7 things I learnt from Storystorm 2018: How to come up with new ideas

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Storystorm is a brilliant initiative by picture book writer Tara Lazar. It's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) reborn, revamped and significantly easier to pronounce. The focus is on ideation or idea generation - 31+ ideas in the month of January and a blog post a day to help you on your way. This was my first time participating and I'm very glad I did. It's a wonderful, supportive community and a great way to knuckle down and churn out some potential material to work on for the rest of the year.

Here's what I learnt from the process:

1) IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE: Something you see, something you read, something your child says or does, something you oh-so-casually hear when totally not desperately trying to eavesdrop at the local cafe. There's Pinterest, the cinema, and bookstores - existing titles and storylines that trigger new ones.  There's science, there's history, there's politics - now that's bursting with material (and don't get me started on picture books and politics - the way I see it, all writing is political). And dreams, of course (although, I have to say those "moments of genius" are often a lot less amazing and a lot more bizarre/scary on paper than they are in my head in the middle of the night). 

2) DISCIPLINE IS NOT A DIRTY WORD: In fact, carving out "ideation" time every day can work wonders. It's like eating or meditating at the same time every day. Your body and mind are primed to feel hungry or feel relaxed. Or to open the floodgates to new ideas. 

3) SOMETIMES THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS TO DO NOTHING: So, despite what I said in #2, there may be times when you need to step away from the notebook. I love mindfulness and meditation but even a bog-standard walk, a stint at the gym, cooking or doing the laundry can trigger the flow of ideas. Or ordering a takeaway, whatever works for you.

4) IT'S WORTH CASTING A WIDE NET (TO BEGIN WITH): Let your ideas do their thing. If you disqualify them before they even hit the page, you'll never really know how they feel and what they taste like. Crazy ideas can sprout less crazy ideas. And some crazy ideas are worth pursuing in their own right. At this delicate stage, it's best to shut down your inner critic and give them the day (or month) off. A Storystorm blog post by Jeanette Bradley had this fabulous quote from the Frog and Toad books:

“Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted. ‘NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!’
Frog came running up the path.
‘What’s all this noise?’ he asked.
‘My seeds will not grow,’ said Toad.
‘You are shouting too much,’ said Frog. ‘These poor seeds are afraid to grow.'”

~ Arnold Lobel, FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER

You can show up, ready and willing. You can chase after ideas. But you can't drag them out of the mud, in seed form, scream at them and expect them to grow. Some need a little more time than others. There's a time and place for purging no-gos based on questions like "does this really excite me?" and "is this a marketable idea?". This is not that stage.  

5) MORNING PAGES + STORYSTORMING = A POWERFUL COCKTAIL: I've only recently started doing Morning Pages (more on that soon!) but I can already feel the difference in my writing. Combining this practice with storystorming has been transformational. It's a simple concept, courtesy of Julia Cameron - 3 pages of long-hand stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. It clears the head of all the gunk and goo and to-dos and makes space for new ideas (and old ones). 

6) MATERIALS DO MATTER: Well, to me at least. I admire the screenwriter who plots out a masterpiece on the back of a napkin at a restaurant, I really do. But I need my Moleskines. Always softcover, always large or extra-large and always PLAIN (I've recently been converted). I cannot imagine writing on lined paper anymore. I need the freedom and world of possibility that only PLAIN paper can provide. And a biro - deep black. Find what works best for you. Some people love scraps of paper and patchwork notebooks - they fill them with joy. Find something you feel like coming back to. 

7): THERE'S A MAGIC TO COMMUNITY SPIRIT: There's something about working alongside a group of people with their eye on the same goal. It's inspiring. It's also a comfort on days when your well runs dry and what you really need is to know that you're not alone. They say writing is a lonely occupation. I think that's crazy. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. I love my alone-time with my manuscripts and when I need a sign of life, I dip back into the amazing writing communities I'm very lucky to be a part of e.g. Storystorm, SCBWI, The Golden Egg Academy, and Kritikme.  

I've wrapped up the month with 42 picture book ideas (fiction and non-fiction) - some very nascent but very much there - plus a number of ideas for flash fiction pieces, early readers and young fiction!

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Massive thank you to Tara Lazar for bringing us all together and for organising so many amazing guest posts! 

I'm now going to attempt something crazy for February. I'm going to draft a manuscript a day. A complete draft: beginning, middle, end - that sort of thing. I'm going to get out of my own way, show up every day and write. There may be a lot of chopping and changing on the road ahead but I'm a firm believer in the tyranny of the blank page. This is my way of getting past that. Wish me luck! 

3 amazing multicultural non-fiction picture books for children

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A mouthful of a title but the best I could do to describe my 3 top picks in honour of Multicultural Children's Book Day 2018. I often talk about picture books being windows into the world and these books are exactly that. In no particular order as these are all firm favourites with my 3-year-old and will be loved and adored by older children too:

1) HERE WE ARE - Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers

Disclaimer: we are die-hard Oliver Jeffers fans in this household so I'm very biased but this is another level of beautiful. He wrote this for his son and you can sense that. It captures that feeling so many parents have - that desire to share all the need-to-know stuff with this little person in your life. It speaks straight to the heart but it's more than I-love-you. It's a subtle, complex hey, this is the world you've been born into...this is how it works, these are the incredible things around you...this is how precious it is and this is why you need to look after it. There's also a gorgeous spread where Jeffers describes how "People come in many shapes, sizes and colours" and adds that we "all look different, act different and sound different...but don't be fooled, we are all people." You have to see this spread - it's a beautiful conversation-starter for children. 

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2) LOTS by Marc Martin

This BOOK! It's an absolute treasure trove of information. The illustrations are stunning and so detailed and every page is jam-packed with juicy little facts and local quirks. It takes you everywhere from Tokyo with its vending machines (5.6 million of them in Japan!) selling everything from neck-ties to books to Ulaanbaatar, Moscow, Cairo, the Amazon Rainforest and New Delhi with the signature Indian head wobble and clay chai cups. I'd challenge any adult to flick through this one without wanting to stop and have a proper read.

3) THIS IS HOW WE DO IT by Matt Lamothe

This book follows a day in the lives of seven children from around the world - Italy, Japan, Uganda, Russia, India, Peru and Iran. We learn who they are, what kind of place and house they live in, who they live with, what they eat, how they go to school, what they wear and how they write, learn and play. It's a fascinating mix of cultures and seeing these lives laid out alongside each other offers a chance to celebrate differences while appreciating that there's a common thread running through each of these stories - something that binds us, something that means we're not so different after all. 

There are many more books in this vein - a happy reality because children love discovering other cultures. They drink this stuff. I just wanted to share 3 I thought were particularly special. If there are others that you've come across, please do share in the comments. I'd love to hear about them! 

 

The Anti-Resolution Revolution: Successes of 2017

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Children's author Julie Hedlund, challenged participants of her 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series to post SUCCESSES (rather than resolutions) on our blogs this year. She believes the way New Year's resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity - what DIDN'T get done or achieved in the previous year.  Instead, she suggests we set goals for the New Year that BUILD on our achievements from the previous one. I decided to participate in this Anti-Resolution Revolution! Here is my list for 2017.

1) Fell in love with writing picture books. Discovered a real sense of purpose.

2) Restarted my Miracle Morning. Sun salutations, meditation, Morning Pages, reading, visualisation and intention/goal-setting to bring energy, depth and focus to my life and work. 

3) Decided to put an end to the struggle with Imposter Syndrome and call myself a writer. It's not a hobby - it's who I am, it's what I do. That subtle shift in intention has made a world of difference to my writing. 

4) Started writing EVERY SINGLE DAY after the Kritikme Novel in 90 course

5) Read LOTS of books. I mean LOTS even for a serial bookmuncher. 

6) Got accepted into the Golden Egg Academy Picture Book Programme. Had a wonderful, inspiring and encouraging 1:1 with my editor, Jo Collins, met a lovely group of truly brilliant writers and set up a new online critique group. 

7) Attended 3 writing festivals in my first 6 months of writing - Winchester, York and the SCBWI British Isles conference. Had some fantastic 1:1s with agents and editors who said they loved the pacing and voice in my stories and offered some fabulous suggestions for refining my manuscripts. Means the world to me as a new writer. 

8) Was selected as one of 11 writers on the Penguin Random House WriteNow mentoring programme to nurture diverse voices in publishing and, in 2018, will be working with a Penguin editor on my first picture book. Amazing to be chosen alongside these truly wonderful writers - their stories are incredible and very much needed. All the more amazing because I very nearly didn't apply - I didn't think I was diverse enough or strong enough. So glad I did! 

9) Wrote 7 picture books in 2017 and filled many, many pages of my picture book Moleskine with ideas. Signed up for the 12x12 12 Days of Christmas for Writers and got ready to join Storystorm 2018 to generate 30 picture book ideas in January. 

So grateful for the writing-related successes of 2017 and excited to see what 2018 has in store. I can't control the outcomes but I can control my own intention and my commitment. And as this crazy year comes to an end, those two things couldn't be stronger. 

 

 

 

How to write a novel in 90 days

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Confession: picture books are my true love but, like many people, I had a novel I desperately needed to get out of my system. I had just submitted a series of picture book manuscripts to the Golden Egg Academy and a Penguin Random House competition. I was on a roll writing-wise. That’s when I saw KritikMe and Louise Dean’s “Novel in Ninety” plan on Twitter. Here’s what happened next:  

Day 1: Ooh that sounds tempting.  Will pop it on the list for next year. 

Day 2: This Louise lady seems supercool too. Wait, she’s actually written a novel in 90 days and there are real live people out there who have done it too. What would that feel like?

Could I? 

SHOULD I? 

Day 3: Signed on the dotted line and haven’t looked back since. 

I know some people work on that first draft over 5 years but I loved the idea of an end-date. It’s not an “I-thrive-under-pressure” thing - I handed my university dissertation in 2 months early. It’s because there’s a magic to finishing. There’s a magic to getting past that blank page. Something to hold, something to edit. This will come out all wrong but I needed to know I could do it. I wanted that finished draft in my hands this side of Christmas and I got it - 30 October 2017. It had all the rugged charm of a first draft, which is code for “it was a complete embarrassment”, but it was a complete draft. I actually did it. And I can do it again. 

I won’t lie. I wasn’t the best of students. I didn’t write for the longest time. At first, I missed days here and there - life took over. But I’d missed the point. There is a genius to this 90 day business. Louise is right - it’s about forming habits. Once I resolved to be faithful, to put the novel first and to write EVERY SINGLE DAY, there was an incredible transformation in my writing. I wrote 75% of the draft within 3 weeks. Towards the end, I was living and dreaming my characters. I had an amazing aerial view of the story with all the paths leading to that final climax - all the missing pieces and all the things I needed to revisit, revamp or create in draft 2. Heavy, I know, but it was a kind of enlightenment. 

Gosh, this is all so self-involved. And that’s unfair because the KritikMe community has been a huge part of this. I have no idea how Louise has brought such an incredible group of people together. Is it self-selection? Whatever it is, it works. That community has been and continues to be my rock, my inspiration, my much-needed giggle on a slow or disastrous day. You see, there’s more to this plan than self-discipline, Moleskines, hero texts, an expertly crafted curriculum and a wonderful coach and mentor. 

And yes, I’m an evangelist. If you have a novel you need to get out of your system, you can take 5 years over that first draft if that floats your boat. You can flirt with the idea of writing it. Or you can join the "Novel in Ninety" plan and get the thing done. 

Letter to my 10 year old self

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You’re 10 years old. So full of life, so full of fire. Your eyes light up with wonder and enthusiasm when you discover things for the first time. You’re always on the move. You just can’t wait to grow up.

Stop. SLOW. DOWN. 

You won't believe it right now but there will come a time when you wish you could get these days back. Live in the moment. Climb trees. Crunch leaves. Play, paint, sing loudly and smile widely. Read. Read LOTS. Meditate. Do yoga. Make things. Hold hands with someone you love - someone who loves you - and run as fast as you can with a belly full of laughter. Feel the grass beneath your feet, the sand between your toes, the feeling of the rain pouring down on your skin and streaming down your face. Notice the raindrops balancing on your eyelashes and nose. The way your eyes close in the light of the sun. 

Be kind. It’s the little things people will remember forever. Be the child that sits with children who don’t have anyone to sit with. Make a new friend every day. Appreciate your family - once in a while, tell them you love them. For no reason whatsoever. Yes, it all gets a bit too much sometimes but one day, I promise you, you’ll miss them if they’re not around. Love yourself. That might sound funny to you now but it’ll make sense someday.

And now, the hard stuff. Things won’t always go to plan. There will be good days and not-so-good days. There will be challenges. Some little ones and some big ones too. But don’t worry too much - you’re stronger than you know. Be brave. But most of all, BE YOURSELF. No one does it better than you.

 

*Originally written for Cheeky Yogi, a business we're very sadly in the process of closing down. More on that adventure later!

How to Write Picture Books: 5 Takeaways from Winchester Writers' Festival 2017

WHAT an experience! 

I squeezed into the full-day picture book masterclass at the last minute and despite the 5 hours of solid travelling it entailed, I am so very glad I did. The workshop was led by the lovely Tracey Corderoy, an absolute master of scansion and a wonderful storyteller. We also had a jam-packed and supremely juicy hour with Louise Bolongaro, Head of Picture Books at Nosy Crow. I don't think I've scribbled so hard and so fast since my political philosophy final. Made me wish I'd fixed that terrible crow-grip back in primary school.

We went through all the usual discussions around plot structure, pacing, page turns and showing vs. telling but here are 5 of my biggest takeaways:

(1) Character matters. A lot. 

This is one of those things that you hear all the time. You know it matters but you still find yourself obsessed with the plot and the spreads and baking in your character's motivation retrospectively, stuffing it in wherever you find space. Or maybe that's just me! Well, Tracey's exercise of starting with the character has opened my eyes. Thinking about who they are and what makes them tick. What would really challenge them? How would they react? How would they change as a result?  Cue lightbulb moment. So this is what "character-driven" really means. No wonder Tracey's characters - the likes of Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam - have carried so well across a series of picture books and over into young fiction. 

 (2) Plot matters too. 

You can have a beautiful piece of prose or rhyme but it needs what Louise Bolongaro calls "lovely, meaty narrative substance." It needs to pass her "Finnish Prose translation test". Does it lose all its value when you strip away the rhyme and this particular selection of words? Or is it still a pacy, punchy read with plenty of charm? And a top tip from Tracey Corderoy - don't lose sight of the core of your story, the heart of it, the thing that made you want to write it in the first place. A great story speaks "from the heart of human experience". It makes you feel something. 

(3) If you want to rhyme, do it well. 

3 mini-points here:

  1. It's more than just syllable counts. It's about mastering scansion - how it scans. The stressed and unstressed syllables. For a brilliant example of this, read Tracey Corderoy's Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam! Rhyme with brilliant scansion is effortless to read and compels you to perform. 
  2. It's also about good, strong, story-driven rhyme as opposed to lazy, predictable rhyming that takes the writer in all sorts of strange directions.
  3. No inversions, apparently. Not for Nosy Crow, anyway. Julia Donaldson may get away with it but she is the Queen of Picture Books. It's different. 

(4) Pull the listener into the story.

Not just by way of a hook but make sure that they are invested in it. Repetition is a special invitation for children to join in. It's empowering. So is leaving something of the story for children to wonder at, to fill in the blanks. They become so much more than passive listeners. It becomes their story. 

(5) Never give in 

I had to include this because I still can't get that "Never give in" Churchill quote out of my head but also because it's a big bad world out there. In the words of Tracey Corderoy, you need to "be tenacious, thick-skinned, never give up." Get over that scary blank page and start writing. Experiment, be flexible. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Persevere. It can take time to get published. Tracey found an agent in no time at all but took 3 years to get published. She now has 50+ books to her name. It takes courage to be a writer. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I'm new to the picture book writing journey but this workshop has made me feel so excited, so energised. Picture books are so important. Louise Bolongaro put it beautifully: they're a child's first encounter with reading, they help them find their place in the world. They have a dual consumer - the reader and the listener - so there's a unique challenge in that they need to appeal to both. They need characters we care about, perfect pacing and plenty of story. They'll also be read aloud over and over and over so they need a powerful visual and auditory magic that never feels old, never fails to delight.

No pressure :) 

 

 

 

 

 

"Never give in" - Attitude and learning

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

- Winston Churchill

 

Confession: I came across this in an episode of Billions. Since then, I haven't stopped thinking about it. Maybe it's the way Chuck says it. Or maybe it's the fact I've just decided to turn up the heat on this obsession with learning and self-improvement. The babies are settled now and I feel ready to bring some more structure into my approach to revisiting French, learning to code and getting to my peak level of fitness. But it's not just about structure - it's about attitude. 

"Never give in. Never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty..." 

Imagine cultivating that attitude. Not just for the big stuff but for the smallest things. Imagine making that a "habit", something so natural, so tightly woven into the fabric of who you are and how you do things. Imagine that filtering into every aspect of your life. Churchill caveats it, of course:

"...never give in - except to convictions of honour and good sense." 

Never give in...except when it's the right thing to do, the sensible thing to do. This is the kind of willpower you need if you're working on a project like this. When you're the master of your own time, it's easy to yield to the "overwhelming might" of distractions. It's also easy to feel overwhelmed. In this digital age we have hundreds and thousands of resources at our disposal. It's an all-you-can eat buffet out there. The more you read, the less you know. And being able to see all these wonderful examples of what other people have achieved is a double-edged sword - it's inspiring, uplifting, yes...but gazing at that canyon between you, that long road ahead can make you feel so small, so insignificant. 

People talk about steep "learning curves". The truth is, they aren't always "curves". More often that not, they're more jagged than that. One day you have a breakthrough - you're on top of the world, mentally hi-fiving everyone you pass in the street that day - other days you're stuck, feeling low. Then you get back into it, you plateau, then another breakthrough and you're accelerating. And so on and so on. 

That's where you need that attitude. That's what's going you see you through it all. Eye on the goal, that track from Rocky playing in your head (or whatever works for you). Actually, more than eye on the "goal", eye on your "WHY" - you have to know why you're doing something. What's your purpose? If you want something that badly, you'll go after it with all your heart. And you'll "never give in." 

Getting back into blogging

Getting back to blogging is like getting back into the dating game after a long - and I mean L-O-N-G break. You've changed. You see things differently now. You want different things. Do you even remember how to do this? Writing a post for the first time in forever can feel like getting dressed up for the dance floor after spending a few years mooching around in your PJs. 

Sometimes all you need is to sit down and make a start. Close the 2 zillion tabs you have open on your browser for no reason whatsoever, hide your phone, grab yourself a cup of hot chocolate and flex those fingers. First, there are a few things to figure out:

Do you need a change of scene?

I say that loosely. For some people, it can be as simple as dragging a chair into the garden. For others, a move from Wordpress to Squarespace, for instance, can do wonders to get the old juices flowing. This was a big one for me. Goodbye plugin nightmare and hello lazy, update-free bliss (more on that later). If that sounds too scary, even a change of theme/template can give you the kind of makeover you need to feel fresh and get out there again. 

What exactly do you want to write about?

You've got three options here:

  1. brain dump on any topic under the sun;
  2. dive deep into a niche area, attracting a very specific kind of reader and eventually positioning yourself as an expert; or
  3. choose a small selection of topics and run with them.

I'm side-stepping the rule of 3 and going with 4. My themes of choice: writing, learning, startups and social impact. And yes, I know we're talking about getting back into blogging so presumably you've already been through all this but I refer you back to para 1 - "You've changed. You see things differently now" etc etc. 

Can you really commit (this time)? 

I wrote a couple of those classic "I'm back" posts when this was a Wordpress blog. Picked up a few likes from fellow bloggers who felt my pain. I wrote these posts after disappearing for months on end when life ran away with me (e.g. graduating, having babies, that sort of thing). I'd do my post, make my apologies, say and do all the right things then skip off into the sunset never to be seen (until the next time). Don't get into that spiral. You're better than that. 

This time, I've decided: no great big apologies or speeches. I'm older and wiser now. And yes, I have changed. I do see the world differently. There are things I need to tell you. The way I see it, the best way I can do that is to just get started. 

Exploring MOOCs: my early observations

So I've been on a mission to MOOC up my life lately. Probably all part of that pre-poned mid-life crisis but I'd like to think there's a higher purpose to my primary research, which I'll no doubt discover as my project progresses. Here are some very early observations:

  • Branding matters (to some people, some of the time): All the MOOCs I've signed up for have been from so-called top tier institutions e.g. Harvard, Stanford and MIT. If I'm brutally honest about it, this is no accident. Despite everything I learned on the MBA, I'm a sucker for a strong brand. And no, I don't care about badges and this won't be going on my CV (edX does offer ID-verified pathways for some courses but it's not my cup of tea). For me, the brand is a signalling mechanism. It's my cognitive shortcut in terms of choosing courses I assume will be interesting, well-designed and well-taught. This kind of snap judgment might be completely unfair and unhelpful but there you have it.
  • My attention span for online lectures is breathtakingly limited: Data mining efforts at edX indicate that average engagement for online educational videos tends to max out at about 6 minutes. I think I zone out at 1.5. However, edX won't always catch this because I sometimes leave the video running while attending to other tasks. Or maybe they will. After all, data analytics as a science is becoming more and more sophisticated by the day.
  • I think it's the eye contact that I miss: Why is it that I can sit happily through a 2.5 hour lecture at university or on the MBA (with a 10/15 minute break) but 3 minutes of video footage makes me feel like I'm ageing in my seat? My gut feeling is that it's the eye contact, the personal rapport you can build with a real, live tutor. And, of course, the back-and-forth Q&A or real-time classroom banter. Now, this may not be true for everyone but I think it's true for me. With online courses, I'd much rather read, write and reflect than watch a man in a box. Would I feel differently about a "live" presentation e.g. a Google Hangout? Can't say - I haven't tried. One for the To Do list.

Well, those are some initial thoughts. More when I've made a dent in this research. 

MOOC me up!

After a long phase of feeling well and truly MOOCed out, I've decided to once again dip my toes in the proverbial waters of the online learning pool. And of course that means signing up to many more courses than I have the time to complete. Actually, if I'm honest, time is available in abundance at the moment. The issue is commitment. And staying engaged. As a self-confessed geek, I've never had a problem with this before (with exceptions made for subjects like geography and constitutional law). I even managed to fall in love with financial accounting for goodness sake and for a lawyer (a  poet, not a quant), that's really saying something. But there's something about the MOOC setup that gets me all excited to start with (at the point of sign-up) but over time somehow seems to invite impatience, skimming, laziness, switching off and giving up (all in that order). And the descent is rapid.

Now it's quite possible that I just haven't found the online learning format that works for me. The next few weeks are about discovering what that is. Also on my To Do list is getting to grips with some of the latest research on MOOCs. I know I'll have some major confirmation bias issues to grapple with but I really want to understand - with an open mind - what "effectiveness" really means in MOOC land (and recently I've been getting a feeling that completion rates and discussion forum participation rates don't necessarily have anything to do with it).

The secondary research piece can wait. I'll start with primary research. And that means getting my act together and actually doing a course or two rather than just letting them sit prettily on my EdX dashboard, unopened.

Making maths beautiful

These are the words that (almost) made me fall in love with maths:

Math is a beautiful art, full of awe and mystery. It gives you a sense of control when you figure out its secrets. (Shimon Schocken)

Schocken's demo of www.slatemath.com at the Skills 2014 summit was absolutely enchanting. Slate Math is an adaptive learning system that teaches children through beautifully-crafted interactive games. In Schocken's words, it's about bringing back those "Wow!" and "Aha!" moments in maths - "Wow!" (I understand this! That's how it works!) and "Aha!" (this is how it's applied!). Part of the system's beauty lies in its simplicity. This charming episode, for instance, teaches Kindergarten kids the concept of "mapping" - a concept fundamental to mathematics - through the process of pairing bees and flowers.

As I listened to Shocken present at the summit, I discovered that there was a romance to maths, a magic to the process of abstraction that I hadn't contemplated before. And yes, maybe maths is uniquely placed to give a learner that beautiful feeling of something finally "clicking". If only my primary school maths lessons had been like this. Concept-focused, wonder-filled and "wowish".

Takeaways from Skills 2014

Five takeaways from the Skills 2014 summit on reimagining "Skills for the 21st Century":

  • Teachers today have a more challenging job than ever before: Teaching is no longer just about imparting knowledge to kids - it's about getting them ready for the great unknown, a world we don't yet understand, and for jobs that don't yet exist. A beautiful provocation from Lord David Puttnam: schools today are fearful environments but young people are "desperate to be allowed, to be encouraged to be fearless".  This is a huge responsibility.
  • Schools need to nurture the innate entrepreneurial skills we have as children but which the school system systematically drills out of us: Saul Singer says we tend to think innovation is about ideas but anyone can have an idea - it's about what you add to it. It's about drive, willingness to take risks, emotional intelligence, leadership, collaboration and sacrifice, the sense that there's something bigger than you. How do we "teach" these skills? Through applied learning - learning by doing, project-based learning, getting students to get out of the door and build something.
  • Coding/design is much more than a skill - it's a way of thinking: Coding develops passion and plasticity - it helps you understand that everything can be changed, that this world can be reimagined (a thought-provoking contribution from Roland Lamb). We need to stop thinking of it as programming and start thinking about it as a thought process, an approach to problem-solving.
  • There's more to gaming than blood, violence and sore eyes: Gaming tends to be demonised (chess was too at one point!) but as gamification guru Ian Livingstone reminds us, game skills = life skills (think problem-solving, intuitive learning, trial and error, risk-taking, teamwork, imagination). There was a lot of controversy around Grand Theft Auto but it made $1bn in 4 days of sales - it's a British success story. And games-based learning has had and continues to have a profound impact on education across the spectrum.
  • We are moving and shaking:  We often look to the US as a benchmark but the real trailblazers bringing coding to schools are NZ, Korea, Estonia and, now, the UK. Skills 2014 summit saw the official launch of the Year of Code, a fantastic drive to get Britain coding as a nation. From September 2014, computer science will be a compulsory part of the English curriculum with kids as young as 5 learning about algorithms and Key Stage 3 kids being able to work with at least 2 languages and undertake creative and problem-solving projects. We're finally talking about changing mindsets in education -  moving from a culture of consumption  (how to use tech) to a culture of creation (making things). Yes, we will make mistakes. It's inevitable. And that's okay, as long as we keep learning.

The Indian love affair with maths

"I can't believe you're my daughter!" and "When I was your age, I could have answered these questions in my sleep!" - these soundbites or catchphrases are some of the earliest memories I have of studying maths with my dad. Now, two things you should know: (1) he is actually absolutely lovely and my hero and all the rest of it; and (2) I wasn't exactly bad at maths but, to be fair, I was no human calculator. My dad, on the other hand, was a mathemagician. He grew up in a small village in Goa, India, where he had learnt up to his 50 times table by the age of 8 (and yes, that includes the 49 times table, the 34 times table etc.). I studied in Britain where knowing your 13 times table was really going above and beyond the call of duty (apologies if that's changed since my time).

You might be tempted to dismiss this as typical Indian rote-learning nonsense but contemplate this: if you know up to your 50 times table inside out, there really isn't much that can faze you in the way of mental arithmetic. In the gold market in Dubai, they still use super-size calculators to (pretend to) work out their "best" price. I'd marvel at how my dad would have the whole thing down to 2 decimal places even before the guy had finished typing the numbers into the calculator. When I was preparing for the GMAT, I'd try and stump him with the toughest maths and data sufficiency questions I could find but the man was unstumpable.

Now, luckily for me, I was never ranked in any of my classes. My little Etonian brother, however, had no such luck. He'd get a decent enough place in maths - top 4 - but my dad's natural response was, of course, "but why can't you come 1st?". Sounds tyrannical but you have to see where he's coming from. Maths, he'd tell us, is a subject of objectively right-and-wrong answers - if you know your stuff, why should you get less than 100%? As I haven't yet come up with a good come-back to this, I might just park it and use it on my kids one day. I mean, it's true isn't it? Even at university, an 80% in politics or philosophy would be a bloody high first class score but you'd see all these maths undergrads swanning around with averages of 95+% despite having a couple of not-so-good papers (I'm not bitter - honest).

My poor brother. Whatever he did, he'd inevitably end up facing that eternal question: "Why didn't you come 1st?" And to be fair to my parents, it was posed out of genuine curiosity rather than anger or disappointment. My brother's answer still cracks me up to this very day. "But Daddy", he'd say sheepishly, "the top 3 kids are Chinese..."

Because STEAM is the new STEM...

There's been a lot of excitement around STEM lately (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths) and not without good reason. The arguments are compelling. STEM careers are rich, diverse and rewarding and form the lifeblood of some of the fastest-growing industries in the world. These skill-sets are fundamental to innovation and something needs to be done about the skills gap. There are some brilliant campaigns and initiatives built around this important agenda, some of my favourites involving a drive to expose more girls to STEM skills and careers.  We've got kids engaging with STEM professionals, kids learning to code, kids actually "making" things again - I'm sure you'd agree that it's inspiring stuff. But before you sign yourself up as a STEM evangelist, there's something that you should know. Turns out that STEAM is the new STEM. That's Science, Tech, Engineering, the Arts, and Maths.

Now, this isn't wholly surprising. Every time the STEM debate kicks off, someone inevitably brings up the importance of balancing left brain/right brain activity, simultaneously nurturing creativity and critical thinking. I may sound cynical but I'm actually a big believer in having a well-rounded education. When I was growing up, you were either an artist or a scientist (or, in MBA terminology, a poet or a quant). A few bright sparks would blur the lines, of course, but chances are you'd be put in a box at some point (or you'd put yourself in one). There are also the extreme cases - in many Indian schools, students are still cordoned off into "Science", "Commerce" and "Arts" streams at the age of 16 (and sadly, the way it most often works is that fab grades = science stream, mediocre grades = commerce, and the rest = arts).

STEAM, striking a balance between the left brain and right brain - these aren't new ideas. Our ancestors didn't all live in the same edu-silos as us. The great thinkers of the Renaissance are a case in point. Da Vinci was not just an artist but also a scientist, an architect, an engineer and a musician. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, poet, architect and engineer. They were not only rational and analytical but also contemplative, sensitive and expressive. They wrapped their minds across multiple disciplines. They saw connections between them.

To call these thinkers "polymaths" somehow separates them from the rest of the world. And is this fair? All young children have a wonderful sense of curiosity - they assess and dissect, design and create. They are simultaneously artists and scientists, musicians and architects, linguists and inventors. When we talk about putting the "A" back into STEM, I'd like to think we're moving towards a curriculum where we revive that flexibility, that richness of being: every child an innovator, every child a polymath.

 

An education system that celebrates failure

In the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship, you hear a lot about fostering a “culture of innovation” - getting comfortable with making mistakes, celebrating failure and using it as a launchpad to bigger and better things. It’s the lean startup methodology. You don’t wait for perfection. You get out there with a minimum viable product and you keep iterating. If necessary, you “pivot”. As Paul Schoemaker puts it in his fantastic article on Inc.com, failure is the foundation of innovation. Yet, most of us grow up with a dangerously unhealthy attitude towards it. Dangerous because it stifles creativity. Dangerous because it's a paralysing fear and so embedded that it follows you throughout your adult life.

It takes courage to share unfinished work with your colleagues, to throw out a hypothesis that’s yet to be tested, to chime in with a suggestion that might just fall flat. It takes courage to allow yourself to be this vulnerable, especially after years and years of hiding behind the defence of “perfectionism”. How do we make sure the next generation of students learn these lessons early on? How do we build an education system that allows room for mistakes, one that teaches you to iterate, to pivot? One that dispels the stigma and nurtures confidence and courage?

Hopefully things have changed since I was in school but I don't think we ever had a serious discussion about "mistakes". At least, not until the first week of the MBA and that unforgettable introduction to the Honda (B) case. As every MBA student knows, there's always a "(B) case" - a not-so-rosy version of events, a jumble of mishaps hiding behind the glossy exterior of the "(A) case" (a curious product of post-rationalisation). It's not as elegant but it reflects the reality of things. It allows room for mistakes and acknowledges their part in the story.

And on that note, here's a quote I just love and one I wish I’d come across years ago. Conan O’Brien reflecting on failure during his 2000 Harvard commencement speech:

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

Mr. Fry on teaching history

“The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.”

- Stephen Fry, Making History 

The Great Indian Education Challenge

If education is the cornerstone of society and if technology truly is the great leveller (think Sugata Mitra's school in the cloud),  then doesn't it follow that the fundamental challenge for a country like India with its explosive population growth is not education reform but infrastructural development, namely widespread and affordable access to electricity and high-speed internet connectivity? These two areas have the power to unlock a whole host of potential educational innovations that make good learning accessible for all.

While I remain forever the champion of blended learning, it's worth noting that, unlike the human element (which relies on scarce talent), the tech element of these learning models has the benefit of scaleability. Scaleability means far-reaching and sustainable impact. It means driving down costs and broadening access. It's a magical word that will warm the heart of any venture capitalist but it is even more important where populations (and stakes) are as high as they are in India.

There are a few ingredients in the mix that make India an interesting space to watch. On the one hand, you have the appalling educational and income inequalities. On the other, you have this culturally embedded respect for learning that cuts across society (even if "success" is still often tied to exam results and defined on a relative basis through rankings). And then you have the country's track record in leapfrogging technological innovations - for example, skipping the laptop and going straight to mobile (unsurprising given the gulf between internet and mobile penetration).

Big challenges call for creative solutions. This is, after all, the country of "Jugaad" or frugal innovation - skilfully stretching resources and maximising their potential. Would it be so surprising to see this same India become a hotbed for edtech innovation in years to come?

A school in the cloud

This TED talk from Sugata Mitra sets out an inspiring vision for the future of learning.  Mitra talks about "hole in the wall" computers combining internet connectivity and collaborative study with encouraging, wonder-evoking online facilitators who offer up big picture questions before standing back to "let learning happen".

What they don't teach us

Just started watching Rembrandt's J'accuse, an interesting docu-essay on interpreting The Night Watch, a painting Greenaway describes as being the fourth most famous painting in the Western world (after the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Some thought-provoking lines from the documentary on what our education fails to teach us:

Most people are visually illiterate. Why should it be otherwise? We have a text-based culture. Our educational systems teach us to value text over image, which is one of the reasons why we have such an impoverished cinema. Just because you have eyes does not mean to say you can see. From childhood when we are persuaded to learn the alphabet to adolescence when we are taught to amass vocabulary and refine our word skills to adulthood when we never finish polishing our ability to communicate through words...proportionately in our culture, very few people spend as much time and patience and intelligence reading paintings as they do reading text. Our sophistications of communication are text-based in the spoken and written word and as a consequence, by comparison,  the interpretation of the manufactured image in our culture is undernourished, ill-informed and impoverished.

Quite an indictment.

Why MOOCs aren't all they're cracked up to be

  • Commitment issues: Hands up if you've started a MOOC with the very best of intentions and possibly even joined a course team only to drop out less than halfway in. In your enthusiasm, you signed up for too many courses, you got overwhelmed, you got busy, you forgot all about it. You told yourself you'd sign up again next time and do it properly. Sound familiar?
  • Stigma: MOOCs can be great for personal development (and I'm a huge believer in learning for the love of learning) but some people are looking for more. They're looking for accreditation, qualifications, a springboard into a career. Sadly there is still a stigma attached to pure e-learning. Initiatives like Coursera's Signature Track are looking to get beyond this but there is still work to be done and most of that work is on a psychological level.
  • Challenges around assessment and quality control: Back to faculty concerns. How do you grade the work of a class of 50,000 students? Some studies indicate that peer assessment programmes are fairly reliable and broadly speaking do correlate with teacher assessment but will you ever get the same depth of individual feedback from an established expert?
  • Limited teacher-student interaction*: Some argue that MOOCs aren't for everyone. For a variety of reasons from lack of accountability and commitment to differing learning styles. Struggling or disengaged students may need face-to-face interaction. Related to this is the idea that MOOCs are unable to transfer enthusiasm and energy in the same was as a phenomenal teacher with an infectious love of his/her subject and a genuine personal interest in your learning.

AND THEN THERE'S THE ALLEGED "DARK SIDE" OF MOOCs: 

  • Democratisation or commoditisation: Now there's a scary thought. How will institutions compete in a world where education is turned into a commodity? Will low-endowment brick-and-mortar schools be driven out of business? And is this a bad thing or just Clayton Christensen's "Digital Darwinism" at play?
  • Strengthening the education divide: Is it possible that there may be less and less incentive for governments to fund or subsidise public education as MOOCs proliferate? Will we end up in a world where only the rich and privileged can afford live teaching with valuable teacher-student interaction and feedback loops while the less privileged have to make do with recordings of lectures?
  • MOOCs as a form of intellectual imperialism: Now this is a bold accusation but I've heard it quite a few times now. Firstly, you have the idea that the one-size-fits-all approach of MOOCs fails to take into account the student's cultural context. A more sinister claim is that MOOCs are simply vehicles for mass-distributing the beliefs and opinions of elite Western professors, often completely missing the rich and diverse set of perspectives the rest of the world can bring. More of an issue for some subject areas than others, of course. Happily, though, we are seeing a rise in the number of "Eastern" institutions grabbing a seat at the table with IIT Bombay, HKUST and Peking University (among others) having joined Harvard and MIT's EdX platform. With foreign language MOOCs also on the rise, hopefully we will start to see more culturally-tailored courses - tailoring isn't just about language, it's also about local learning styles and feedback mechanisms.

*Note: In this blogpost and others on MOOCs, we're talking about Massive Open Online Courses - the free ones - not formal online education (e.g. the Open University) or blended learning/flipped classrooms. The distinction is important.