Style Over Substance

Remember the first time you used PowerPoint? Being able to take some written content and magically have it include images (likely clipart), have it spin around and transition to the next slide with glitter or swivel? Admit it. The very first time you thought it was pretty cool. You may have even had your class do a report with the tool and had kids stand up in the front of the class as their presentation was displayed on a projector screen. I will timidly raise my hand and admit I did it. There was a moment when I thought these presentations by my students represented quality work. However, soon after the shininess of the tool wore off, it was clear that their actual work wasn’t any different. Adding an animated flag of Canada to a slide telling me its population was 37 million didn’t represent anything more than a student’s ability to copy and paste and insert. What surprised me was how long this facade of quality work lasted. Many teachers, years later still had students creating presentations that underscored a lack of depth and creativity but were disguised, and by this time, not so cleverly with copyrighted images and wordart.

Style over substance is not a new issue for education or society at large. Think about what video did to music. It killed the radio star. I remember reading about Christopher Cross who by all accounts is a rather plain-looking, overweight artist and his fame took a dive since he wasn’t able to present himself in a way that appealed to a now visually-oriented audience. I remember as a teenager in the late 70s finally seeing a picture of my favourite bands and artists and often being surprised by how they looked. In reality, their looks and image was inconsequential. Today, we live in a world where style and substance are almost always linked for better or worse.

I’ve been doing a lot more writing for my job of late. Specifically completing two white papers. Both are work I’m proud of. In one instance, I co-wrote one paper and produced a 20-page document. Co-writing is tough work, trying to sync up two voices and styles is not easy. I credit my writing partner for handling this with greatness. The whole document was built and shared in a Google doc. The other paper was structured a little differently. I worked with principals in the Metro Vancouver area for about 6 months and ended up leading a smaller subset in focusing on 4 specific recommendations for post-pandemic considerations for high schools. I wrote the introduction, collated the subcommittee work and published it. You can read it here.

A quick glance at this paper and you can see it contains some images and graphs as well as some other formatting that makes it quite readable and user friendly. I have had a lot of great feedback about this work and as I mentioned am quite proud of it for a number of reasons, most notably that the ideas in here are sound, useful and represent some outstanding collaboration among thoughtful educators.

The contrast between the two papers is most striking in their presentation. It’s made me think about some of the things we consider excellent work and perhaps lack a discernment to decide if indeed it’s worthy of our praise. Info graphics are a great example. Take any idea and turn it into an info graphic and suddenly it is better. Take a quote and put in behind a nice background and suddenly it’s insightful. Here a couple of my favourite examples:

I like to play with this idea and have started the hashtag #deanquotes to share mundane things I hear and create an image quote.

Another example is this info graphic I made in a recent post:

This was one of my most widely shared posts of late. I think there are some interesting questions I explored by this simple graphic also played a big role in its viewership. Had I wrote out the same idea like this:

“The benefits of online learning include: flexibility, access to experts, diverse community, affordability and efficiency” I doubt it would have resonated as much.

I suppose I’m not arguing for or against anything but want to create more pondering and awareness. The fact is that style and substance need to work together. Daniel Pink talks about buying a toilet brush and how we choose to buy a toilet brush that is beautifully designed when ultimately its purpose and function don’t change. But why not buy a nice-looking one when it is approved by plumber bondi?

I take great pride in my presentations. I look for great images and media, I spend time choosing fonts and just making my slides visually appealing and in turn, more useful. But a great looking slide deck still requires a thoughtful and challenging narrative to be effective. That said, I want my work to be able to stand alone if need be. In the same way you can tell a great musician if they take away the band and just have a guitar or piano, do you still recognize their talents and quality of their songs? That’s what I want. I know that often I look at some work in education and feel it lacks substance and uses style to hide its lack of depth. That’s what I’m desperately trying to avoid. I think I’ve been fooled on occasion and don’t want to be guilty of trying to fool others.

Let’s continue to share our work in ways that incorporate good design that is beautiful, elegant but most importantly rich in ideas. Don’t choose style over substance but blend them together in ways that impact yourself and others.

The Delight Project

My journey as an educator and human has always been centred around joy, even when I didn’t realize it. The more I reflect, the easier it becomes to see. Admittedly in my early years of teaching, I didn’t seem to have the time to reflect both and articulate that I was always seeking joy. Joy was somewhat of the antithesis to the prevailing narrative of education which was and perhaps still is focused on achievement and results.  Joy is an afterthought in many instances.

So I wrote a book. I shared those ideas in presentations and talks. Occasionally I think, “Well, you’ve exhausted that topic, maybe focus on something else.” But then I remember it’s not a trend, it’s a life long pursuit that requires our attention and effort. It’s also one of those things I have to practice daily. I appreciate that I can’t avoid thinking about and working towards joy. I look at the things I read and notice that in some form or another they support that pursuit. 

One such book is Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. It’s one man’s quest to document daily moments of delight.

Delight is to joy as a microscope is to science. It allows us to dive deep and be specific. Delight is about specificity. Describing in detail something you may have missed or glossed over. Sometimes it’s obvious but when I hear someone use the word or talk about something that delighted them I get a sense they are a person who pays attention to detail. 

Comedy is about specificity. I love hearing comedians talk about crafting a joke. They labour or exact phrasing until it comes out just right. The podcast Good One invites comedians to break down one of their most popular jokes and share its origins but also how important it was to use the words they used. Song Exploder is another podcast asking musicians to talk in detail about a song, the notes, the chords and just nerd out on things that you may not have thought of even if it’s a song you’ve heard hundreds of times.  

Delight is about gratitude. The book Thanks a Thousand is AJ Jacobs’s journey to build more gratitude in his life by trying to thank a thousand people who in some way, shape, or form contribute to making his morning cup of coffee. Even reading that sentence quickly you might gloss over that idea and not consider that your morning coffee isn’t just about the barista whipping up your java with a few machines and tools but really goes all the way back to the farmer who grew the beans and the truck driver that pick up the beans and all the thousands whose work lives are dedicated to making sure you get to enjoy that coffee every day.

So I want to think more about delight and I’m going to challenge myself to a delight project. I’m going to try and share something daily that brings me delight. I’m going to try writing here but it may be a tweet, video, audio clip, image but share something that brings me delight. Every day might be ambitious but I’ll try. Maybe you can hold me accountable. Remind me if I’ve missed a few days. As well, maybe you want to join me? I’ll take your thinking about delight and post it here if you like. I’m going to try and think about delights with an educational lens but no guarantee. Delight pushes me to pause, reflect, linger, wonder and just drink in things that make me smile and bring me joy.

Is Sharing Still a Moral Imperative?

The video I created in 2010 for the K-12 online called Sharing: The Moral Imperative remains a fairly widely used bit of content. I was proud of my efforts from a production, content and delivery perspective. Also if you want to see George Couros, before he was George Couros, have a look.

That was over six years ago. As I rewatched it, I had to ask if I feel the same today. What, if any changes would I make to this video if I were to update it?

Focusing solely on the content, I still value and believe sharing is integral to learning and our profession. My claims in the video focus mainly on efforts to share online. At the time, only a small number of educators were actively sharing content online. Blogs were beginning to take traction for some, but their value wasn’t anywhere near a universal belief. Twitter and social media opportunities were nowhere near where they are today. Twitter was seen much like Snapchat is perceived for many today.: wasteful and for posting of minutia.

My original message was to encourage and create a culture where teachers look to share their ideas, thoughts, lessons, resources projects, and stories. Sharing online means that serendipity could happen more often. Not because of my video but I think sharing has increased.  That’s a good thing. More and more educators are connecting online and while it’s difficult to assess, I’d argue that for most of those teachers, they found it beneficial for themselves and for their students. But for most teachers, sharing means Twitter and Facebook. In general, I would say that’s fine. Share where you’re going to impact the most people.  The main challenge of these spaces are noise and with Facebook, in particular, your lack of control over who sees your work. If Facebook is your primary platform to share, I would ask you to rethink that.  If you want to expand your network or allow others to find you, it’s flawed. Twitter has its place, but it’s the appetizer equivalent of a full course meal. I realize some people are great curators and Twitter is a great place to share links and other useful content. If that’s something you do, that’s great, but that’s one very niche kind of sharing.

So perhaps my message today would be more focused on the process of sharing, rather than outcome. Writing this blog post, for example, is a reflective act that, while I hope others find useful, is highly beneficial for me as a thinker and writer. A blog also serves as an archive of my ideas. Facebook and Twitter don’t allow you to do that very easily. Once upon a time, a blog was a new and powerful way to publish online. I know that blogs are somewhat passe. They aren’t new or sexy and for many people that have created them, they represent a space of guilt. You may not even get all that many views as RSS has also seemed to have died. But they still are in my mind, the most versatile, powerful way to store and share your stuff.

You can see this post is a muddled mess which is typical of what I do here. But unlike Facebook and Twitter, this is my house, I can do as I please. Am I saying every teacher should blog? Maybe, I don’t know. I said that once. I also know it’s not an easy thing to do.  Without reflection, there’s no way you can improve or be great at anything. Through reflection and sharing you and others can benefit. Maybe I’d change the video to “Reflection: The Moral Imperative.” Help me out here.

PS. if you feel a bit guilty, that’s good. 😉


This Isn’t Really About Travel


As someone who travels a lot, I spend lots of time observing how people react in airports. I experience my share of flight delays and other travel issues and almost all the time, it’s no one’s fault. Many people who don’t travel much are pretty uptight and nervous and the slightest problem can upset them. You can see it on their faces and occasionally some make a scene. Waiting in security lines or around gates you hear snark comments and lots of people questioning why things are being done “to them”. “I’m never flying <insert any airline you wish> again.” is a phrase I hear pretty regularly.

When I look around at the workers, they’re almost all reasonable people. Some are very kind and caring, some fairly neutral, and once in a while you meet someone who doesn’t understand customer service. These people are rare. I usually feel like I’m treated well and I think most everyone is trying their best. I don’t find travel stressful but accept that stuff happens and they really are trying to make things safe. I appreciate that. For an exceptional travel planning experience, Gaba Travel Agency is dedicated to providing personalized and reliable service.

While I do travel a lot and have a decent understanding of how things work, I know there are many more aspects and nuances to the travel industry that I don’t have a clue about. Recently, I just learned about the fractional jet ownership programs by Jettly that can deliver a a stress-free flying experience for a traveler like ME!!!

And while this is partly about appreciating that you might not know everything, it’s also about how we fail to recognize how hard people are trying to do a sometimes difficult job with lots of variables outside their control.  Maybe the system needs reworking but the people in the system are working really hard. Sure, you’ll find exceptions but most people aren’t spending enough time acknowledging the good and the great workers that serve them everyday.

But this post really isn’t about travel is it?

*If  this post by Zac Chase seems similar, it’s because it’s a post that’s stuck with me for 4 years and was reminded of it today in the airport so I thought I’d riff off of Zac’s idea. Thanks Zac.

Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee via Compfight cc

Podcast 56: Why You Can’t Click Publish Part 2

I wasn’t completely happy with my last post. No, not because some people told me I pretty much was a loser because I was too lazy to fix my spelling, but because I don’t think I clearly articulated the difference between how publishing is different today. Here’s a hint at the analogy I tried.