2011 Lesson #3 – “Do then think”: take risks

Avalon learning space in action - kids love the ideas wall


Okay … this lesson probably commenced in my early childhood if I count the number of hospital visits from bumping into (stupidly designed) concrete telegraph poles in Auckland, slipping off high chairs to raid the top kitchen cupboards or eating poisonous plants because they looked nice. But the notion of learning by doing really took ground in 2005 when I visited the Icelandic Ministry of Education. Their motto: ‘do then think’. Why, because if you wish to see transformation occur in education, then you haven’t got the luxury of small scale carefully monitored and measured experiments – you have to run with passion, intuition and confidence instead. I must admit, that innately appeals to me.

Peter Pan
This video about wingsuit flying (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Cs-zZ0Qu5Y&feature=related)
is a great example of ‘do then think’ in action. I am not advocating that we all rush off and try this – but it is a great example of the power of collaborative thinking and experimentation – even though they don’t appear to have yet worked out how to land without old parachute technology. But that hasn’t stopped the more intrepid applying lessons easily observed in the animal kingdom (think flying foxes or bats) and mixing that with modern textile technology and aerodynamics. When I was small and dreamed of flying like Peter Pan over Auckland (imagining far more efficient ways of getting to school), little did I imagine that within four decades, people would have started to have worked out how it might be possible to fly without mechanical assistance.

Why is this such an important lesson now? Back in 1995 Seymour Papert made the comment that “Some sectors of human activity such as medicine, transportation and communications were transformed beyond recognition during the twentieth century. Compared with such megachange the practices of school have been virtually static …” We are now getting close to two decades since these comments and regrettably there is still great truth to his observations. That will only change if we as educators and leaders are prepared to embrace innovation and transformation based on intuition. We know what works and what doesn’t. Our colleagues have good ideas about this too.

I am now very much drawn to some of the more innovative workplace environments where companies are designing ideas / collaboration spaces as the key feature of their workplace arrangements. IDEO is a fantastic example of this (http://www.ideo.com/) and their videos about design ideas are inspirational. The Coolhunter website has great examples of highly creative workplace environments (http://www.thecoolhunter.com.au/offices). I have absolutely no doubts that if we designed schools to naturally encourage conversations in a variety of settings (campfires, watering holes and caves), we would release a new generation of far more passionate and energized learners. I remember seeing a US based design competition last year looking for student input into new furniture designs for the classroom. Regrettably it was limited to desks, chairs and lockers. How crazy? How many of us would choose to spend time in gridlocked furniture patterns in endless repetitive classrooms?

Inspirational Spaces
I have had the opportunity to speak at many conferences during 2011 and a question I love raising (and then hearing the responses) is related to what spaces inspire us as adults. Rarely, if ever have I had a teacher, educator or architect suggest any school, university or institution. The spaces that inspire us to talk, think, learn and relate are the cafés, atriums, large public foyers with casual seating and perhaps outdoor spaces that we all naturally gravitate toward. I can recall countless passionate conversations this year conducted in cafés or small group contexts. Why don’t we build schools like this?

Back to topic
‘Do then think’ – we will not transform education at a speed that keeps pace with a rapidly changing global context if we stumble toward change in a half-hearted, hesitant way. We must make transitions more deliberately and with more calculated risks. I have watched people observe our work at SCIL (the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning – www.scil.com.au) and I know they are thinking ‘but what about your results?’, ‘what about your parents?’, ‘what about the noise?’. If we limit our actions because of these ‘what abouts?’, then we run the extreme risk of producing non-engaged students, kids continuing to drop out of school early. We will also watch the school system step closer each day to the Borders scenario of being suddenly the wrong model and unviable.

We’re not alone
I have been impressed this year with the growing pockets of passionate enthusiasm for transformation in learning. People that seemed to have embraced the necessary ‘risk taking’ to not only advance our collective thinking about learning – but enable deeper engagement in the process. That list would have to include Dr Becky Parker and her unbelievably (off the scale) work at the Langton Star Centre in Canterbury, UK (http://www.thelangtonstarcentre.org/), Bea Beste with playDUcation in Berlin (www.playducation.org), Kelly Tenkely and Matthew Anderson at Anastasis Academy Colorado (http://www.anastasisacademy.com/), Brian Bennett (www.brianbennett.org) and Aaron Sams (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H4RkudFzlc) with their flipped classroom journeys.

SCIL – a constant playground for new ideas
Final note – I love the team with whom I work at NBCS / SCIL. They have caught the ‘do then think’ bug well and truly. And it now flows through to students who willingly engage in far deeper learning than we might have imagined when we started to make some changes around the place. I see innovation taking centre stage every day (http://vimeo.com/28448313) and (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohnC3sURgKU).

And the outcomes?
Innovation does not have to come at the expense of high outcomes – and I was very much encouraged at the Simon Langton Grammar School this year to hear them talk of not tracking their students – because they were so ultra-confident that learning arising from deep, passionate conversations, would inevitably easily outstrip conventional results. It is very clear that is the case there. It is also quite clear for us at NBCS. (Okay, I’ll admit to a smile when learning that our top student this year was 99.85 – only 0.1 from the highest possible rank in the state-wide ranking process – and that two of her courses were undertaken in online mode.) We have also been amazed at the depth and quality of the work coming from the self-devised projects undertaken by a group of Year 9 & 10 students electing to join a DIY course.

However, I suspect that the real measure of a school’s impact on a student’s learning journey would be to track them five or so years after completing school – not the short term memory recall of final year examinations. How have they gone at university? How have they fared with employment? How are they managing their relationships? How are they changing their worlds?




anywhere anytime anyhow learning

Stay tuned …
Lesson #4
MIXed mode learning – “way to go”
Lesson #5
Make teamwork, collaboration, and relationship building a habit
Lesson #6
Invent new creative structures to enable deep and passionate learning
Lesson #7
Educators can learn from entrepreneurs
Lesson #8
Knowing and growing the tribe – some amazing educators I have met this year


  1. […] Stephen Harris, principal of Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning said it well in a recent Connected Principals blog post: “Do then think.” Don’t take blind risks, but plan for intentional, meaningful […]

    December 31, 2011
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