Digital Governance

Photo by me. Hedgehog provided by @hedgehoghugh CC BY-SA

School governors are a bit like hedgehogs. Our activity is mostly misunderstood, we can have a much bigger impact on the world than you might think, and we are busiest at night.

Stretching this simile even further (with apologies to the Hugh Warwick, stand-up ecologist, author, and friend to both hedgehogs and Ezekiels) I fear that, unless governors adapt and evolve faster than our snuffling friends, we too will become endangered and squished by passing technology and Policy! For those also looking for a way to survive, I think we’ve found an adaptation that works for us, and might work for you.*

Post Summary:

Through using digital tools in the cloud, governance at Larkrise Primary School has been made more effective and easier to manage. Though we’d recommend it, this is not about the technology, but about a shift in culture. There is more we could do and would love to connect with others using similar approaches.

Post in Full:

Why change?

It has been a year since I wrote about our plan to evolve and adapt to improve governance at Larkrise Primary School, and our reasons for choosing MS Office 365 (O365) as our platform.  We moved to O365 to tackle major issues with using Google Drive as an ad-hoc document store, including: eSafety/confidentiality for governors; better administration/coordination with our clerk and between committees;  improved communication with SLT; and better integration with staff tools.

What did we do?

We set up Groups for each committee, (this was before Teams had been fully developed in O365), with a similar structure in each, using common language – giving all governors introductions and access to all areas and to all the services. I ran a series of sessions modelling and enabling live collaboration in writing and commenting on documents. Chairs of committees, including Chair of Governors, modelled failing and persisting with O365, and asked SLT to share on the cloud rather than emails or hard copies. This forced a major change in behaviour and quickly improved communication between staff and governors, reducing misunderstandings and reducing workload.

Where are we now?

As 2017 closes, we now have all committee papers (agendas, minutes, reports, data) posted before meetings, with invitations to review, comment and edit. All three of our committees work more effectively through working online, asynchronously and face-to-face. Our excellent clerk makes great use of the calendar, conversation threads and prompts us into action!

As many of you know, the really detailed, hard work of governors happens throughout the year, not just at Full Governing Body (FGB) meetings. We work on governor business when we can, before work, at a stolen moment during the day, and after the kids have gone to bed. We reflect this reality by doing and recording all this work in O365 – spreading out our effort to when it suits us.

Why should you try this?

The benefits are clear:

  • Committee meetings are shorter (if not short!)
  • There are very few emails, and even less paper to deal with
  • Governors can work when they want, as much as they want to
  • Instead of being reactive in meetings, governors and SLT can be proactive in following up areas for discussion, and bring solutions.
  • Governors feel better able to hold SLT to account and support the school more effectively
  • SLT can manage governor expectations in a timely and appropriate fashion
  • Everything is in one place and easier for everyone to find
  • Communication between governors and with SLT has improved enormously
  • Our work is not in silos, and transparency makes for more joined up strategic overview

Who else benefits?

We’ve done this to help ourselves, the SLT and the children and staff we work with. It has helped build trust with our staff and SLT  – and to model better use of technology for professional use.  However, we are accountable too, and were we to be inspected by Ofsted  they would see that much of the activity of our governing body now takes place on O365.

  • They would be able to find all our minutes, committee reports and related files easily – and we can share those files instantly and securely.
  • They would see a back and forth in comments on documents from SLT, where governors regularly challenge and hold SLT to account.
  • They would see informed, focussed discussions, and clear delegation and agenda building for future meetings.
  • They would see visit reports, budget adjustments checked, policies updated, curriculum discussions, staff feedback discussed, strategic plans adapted, research and blog posts shared, and the discussion around the local / national picture, with  analysis for our school context.
  • They would see minutes noting online discussions, and agenda items linked to specific documents.
  • They would see a changing pattern in our meetings through 2017; from 1½ hours of line-by-line discussion of headteacher reports,  to 30 mins on the main issues from reports and far more time on the living reality of school life and the challenges of doing right by more of our children.
  • They would see us discussing the context and implications of the data, rather than the data itself. We have the time to learn about the children behind the numbers and adjust our strategic work accordingly.

The choice is not whether to join us on this journey – but how you do it! For us, as a highly skilled and involved governing body, using O365 was likely to work well.  I would like to say that it can work for all governing bodies, …


…it’s not all been plain sailing. The most obvious and predictable problem was that not all governors have found it easy to get on with the technology. For some, this was using cloud tools for the first time and O365 is a lot less intuitive than Google, as it often wants to link to local drives/apps. For others, it was a matter of adding another MS login to their work/personal setup. And,…yes… we had some people who struggled to get to grips with digital tools at all!


Don’t expect everyone to get on the bus straight away. Governor are all volunteers and cannot be compelled to do anything. Expect to share screens, email some attachments, and print documents for those who are not ready for the shift yet.



That said, even when we were still using email and printed documents to meetings, there were lots of problems, with people not getting documents in advance, emails not getting through, wrong versions being reviewed, and people feeling that their contribution was lost in the discussion. So, while depending on technology has issues – I’d argue that the benefits outweigh the status quo!

There were concerns that this would increase workload – and, in the early months of the shift – it is fair to say that governors did not always get the balance right, and expected too much of SLT in responding to questions or requests that often crossed into operational matters. I’d love to say we’ve learned all those lessons, but it’s an evolving area and one we hope to establish new, clearer boundaries with our new headteacher and school business manager.


However, we have had feedback that SLT have found that, by being able to dampen small concerns as they come up, or manage expectations before they grow, overall workload managing governors has reduced. Quite often, governors will answer each others questions on O365, or point each other to documents already shared- thereby saving SLT time and communication worries.

This is about more than technology platforms. Crucially, this is a  shift towards sharing, collaboration and openness – and requires a shift in culture – but not in the actual work!

Before setting off on this journey it is essential to make sure that everyone is clear that, though the practice of governance will change, the principles of good governance and your school / organisational values must be defended.  

O365 might work for you, but you might also want to look at whether Google Apps for Education is a better fit; or consider project team tools like Basecamp, or specific services, like Slack for discussion, or Trello for task management.

Where might this lead?

(C) All rights reserved Hugh Warwick – used with permission and thanks

Once governing bodies have discovered the benefits of using digital tools, they  open tantalising and/or terrifying doors  to transforming school governance forever; to better reflect our digitally enhanced society and to better serve our communities and/or  to expose the delicate thread separating operational and strategic decisions to an onslaught of blunt assaults.

Personally, I’d like to see how digital engagement tools such as Loomio, which allow groups of people to make decisions together, could improve the way governors represent the school community better.  

I realise that this is heresy for many governors as it challenges the principle of governance through representative democracy (you elect me because you trust me to make good choices) rather than direct democracy (your vote counts on each issue – like a referendum). I am not sure giving a direct vote on uniform or homework should lead to a change in school policies – but unless we trust children, parents and staff to express their views into the governance of the school, through appropriate and managed channels, then are we really doing all we can do reflect the school community?

Yes, it will mean that we might have to explain ourselves better and it might lead to more open discussions than are required right now. Yes, there is a risk of the Brexiteer/Remoaner type factions emerging  – but schools are public bodies and we have a duty to deal with difficult issues responsibly and transparently. People often suggest that academy governance are less accountable than maintained schools – so those of us not in academy structures should do more to be more representative and accountable to our communities.

We should explore, experiment and engage with technology to improve the work we do, cope with the complexity and rise to the challenge, and put our school values and the best possible outcomes for our children first.

You know what happened to the hedgehog who crossed the road? She got to the other side.

*These are very much my views and though it has been shared with staff and governors, does not represent the official view of the Larkrise Primary School Governing body or staff. 

Posted in Governance, Innovation | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Quantum states of Society

I had a nightmare about a breakdown in society last night, and I woke knowing that that this fear has been there all along.  

I am not scared of what might happen, but of what is happening- and what happens when perspectives of the past are shifted, and we see what has happened, in new light.

Our brains seek narratives – with an well understood focus on the background stories and happy endings (for us). Yet, the lesson from quantum theories in science is that we sit on a more delicate balance between possible futures and presents.

It has always been thus. Perhaps it’s just middle-age, but for the first time in my cushioned life; much of which I have protected by the post-war consensus and techno-capitalism of Western privilege, I am afraid.

In our time, we see diplomacy distorted by demagogues, in America and Korea; idols and leaders unmasked as sexual predators; economic wellbeing rocked by plebiscites, and radicalism and religion prosper.

Racism, misogyny, and hate of all shades seeps through the open doors of our liberal society.   

Yet, the really shocking thing is that we are shocked by these realities. We knew. We knew and know that these horrors are there. We have always been aware of the parallel truths. It is the voluntary blindness of adulthood.  And, while hope is forgivable, not protecting each other is not.

To pick on the current issue of the day; Spacey, Cosby, MPs and other easy to turn on public figures are being forced into the light for Weinsteining. Yet, we still cannot face the abuse of grooming of more ‘likable’ figures, such as John Peel and Bill Wyman.

It’s hard not to note that this movement is currently mostly focussing on those bad people who are also not attractive, straight, or normatively needed.  I hope I am wrong, but my guess is that there will be a cull of those who were easy to pick out for being bad, powerful and gay, Jewish, black, or in some way disruptive. I know it will be hard if/when(!) my heroes get re-positioned by some ‘discovery’ – but, perhaps we need to wonder where this is going and where this will lead.

I am nervous of the unpicking of these threads, not because it isn’t right to call out sexual predators and abusers, but because it shows how immediate the risk is that we could jump to an alternate timeline – one with more danger for my children. One where difference is not safe in a liberal world – but where it is exposed in a sea of big data, amoral AI  and surveillance.

My Grandparents watched their worlds descend into moral and actual wastelands. As a Jewish kid growing up in middle class privilege, I heard the stories of our family histories in detached confusion. How could the world have been so twisted?

My Dad was taken from India during the fracture of Partition; as my Grandfather, a servant to the Raj and from the Jewish Bene Israel community, realised that India was no longer the civil multi-faith society it had been for them. My Mum’s family are from the European diaspora of Jews fleeing direct and historical persecution, in the cultured continent of Goethe and Spinoza. These immigrant families met in the East End of London, in a mixing of cultures that seemed to offer healing to the horrors of their past. I am a product of this hope.

This hope is baked into me. I believe, and have wanted to believe, in the good in human nature. I have made choices based on faith in the transformative nature of education and liberal values, aligning myself to movements – signing petitions and joining hashtag trends.  I don’t regret these choices – but I do wonder at my own naivete in thinking that I could negate the existence of the opposing forces.

Maybe the stench of hate is still too fresh from my nightmare, but today I needed to write about the lessons from our pasts. Not from history, because there is no one historical truth – but to learn from the quantum states of society that we can see on the edges of our vision.

The lessons that my grandparent’s generation taught me might  relevant:

  1. Always be ready leave – keep passports upto date and small but valuable items ready. No home is worth saving without those you love in it, in a community you can trust.
  2. Love your neighbour – but love your values more. Don’t assimilate for approval.
  3. Call out the shadows – they are always there. Keep a light on the dark corners.
  4. Revolutions and Wars are always waiting – they are closer than you think.

Last night, I had a nightmare.  Today, my eyes are wide open. I hope they will rest easy tonight.

Posted in thinking out loud | 2 Comments

Pedagogy is Political

Warning – Polemic – Warning

Today, the news is full of shock and anger, mostly from the Left, at the news that St Olave’s Grammar School kicked out kids that were not maintaining the ‘high standards’ and exceptional results it prides itself on. However, this outrage is hypocritical and highlights the deep prejudices in our schools. Pedagogy (the theory and methodology of education) is political, and belongs in the national debate.

Parents know how central “Education, education, education”  is to the national political debate – especially around issues of social mobility and economic growth. However, if you are on the left and if you really want to make our economy more robust and our communities fairer – you need to challenge, not just who runs your school or what is studied – but how your children are learning, and why those choices have been made.  

Full disclosure: I am a progressive – which means (to me) that I think we have only just begun working out how to ‘do’ mass education – and that I believe there are more improvements we can find by trying new approaches.

Mass education has been a live experiment that’s only been running since 1945 (in the UK) and was built on the models available and familiar to those running the country – that of the classical education offered in the private school system and the pinnacle of which is the Oxbridge experience.

Deep within the system and in our society, at large, are some assumptions about education that rarely get an airing. I believe that one of those is that the elites deserve power, and the rest of us should be happy with a benign and elected dictatorship.

Why haven’t other models of schooling and education had time to evolve into our national system. Reggio Emilia, Project Based Learning,  Sudbury Schools , etc – work at least as well as the current system and produce successful and happier kids, and communities. See the incredible success of Expeditionary Learning and Big Picture schools in the US. Stuck out at the fringes, very few schools are brave enough to do right by their kids and communities.  

Even the Education Endowment Foundation review of PBL had to note that:

“In summary, although PBL is unlikely to improve children’s literacy outcomes or engagement, it may enhance the quality of children’s learning, particularly improving some of the skills required for future learning and employment.”

Surely, you’d expect that this summary would encourage parents and teachers to expect/demand these pedagogies in their schools. Right? But,… nope 🙁

But, instead, this unwillingness to move beyond traditional approaches comes from the long held conservatism in our communities and society –  because even the most left leaning parent are still in awe of the elites they claim to fight against.

One question will put this into sharp relief (especially for the parents reading):

If money was no object, you got no negative feedback from friends not able to do the same, and that your local state schools wouldn’t suffer – would you send your child to one of the better*  independent (private) schools?

Most of you would. You might never admit it to your friends – but you would. Let me tell you why.

Because you are part of the class system – and you’d want to give your kids the best possible start in life – and the rest of our society projects the belief that the independent school education is most likely to give them that. Looking at the white, male, privately educated leaders of our political parties and  those who fill our TV studios – it’s hard to argue.

Because you know that, under our current system, independent schools seek to give children an education perfectly suited to the examinations we use, and employment practices and prejudices in our workplaces. They get the results, right? Who wouldn’t want that advantage and access for their kids?

Because, the “best” state schools seek to emulate the independent sector, teaching through an academic curriculum, offering Latin, etc,  – a pattern that has spread since the coalition government – but begun under New Labour. Seeking to copy the better funded independent sector has it’s costs; notably in class sizes getting bigger; and the Arts and Sports often getting cut.

The irony of this is that it is the personalised and extra-curricular aspects of a private education are those that many paying parents believe adds the most value.

Worst of all – by copying the independent sector – but doing so without the resources and selectivity, the state sector is voluntarily setting itself up to continually fail and to maintain the pedestal that the private schools place themselves on.

Finally, you’d do it because there is no other option but to play the game; run by, and in favour of, the elites. Unless you happen to be in one of the very few areas to have a brave school to ‘chose’ from (like School21, XPSchool or Plymouth School for Creative Arts) where the pedagogy is explicit and progressive – then you are stuck with the inertia within a stunted system.

This post is not an argument for getting rid of independent schools (although I do believe they are the single most corrosive element in our education system) or to diss the hard work of thousands of teachers and school leaders. I want to see the state sector be more inclusive and democratic. That starts by being honest about the political nature of what we do in schools.

Holding up exam results as ‘proof’ that a model of education is superior to another is to take part in an act of propaganda in favour of an archaic and discriminatory system – that favours and perpetuates the elite.  We hear the debates about “Standards” and freedoms, academisation and assessment, or about workload and budgets. This makes the tension between the government and the profession, and distracts from where the real struggle is.

Those who lean on a ‘Research-led’ school improvement model are, in fact, allowing an ideology to define the educational outcomes and experiences of children- most of whom will not benefit. Almost all the research lean on performance in a very narrow set of measures in English and Maths. Shaping a school around what ‘What works’ can be as political as promoting one view of British History over another.


So, what’s to be done?

Firstly, the debate about what assumptions lie underneath how we educate and assess our kids needs to be opened and explored further – to expose the conservatism of our education system.

Not to knock what Oxbridge or independent schools do, but until we genuinely start to value learning experiences that are not slaves to those models – then a more democratic and equitable society will not be possible. Means of evidencing learning and ‘achievement’ need to encompass new behaviours – perhaps through Open Badges, but starting with the pedagogy of classroom practice.

Most of all, more teachers and parents need to talk about what mode of education they believe in – and they should make that work. We all know our current system is imperfect- so why not try another that better matches the beliefs about people and society we believe in?

Of course there will be objections. Of course the elite will pooh-pooh and demean those seeking to make change. But, if you believe, as I do, that we can make a fairer society than the one we live in now – and that is a target worth aiming for- then you have to bring your pedagogy in line with your politics.

My thanks to Dai Barnes, for his thoughtful and kind challenge, rigour and intelligence, and humanity and respect in discussing these ideas.

* Yes – I know, there are also independent schools whose results are poor. Which makes you wonder, what are parents paying for there – if not results?

Posted in Innovation, thinking out loud | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

There Will be Blood – GDPR and EdTech

New EU regulations look set to bring some light into the often shady ‘Oil Rush’ in EdTech, drilling for data from our schools.  Individuals will have new and powerful rights to their personal data, and organisation will have to show what use that information has been put to. In this post, I’ll look at what is actually going on with data now; what does the EU regulation mean; and what might change.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force on 25th May 2018, and (put simply) strengthens the rights of citizens over the data  that their lives create. This useful Guardian article summarises the broader implications of the GDPR – and, NO, Brexit will not except UK citizens and organisations!

The new rights (in summary) are:

  • Article 12: The right to have questions about use of personal data answered, and to seek redress if these questions are not answered in a clear, concise, timely manner.
  • Articles 13 & 14: The right to know how personal data is being used at the time of collection, as well as the length of time for which it will be stored and contact information for the collecting party.
  • Article 15: The right to access the personal data that is being processed.
  • Article 16: The right to have incorrect personal data rectified.
  • Article 17: The right to have personal data erased when they are no longer necessary for the purposes for which they were collected and there is no legal ground for their maintenance.
  • Article 18: The right to restrict data processing where the data is inaccurate, its collection unlawful, or its processing no longer required.
  • Article 19: The data collecting party must inform all additional data processors with whom it shares personal data to cease processing data that has been rectified or erased.
  • Article 20: The right to receive their personal data in a structured, commonly-used, machine-readable format which they can freely share with other data processors.
  • Article 21: The right to object to personal data being used to profile or market to them.
  • Article 22: The right to not be subject to legal outcomes that rely solely on automated data processing.

For more detailed analysis – see here.

Like all the data protection regulations this new one replaces, GDPR will impact many aspects of school life. From fingerprints used to buy school lunches, to records of search terms used; school systems (MIS, assessment, attendance, LMS/VLEs) have been/are creating huge deposits of rich information about what goes on in classrooms and staffrooms.

The companies that run these systems are monetizing their access to this information – and, currently, have no need to check with  the schools/children/parents – and neither do the third party organisations using that data. Though consent will not be a requirement of GDPR – there are implications that those offering edtech solutions need to consider. (Thanks to Tony Sheppard for his advice on getting my facts right here!)

If Data is the new ‘Oil’ – then the GDPR is an attempt to bring regulation on the wild oil rush that has been going on across many sectors, before those industries take too much control over the geology of our privacy.

Use of oil from 1957

In the 1900s there were only really four uses of  crude oil. By the 1960s, as the image from 1957 below shows, that had grown to a complex tree. Now there is so much in our world that is a byproduct of  fossil fuels, we seem unable / unwilling to undo our dependence, even though (most of us) know that it must happen.

So as we look ahead to see how our data might be used, we must protect children, because they are in our care (natch) – but also the learning spaces and professionals that are responsible for education. It is teachers, parents and children that should be at the core of how learning is created – not the algorithms and interests of data-mining vested interests.

Data driven learning has already created troubling developments, notably use of machine learning. As Audrey Watters, the self-styled Cassandra of Edtech, points out, there is also a worrying trend of appropriating progressive terms to deliver traditional models – where data is used to create personalised instruction – rather than personalised learning.

Though Early Years settings, Schools, FE and HE institutions should be/are preparing for this shift in regulation – they cannot predict how parents, children and students will make use of these new rights.

I would expect a series of landmark cases quite early on as professionals, parents and guardians apply for full disclosure on data collected about their children. I’ll certainly be doing that!

The revelations of where the data has gone, and the uses to which it has been put will uncover a complex picture which should start to explode and reshape the way that commercial interests use data extracted from learning spaces.

The sheer amount of ‘paperwork’ (ironic how that term applies even in this most digital of discussions) created by this new regulation will force new behaviours in businesses – but also in schools, and in the classroom.

If a teacher starts to collect information about how kids are learning, or looks at new models of assessment – they will have to map out the possible uses it might be put to – and the school will have to mark out provisions and mechanisms for parents to give consent. Will an unintended consequence of GDPR in schools be that teachers stop collecting data?

What will happen when children become adults, still in education, and seek to track back their data through to early years – and want to interact with the datasets and how that shaped the options and decision that impacted their educational opportunities?

Given the huge interest in developing AI for education, the ethical considerations raised by GDPR alone, threaten the pace of development and investment for these exciting – but troubling – technologies. What if an AI teaching support system develops a bias towards a set of interventions for a set of children? Could the algorithms that underpin that technology be construed as racist or sexist?

I’d be depressed if these questions and challenges to the use of technology formed a barrier to the evolution of how we educate our children. Instead, I hope that it will refocus the debate on the WHY rather than on the HOW. We know technology, and the data it creates, can help education improve, but, as citizens, we should do this in the open.

Instead of worrying about how GDPR will strangle innovation or development, I’d like to engage in discussions about how we create a more Open education system – where the data forms part of the learning interactions with students. This would mean a huge shift in our educational culture – and the systems that run our schools.

We need open systems for managing digital learning – especially assessment/credentialling.   The Blockchain -through open Blockcerts – might offer a way to manage this new ecosytem – but it is only the start. As Doug Belshaw says, we also need to think about the ‘Weird and Wonderful’ aspects of education, that which data driven algorithms will struggle to interpret more effectively than human brains – and how we capture these in digital and meaningful ways.

If you are looking for specific, practical guidance, more detailed advice for schools is available – and is likely to become more readily available as we get closer to May 2018.

Until then, the debate is open – and the solutions should be too.

Posted in Innovation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Four reasons to cry (if you are a museum educator)


It’s not often I bring an audience down. As an upbeat and excitable person – passionate about education and vocal about how digital can be an vehicle for innovation, I often find I have been scheduled to speak after lunch, to refocus postprandial brains and leave them smiling and open to new ideas.

However, this June at an event for museum educators, I think I might have made some people cry. Here’s why

(Note: this post is full of tasty links. While the main meal should be nutritious, please explore the deeper flavours available by following the hyperlinks to other healthy brain snacks.)

Digital Learning in Museums, hosted by the Oxford University Museums Partnership, drew a national audience of leaders and practitioners from across the country. There were awesome speakers, and conversations with attendees during the breaks proved to be as valuable as some of the talks! 

I’d prepared a talk to bring some home truths to this nice audience and I didn’t hold back. To compensate, I smiled a lot, and talked fast – while struggling with an AV/IT issue which meant that I was running different versions of my deck on two devices.  

You can see my talk here, thanks the OUMP team, and my deck is shared below this post.

Despite my attempts to make it palatable,  some things needed to be said.

1 – Most edtech from the museum sector is failing to be found and/or valued by schools and learners.

This means that public funding is going to beautifully produced resources that very few people use. I’ve shared the research I worked on elsewhere, and some stats and recommendations made it into this talk for OUMP, (see slides below) and they are pretty shocking.

2 – Most digital learning products made by museums are not made for teachers and pupils, but for evidencing ‘public engagement’ with collections.

Of course public engagement is important – but unless a digital resource is made for the purposes of supporting learning, then it will not be useful for that prized activity.

Most education teams are still coming from a ‘We have a thing, let us show you’ approach – and few projects start with a design thinking, or agile development model. Given the costs of making a digital resource, and the platform and training requirements for users in being involved with a technology project – this is all but unforgivable.

3 – The GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Arts and Museums) and Heritage sector doesn’t have a robust or clear way to evaluate the impact of the work they do in education.

The vast majority of the museum education sector delivers ‘digital’ to schools via PDFs. While a PDF can be a powerful way to inspire learning, much of what museums offer is static and merely repackaging curatorial information with a ‘For Schools’ label.

Worse, as learning teams are dependent on PDFs as their digital offering for schools, they use the measure of ‘downloads’ of these files as evidence of engagement. Of course, these download stats mean nothing, as teachers have to download the pdfs to view them, but this is no guarantee of use in class or engagement with the institution.

4 – There is too little sharing – of what works and what didn’t!

At both this OUMP event, and others I have spoken at, I have found far too few practitioners sharing their stories or using open educational practices (which means more than just using OER). I was hugely impressed with both Andy McLellan, and Michelle Harrell, who both broke this pattern and told helpful stories of projects that didn’t go according to plan, and what  they did to learn from that.

Events like the Teachmeet I helped run, after a Culture24 event earlier in the year, could surely help with changing this culture – as a safer space for greater ‘Openness’ to grow. If teachers can admit failings in the context of the accountability pressures they are under – then, surely, museum educators could certainly be braver.

Of course, it’s not all bad news. Lots of places are opening up to new ways of working and thinking.  Coming from the commercial sector into the world of museums, galleries, heritage and culture – clients have come to me, keen to learn from how other parts of the education sector have made the shift from ‘product delivery’ towards ‘community engagement and service management’.

If you’d like to talk about how to develop educational resources that are found, used and valued by teachers and students, and make more impactful use of digital technology for learning, then please get in touch and let’s have a conversation!

Posted in Events, presentations and workshops | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Innovation is not what you think it is…

via GIPHY (Yes, this is a gif of me)

Innovation means so many things to so many people that it means nothing in most contexts. This week, I heard my least favourite use of the word, in relation to EdTech. I thought I’d explain why, and offer a more useful definition of Innovation.

I enjoy the EdTech Podcast, created by Sophie Bailey – as it is a useful insight into the breadth of the sector. As it is the 1st Birthday of the podcast, I thought I’d catch up on those that I have missed.

As part of episode 64, Steve Connolly, Group Digital Director at Hodder,  used the term Innovation a lot. At one point, he said:

‘We are traditional publishers in that we publish traditional books, but…we’ve been innovating for ten 15 years.’

While Steve said a lot that made sense and is clearly doing a great job for Hodder, he used innovation to mean the way that publishers have adapted to digital technology and found new opportunities in the market.

IMHO – This is NOT innovation. You cannot innovate for 15 years!  What Steve means is evolution. He means gradual change. It is what all good businesses and organisations should be doing all the time – constantly improving and serving the audiences they work with where they need it.

Innovation is substantial positive change.  I’ve come to this definition having been challenged to explain what I mean by innovation again and again, in a range of contexts. This one works to distinguish innovation from all the other behaviours and characteristics of an organisation (or person).

Traditional publishers can  be innovative, but it is (by definition) not the way they work and (having worked in and for quite a few of them) the publishing process mitigates against innovation at almost every step.

I agree with Andrea Carr, Founder of Rising Stars, who (in the same podcast), who argued that we need to see more traditional/established publishers working with (not just assimilating) start-ups and other innovative sources – to improve the fertility of the edtech sector.


My thanks to Sophie Bailey for the ever stimulating EdTech Podcast – and congratulations on the anniversary!


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Some hard truths about freelancing

Who Knows What Lurks...

 I have had about five years of very succesfully freelance. There was as much work as I wanted, people knew what I could offer and good connections bred better networking. Since stepping out to take on a very different project a few years back, I have struggled to get back to this flow. I now find myself in a less perfect situation, with work being far more of a struggle. For a broader view on freelance life, see Doug Belshaw’s reflections.  Following my post reflecting on why I became a freelancer, someone asked me what the downsides were. So, warts and all –  here they are: full of bitterness, but maybe a few truths that might help someone else

Insecurity sucks

I used to be better at this (maybe this is a function of age?) believing that work will come and holding my nerve. Freelance is all about feasts and famines. When it is good, it is great! But when it is quiet, it will scour your confidence and push you back to the job searching process. You need a minimum of 6 months work ahead that will balance out the tough times.  Have faith but don’t be afraid to step back into a regular job if freelance isn’t working (yet).

It’s lonely

Some people like working more independently – but, without more people to bounce off, get bored with, and have to compromise for, freelance life can be quite isolating. Yes, there are social networks and team messaging services for interaction (and of course friends and family) – but that is not the same as having colleagues who share the same purpose as you.

Domestic Discipline

Can you get the washing up done, pack the kids to school, put the washing out, make dinner and still get a full day of work done? Try it. Getting a cleaner/nanny adds costs to your business… but many people find it essential. Having a study or space to work in will keep you away from distractions – but it won’t be easy to do your share of the housework. Don’t expect others to cover for you.

The Mask

The need to be constantly in a business development mindset means that it can be all too easy to drink from your own Kool-Aid. It’s not all bullshit, but self-promotion is a draining and, too often, unsatisfying activity.

If you have a full time job, you only really need to convince someone to employ you once. As a freelancer, you are always on probation, and your ‘game face’ is always on.  Can you sell yourself in less than 10 words and look like you are worth it? Then rinse and repeat?

Valued added rates

How much are you worth? Can you explain your rates, negotiate and make sure you get paid on time? Did you not get the gig because your rates were too high? Are there plenty of well established consultants mining the same field, charging more?  Do people know you are worth the money – and will they share that story? If you are too neurotic, these questions will weigh you down. Overconfidence will sink you.

The money

Very few clients understand the business model of freelancers, and often baulk at what they see as high daily rates. It is hard to keep explaining that we pay our own NI, income tax through Self Assessment, travel, pensions, etc. It is even harder to get them to realise that, like a snake, a freelancer might only get one ‘meal’ every few weeks – so each one has to last.

The Network

As a freelancer, you are dependent on the people you know and who know you. Be honest, generous and open – but don’t do it because you expect this to come back you you. Chances are that it will – but there is never a guarantee. Do it because it is right, not because you think a RT will lead to a contract! Remember that reputations are easily lost if details are taken out of context. Be careful and be kind.
If you still want to make a go of freelance life, I wish you luck. There are thousands of resources and blog posts to encourage you. My cynical view is not intended to put you off. I wrote this to reflect on my own situation and to answer the question of someone hovering at the brink of quitting a good job to go freelance. I felt it was the right thing to do to be honest.

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Four reasons to be a freelancer

2017/365/18 The Key To Being Defiant

After so long time outside of permanent employment, I’ve begun to wonder if there is a job that will a) have me, and b) that I would give up freelancing for. To help me think this through, I have begun to wonder how I ended up as a freelancer.

This was prompted by Doug Belshaw’s excellent post on his two years of consulting – and it is working well for him and for many others. However, (possibly because I have been doing it for so long) the relative instability of income, the constant business development (ie self promotion), and the relative isolation make it a curious choice for an increasingly risk-averse extrovert like me. So, what’s made it work for me so far?

I love learning.

In my twenties, I believed the lie that if you got formal qualifications: developed a love of learning; that this would be valued in the workplace. While my eclectic and enquiry-based learning has been rich and meaningful for me, I can number on one hand the times when my employer valued my learning behaviours.

However, as a freelancer, my ability to bring analogies from other fields (history and science, especially) is often highly valued by my clients. These are useful filters to explore challenging problems and to find approaches towards solutions.

Being a freelancer means I have the space to remain curious and open to new learning – and for that to be valued. If only I could find somewhere to work where I could keep learning.

I’m a ‘Jack of All Trades’…

…where most jobs descriptions seek a master of one. I find my mind works best making connections rather than in digging deep. Though I’d admit to being an edtech geek, I do not feel comfortable with the mantle of the expert, and will happily point to someone who really does know about a topic rather than pretend.  However, in a world where the self-publicist generally wins, admitting when you don’t know something or passing the torch to someone else is all too often seen as weakness.

All too often, I’ve sat in with a project team where a developer is asked about some new tech when he (all too often it is a ‘he’) only really feels comfortable talking about the one he is an expert in. Or watched a marketing person avoid using social media channels because they know the process of generating print materials inside out. These experts end up trapped by their domains and the organisations they work for miss out on their potential for interdisciplinary working.

While I do know a lot about the education sector, I have been responsible for activities in a number of different roles across this diverse area – including educator, producer, marketeer, salesperson – and from Early Years into HE. This means that I am well placed to help coordinate teams and to help find ways for evolving the work they do.

However, I often find that this perspective means that managers think I am only interested in “strategy” work – as that is how most organisations place this interdisciplinary view – but, this is a mistake.

For one thing, very little time / resource at work has strategic value but almost all of it impacts across teams and domains. Every team needs someone (not just a project manager) who can see outside of their field of expertise.

More often than not, the timeliness of the work I do as a freelancer is that I can often spot jams and build bridges quickly and sensitively because I know (a little) about each trade and respect the work they do.

I work as hard as is healthy

This has not always been a positive for my career, I am afraid to admit. In our high-stakes culture, I have struggled to compete with those who will put in more hours than me. I do not enjoy working harder than others and tend to avoid stress. I will actively seek an easier way to do a job, before pulling my neck in and knuckling down. I will question a deadline, challenge scope and find the priorities before overcommitting myself.

I can work hard – but, in all honesty, I’ve got soft, nimble hands, with few callouses. I’m not work shy- as nearly two years working in restaurant kitchens proves. I have seen that working hard doesn’t always equal more value or return. If a job cannot be done within the hours budgeted for it – then, often, it is the fault of the resource manager – not the resource.

Most hard working people I know seem to chose to work too much with little extra impact, for too little respect or return, and for too long. I do not want to do that, and have come to resent managers who, because this is what they did, expect this from their team members.

I care about my mental and physical health. I am not a ‘stress bunny’. I don’t want to work in the evenings and weekends. I like being with my family. I think most people are the same.

As a freelance resource,  as I am paid by the hour or day, clients have huge respect for my time. I like this. If more jobs respected people in this way, there would be many more happy employees.

I do not suffer fools and/or bullies, gladly

I’ve been lucky to have had more good managers than bad – but I have walked out of a few jobs where the office politics has been overwhelming. My patience levels for poor practice, discrimination and petty personal differences are way too low for most organisations. I like doing a job well and, while I have a very healthy ego, do not lose track of the ‘end user’ – whether that is the children in a class, the customers of a business or the community using a service. They are always more important and more interesting, and I’d rather focus on them.

I assume that, sometime, cooperation can be balanced by a little healthy conflict, to resolve a difference of opinion. If I’ve cocked up or got something wrong, I expect someone to call me on it – as long as it’s ‘Kind, Specific and Helpful.

The answers “well, that’s how we have always done this” – “because I said so” – “those guys are always blocking me” reveal one of the great fault lines in the modern workplace – where we often talk a great game of cooperation, but tend to structure the workplace in hierarchical silos.

Being a freelancer keeps me well out of these unhealthy dynamics and mean that (mostly) I can chose who I work for. If someone is being an arse, I can walk away. I can also stand up against bad managers, speak truth to power, and draw attention to discrimination when I see it.

I have not given up

If the right job came along, I’d jump at it. I am sure there are workplaces that allow space for learning, value the connections between teams, respect the work/life balance and the people who work there.

There might even be some places where they need someone who can create and manage learning experiences,…someone like me! Perhaps you could point them my way.

Maybe I’ll end up creating a great place to work again. Maybe, you are looking for a co-founder or setting up a cooperative. If you are, I’d love to know more.

Until then, I’ll keep on, keeping on.

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Scarcity of Use

How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. Seems obvious right? But what if being hungry means that you literally cannot decide where to start; and that you stay hungry, despite the calorific (but inhumane) feast before you.

When we are lacking a fundamental need, our cognitive pathways shift – bandwidth narrows. If you need cash, it’s hard to think about anything else other than getting some quickly- to the exclusion of budgeting, avoiding high risk situations, or seeking more secure income. It helps to explain why the financially poor make bad decisions about money  – even if they were once prudent when wealthier.

(Click on the arrows to start this animation)

The principles of the science around Scarcity, described by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir,  have informed lots of areas in social research – from understanding hunger, to the time-poor, and loneliness. Short term wins dominate, even when they harm long term outcomes. There is no evidence that ‘educating’ people out of the scarcity trap works, so just telling people what they should do doesn’t work either.

This research does skim close to stating the obvious, but it does help shift the way we think about our problems, and the problems of others. The Hidden Brain podcast, Tunnel Vision – provided below – provides an excellent summary of this work.

I’ve been experiencing a few different types of scarcity for a while and I think it’s changed my behaviour in ways that follow this model.  For one reason or another, I have been underemployed for over four years. Like so many freelancers: I go through periods of feast, but more often famines, in work.  I’d like to think I also do useful things at home too, but a lack of regular income is only part of the problem.

I have a scarcity of usefulness.

I am at home too much, without a structured day, regular interactions or set of jobs to be done. When I have work, it is unpredictable and often inconvenient – throwing up barriers more than creating opportunities.  This situation has stopped being excitingly ‘on the edge’. I am on the wrong side of a happy balance. The ache is tangible. It fills my thoughts constantly. I’ve been living with depression in my head for a few years now, and while I am not suffering as much, there are days when I am overwhelmed by the perception of a lack of purpose.

I have been effective, productive and kind to myself in the past. I know the productivity advice. Often, I am asked to give it to others – and I seem to be able to apply these lessons beyond myself. I know there are thousands of simple small steps that could make me more productive and, perhaps secure more ways to be ‘useful’. I get advice, ideas and support from friends and family that I know is sound.

Yet,…I feel like my hands are tied and my foot carefully positioned so that instead of stepping forward and upwards – I only end up kicking myself and falling on my face. I grab at (often unsustainable) work or networking opportunities in a less and less effective way. I can feel myself doing it and there is a quiet part of my brain trying to stop me.

Is it the depression? Is it a failing in me? A lack of capability? I’m not sure it’s not these things, but I also know now that the very dynamic I am in makes it harder to get myself out – however amazing I might be. This might be familiar to us as the simple truism that “It is easier to get a job while you are in a job”.

There are some great suggestions from Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir about how to work against this trap – but they do not pretend there are easy answers. Ultimately, the poor cannot think themselves out of poverty – they need more money. The hungry need more food. The lonely need friendship. And the underemployed need purposeful work.

(Click on the arrows to start this animation)

So, if you have read all this and need something doing  – put my capabilities to work. Just use the subject heading “Breaking the Scarcity Trap” and claim your time.

Your generosity can set me free.

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Why? We need to Get Real

Panel at #LGRYA17


Why do we educate our children in the way we do? Our current public debate seems stuck on  raising standards, improving parental choice, and beating international league tables; rather than considering this deeper question. Yes, kids need to be prepared to work – but we also need to nurture their identity and feed their creativity.

Yet, most children in the UK are being deprived full access to a cultural education.  There are 2500 museums in the UK, and 10x as many schools. This does not mean that there are 10 schools working with each museum, or that all children, wherever they live in the UK, get access to a museum for 1/10th of their education.  If you start to include the numbers of theatres, galleries, heritage sites, libraries and other cultural spaces that could be part of the education (both formal and informal) of a school aged child, it is hard to look at the numbers of opportunities kids get, as being acceptable.  Yet we know that middle class urban kids receive more cultural capital than rural, working class kids and this gives them an advantage.

It is easy to look at “digital” as a solution to these problems of access. Considerable amounts of public money have been spent by cultural organisations on digital projects to improve this situation. However, there has been very little sharing of what works, or progress in working more collaboratively with schools and children.  To look more carefully at this issue and bring people together to share ideas, Let’s Get Real is a research project and conference  organised by Culture24, who work connecting the arts and cultural sector.

There have already been wonderful posts summarising the wonderful speakers, workshops and discussions from the day – such as this from Arts Council England’s  Adam Koszary . As one of the speakers, and workshop facilitators, it might be a little unrepresentative for me to share too much of my view of the day.

My own talk was slightly impacted by the cold remedies I was taking  and I talked way too fast!

So, with all my speakers notes included – here is it for those who would like to take a bit more time to digest the ideas I shared.

Throughout the day,  I was blown away by some of the wonderful work being done that we heard from our inspiring speakers, such as the Holocaust Centre’s virtual testimonies, and the practical interventions of Amy Cotterill in Essex.

The Let’s Get Real action research projects themselves were also deeply impressive in how well they had connected with the needs and questions from kids. However, in all the conversations I had with people in the breaks, I heard another narrative.

Breakout at #LGRYA17

I heard it first from Finbarr Whooley, the Director of Content at the Museum of London, who had introduced the day for us.  Finbarr came to talk to me after my presentation about one slide in particular – where I shared my experience of conducting the 5xWhys activity with an arts organisation – for them to admit that the reason they were working with schools was to raise the profile of their work, rather than to help children learn or teachers to support that learning.

They started with what they wanted to do with young people, and worked backwards to find a rationale. Finbarr confessed that he’d seen this reverse thinking all too often and that it almost defined the way that the cultural sector worked with digital. I spent the rest of the day listening for this story, and it was not hard to find.

Cultural, arts and heritage organisations are struggling to make good use of digital with young audiences – yet seem to have no vehicle for improvement – no way to change the narrative.

I think some of this can be explained by institutional inertia, incentives for gaming the funding process, and ignorance. However, there are things that we can do.

1 – Create a sustained platform/space for sharing and collaboration with educators and young people. Both #LGRYA17 and #TMCulture24 were proof that more is needed.

2 – Maintain a focus on a genuine purpose for authentic learning. Publishing the aims of a project and evidence of working with learners to iterate a better experience would help to encourage others to keep their ‘Why?’ more meaningful.

3 – Develop more meaningful metrics than trying to link event impact to exam results, or prove engagement via hits on a webpage.

4 – Tell the stories, especially when they fail. Cultural professionals should be able to reflect on their practice, and admit where they made a mistake and show they are learning. There needs to be a more compelling framework for doing this and an incentive to counter the

I loved being part of #LGRYA17 and hope to maintain my involvement with the organisations I spoke to. Thanks to Anra Kennedy for inviting me to help curate the day and to the whole Culture24 team for their support on the day.

I help organisations create and support  more engaging learning through the use of digital technology.

If you’d like to talk about how I can help your organisation, to build on the learning from #LGRYA17, please get in touch eylan AT ezekiels DOT co DOT uk.


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