle as principal.)

I then looked at the school from multiple perspectives – what was the experience of a student each day? What was the experience of a teacher? What was the experience of the parent? What does each of them need to make their specific role in the learning process successful? Did we currently provide them with resources to meet those needs?

When you do this type of research, trends begin to emerge. You notice positives, strengths, resources that will support change, things that are urgent and things that will be challenges. A SWOT analysis is a good way to process this new information. The amount of information that you can generate this way needs to be managed, otherwise the enormity of the tasks before you will discourage the selection of that first significant, high impact action (or series of related actions, depending on the organisation’s capacity).

Next post, I will explore my choice of the first significant action.

Time wasters and workspaces – things that drive teachers crazy.

Where do the teachers carry their most common work activities?

The survey indicated the most common places for carrying out the top three work activities were the classroom, home and private office, if the teacher had access to an office (but this was rare for the classroom teacher). Discipline and welfare was dealt with in either the classroom or in more public areas outside, if an office was not available to the teacher. The most common places to think creatively were: personal classroom (when empty after hours), home or private office (usually after hours). There were differences between the places named by teachers and executives (with no or small teaching loads). Overwhelmingly, teachers named the classroom as the location for carrying out the most common tasks. Executives named an office or a staffroom.

What emerged was a preference for working alone and away from distractions or interruptions. This is challenging for designing workspaces given the emphasis placed upon collaboration and team meetings in many pedagogies. The survey also highlighted the difficulty a classroom teacher faces when trying to locate a suitable location to conduct a confidential or disciplinary conversation.

Sharing spaces can be challenging and the same things seem to drive people crazy in most workplaces.

Sharing spaces can be challenging and the same things seem to drive people crazy in most workplaces.

What are the time-wasting factors in a teacher’s workday?

Most adult workplace surveys ask about factors that reduce productivity. Less than 10% of the teachers said they experienced any downtime. After talking with some of the respondents after they had completed the survey, I wish I could have measured the intensity of the key strikes when teachers were ticking off the time wasting factors during their workday!

In my survey, respondents were asked to tick up to five factors that they considered are the most likely to waste their time in any given week. The top time wasting factors were:

timewasters

The link between reliable information technology and productivity should come as no surprise but it is important to note two of the top time wasting factors did specifically relate to technology. It is also of note that loss of work time was linked to the actions of repeating, correcting and enduring delays – this is not dissimilar to findings in other workplaces. After the top four factors shown above, the next most common factors linked to downtime were walking to get information or a resource and searching for paperwork.

A Mind the Gap reflection on my results  –IMG_0451  Until we have an understanding of what constitutes a teacher’s workload, designing the ideal workplace may fall short of what is required. I believe future designs for work places and loads will need to place a high value on providing access to both people and locations, as well as a focus on human-scale solutions that promote an inclusive and democratic approach to the dispersal of resources. If we consider the issues raised by these teachers in the light of the looming deadline for universal registration of teachers in Australia and the introduction of the professional development framework, we have less time than we think to tackle the question of workloads and the type of workplace each school can offer its teachers.

What did the teachers say?

Their overall experience of the impact of workplaces:

When asked how much their performance at work was increased or decreased due to the current staff facilities at their school, 44.3% of respondents said their performance was increased and 34.6% said it was decreased. Overall, 78.9% said the current staff facilities had an impact on their performance. (See the following graph)

For teachers with 15 or less years of experience, all but one respondent said that in their experience the workplace had an impact (both negative and positive) on the effectiveness and efficiency of employees. In response to the question about impact on performance, 74% of these respondents said it had an impact (36% said a negative effect and 38% said a positive effect).

 

q5 imageq5tabke

 

On which tasks do these teachers spend most of their time?

Respondents were asked to name the five activities on which they spent the majority of their time. The top three were related to teaching in the classroom (87.4%), assessing/reporting (60.7%) and preparing lessons (75.4%), which is to be expected and hoped for given the sample. Next on the list were informal meetings with staff (40.3%), q6miscellaneous administration tasks (50.3%) and student discipline/welfare (36.1%).

Which work activities did teachers think were should be the most important?

The respondents were then asked to nominate from the same list the five activities they thought were the most important and should be their most common work activities. Once again, teaching, assessing/reporting and preparation of teaching materials were the top three with an accompanying increase in emphasis. However, the next two activities were different this time. Training and professional development activities and communicating with parents were nominated. All five activities were rated above student welfare/discipline and informal meetings between staff still appeared as an activity of importance. Large formal staff meetings declined significantly in importance (from 23.6% to 8.5%).

From these results, it would suggest teachers want to spend more time on the core activities of teaching, assessing, reporting, communicating with parents, students and colleagues and gathering together for training or professional development activities. Formal meetings, committee work and functions were not nominated as the important activities, nor were extra-curricular activities, despite these being traditionally prominent activities in a teacher’s job description.

My next post exploring this survey will talk about factors that affect productivity and the spaces where teachers do most of their work.

 

Do your workplaces allow staff to flourish or to falter?

After many years researching the role physical learning environments play in the creation of learning environments in schools, I have been turning my attention to schools as teachers’ workplaces. My goal is to develop a current and deep knowledge of contemporary workplace trends for adults, especially those who work in innovative, creative and collaborative work environments. As education moves away from the factory/industrial model that dominated 20th Century schools in the West, teachers need to be viewed as innovators, knowledge creators, designers and curators of learning environments. They are also working in a world saturated with technology and myriad ways of connecting with learners and colleagues. Surely, this calls for an evaluation of the places where teachers work?

I have also been considering how we could increase teacher effectiveness by using what we know about teacher motivation, their current workloads and workplaces. During the past year, I have looked at the design of adult workspaces (other than in schools since there was very little happening there in terms of new adult work environments). At the same time, I have hunted down current research on teacher motivation, satisfaction and workloads. I have been asking the questions: What exactly do teachers do and why do they do it?. There is a reasonable amount on teachers during their first five years in the profession but much less on the mid to late career teachers, who have stayed working in schools.

 Wilderness School staffroom

There is little on what actually constitutes a teacher’s workload – we have some idea on the tasks teachers complete. In Australia, the new national Professional Standards go some way to defining and simplifying the identity of the teacher as a professional, regardless of the sector and school context. These standards for teachers comprise seven standards that outline what teachers should know and be able to do. On thing that clearly emerges, is the complexity and diversity of this work and the expectation that it develops over many years and through many experiences. It is also important to consider the differences between K-6, K-12 and 7-12 work environments since each reflect different needs, different physical environments, different mandatory requirements and different traditions for providing staff spaces. It would be difficult to imagine one workplace design or one professional description would fit all teachers across the K-12 spectrum.

staffroom doorIn order to understand how teachers view their workloads and workspaces, I recently conducted a survey of teachers that captured what a sample of Australian teachers were saying about their current workloads and work environments. The survey covered two aspects of the contemporary teacher experience: the nature of the teacher’s workload in a school and how this work was carried out. The majority of the respondents are from non-government K-12 schools in New South Wales, but the sample also included a wider group of teaching professionals. Nearly all of the respondents were teachers, who spent most or all of their time in the classroom (a total of 84% of the sample). Two-thirds of the respondents worked in schools that had been established prior to 2000. More than half of the sample worked in schools that had more than 400 students. The sample is described in the following table.

 In my next post, I will share some of the key results of this survey.

Profile of sample n = 199 %
Teaching 15 years or less 53 26.7
Teaching duties only 112 57.1
Teaching plus teaching with some executive duties 165 83.9
Executive with some or no teaching 32 16.2
Working in a K-12 school 172 87.3
Working in a school with more than 400 students 116 58.9
Working in a school established prior to 2000 133 67.5

Table: Profile of sample

Filling in a gap – factors that have an impact on young people’s aspirations

IMG_0451  On March 30th I posted a “mind the gap” item reflecting on the assumption that students connect with the school to university to career pathway. I came across a recent report from  LSAY (Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth) that examined factors that influence young people’s plans and ambitions for the first twelve years after completing school in Year 12. The results filled in a little of gap between the assumption that being at school will lead you through to tertiary education and then onto a career path and the patterns I had observed.

In the survey, predicted youth transition factors appeared in the initial analysis, such as socio-economic status, gender and peer influences. However, in terms of importance, the survey found academic achievement in Stage 5 of school (15 years of age) was the most important predictor of Year 12 (Stage 6) completion. This factor was followed by parental influence. The most important influencers on students’ decision to go on to university were parents and peers. The most important factors influencing the achievement of expected work goals (occupational status) by age 30 are the influence of parents and academic achievement at age 15.

The take-away point is, as the survey phrases it, “just how critical parental influences are in driving young people’s educational and occupational aspirations”. I would also add, how critical the middle years of secondary schooling are for setting students up for achievement and for launching their life after school. Sadly, these are the very school years when many students are less focused, drift or disengage and are, therefore, less driven to achieve. School is often perceived as dull, pointless, less urgent and the end still seems a long way off – plenty of time to start working when we hit senior school. This survey suggests the impact of a negative performance at 15 years of age can have long-term impact, especially if this attitude to the importance of school performance is not challenged by parents at this point.

Ref: Gemici, Bednarz, Karmel, Lim. 4/2014. “The factors affecting the educational and occupational aspirations of young Australians”, LSAY, Research Report no.66.

Designing Spaces for Flipped Learning

Flipped learning is more than swapping around the work that is traditionally allocated for inside and outside of the classroom. Flipped learning goes beyond setting homework such as reading texts, watching an instructional video clip and completing background research in preparation for a lesson. It is not a way of delivering “catch up” or revision lessons, even though many of the strategies for delivering lesson material, such as curating and creating relevant or differentiated content, will enhance a standard programme. Flipped learning is not a work-around for limited access to technology or unreliable internet access.

Flipped learning will not thrive in the traditional classroom setting.

Flipped learning will not thrive in the traditional classroom setting.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning spaces to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where students apply concepts and engage creatively with the subject matter (www.flippedlearning.org/definition – FLN, 2014).

If you adopt a flipped learning approach, the physical learning environment at school will

Surfaces for display.

Surfaces for display.

need to change. Swapping when and where group instruction occurs does not mean a classroom can remain in conventional rows of desks. There is no avoiding the need for spaces and time frames that support both group and independent work activities. Students will need access to a range of physical resources – technology, flexible furniture, sufficient space within the classroom to create spaces for team activities, places for independent tasks and surfaces on which to display or plan.

Flexible furniture and configuration of space will support Flipped Learning.

Flexible furniture and configuration of space will support Flipped Learning.

Basically, Flipped Learning demands the same redesign of the physical classroom as any other collaborative, learning community or challenge-based approach requires.

Space and choice.

Space and choice.