Overcoming our Metric Obsessed World with Stories

I’ve been yacking about storytelling for a long time on my blog. Partly from a personal passion and love, partly because new technologies have allowed us to tell stories differently and partly because storytelling is at the core of who we are. But beyond all these reasons it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are living in a time where storytelling is now more than ever an essential skill to combat the obsessive world of metric based living.

“In this world in which we are so centered on metrics, those things that are not measured get left off the agenda,” he said. “You need a metric to fight a metric.”Technology brings ever more metrics. The strange thing is that nothing in them prevents us from using other lenses, too. But something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’ve been fortunate to work in an environment where metrics and hard data have only been a small portion of determining value in education. I’ve operated in work places where trust was the core value which gave me and others the ability to make decisions and target efforts that while guided by some structure, curriculum or shared goals recognized our own instincts and judgements. This is changing and while it’s not all bad, in the absence of trust, data becomes the most important part of the decision making. Lack of trust = just show me the numbers.

Chris Lehmann has often said, “Good assessment isn’t cheap”. Triangulation of evidence, combined with story represents better attempts at quality assessment. We’re still pretty bad at triangulation so we opt for single sources of evidence and try to distill judgement inside a narrow rating scale.

Telling Stories to Administrators

Stories can complicate the process. What may have been a clear cut decision to cut staffing purely on numbers, can be seen very differently because a well told story suggests that the numbers might not be enough. Stories focus on emotion and emotion matters. If you’re a parent you know exactly what I mean. Your kids can be described with metrics in any kind of a meaningful way.

What is becoming clear to me is that our jobs as educators and parents must include the ability to tell a story. We need to have a variety of ways of telling that story for different audience and in different context but we simply can’t sit back and allow metrics to take over our decision making.

… something in the culture now makes us bow before data and suspend disbelief. Sometimes metrics blind us to what we might with fewer metrics have seen.

I’m not denying the need for accountability, data and all that jazz. It has its place. But those who can tell stories in powerful, meaningful, succinct ways are going to fair far better than those who will simply allow metrics to tell their story for them. Garr Reynolds on Dan Pink:

“What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling “Narrative imagining,” something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. “Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories,” Turner says.

I’m wondering if you’re telling these stories, how you’re telling them and where you’re telling them. I’m not suggesting it’s a singular answer to making great decisions but certainly something that needs more emphasis. As classroom teachers, administrators and leaders, find a place where you can share you stories regularly. Practice telling them in different ways, using different mediums.  I think it’s critical.

Inside a Slide Deck

Dan Meyer is at it again. Stirring up trouble and asking hard questions. That’s okay, in fact it’s good. While the specifics of his post might seem targeted at the small number of educators who regularly present at conferences and meetings, I think, and I’m sure Dan would agree it’s for all teachers.

I sometimes post my slides here and even have gone to the trouble to add the audio, after the fact. I usually invite discussion but more so on the ideas rather than the packaging.

I’ll be the first to admit, the more I learn the more inadequate I feel to speak about visual literacy. I’m not trained in graphic design, but have read about it and practiced it to the point where I hope I have something to offer folks. I definitely push this the importance of visual literacy in our own school division.

Dan asked for people to explicitly solicit critique. I welcome it. When it comes to presentations, I subscribe to much of the ideas of Garr Reynolds, Cliff Atkinson and others. I spend hours and hours on each one. I recognize how it can engage audiences and provide some memorable images that can carry with participants beyond the presentation itself.  That said, I don’t think even the most compelling imagery can make up for incoherent ideas and poor delivery. I’m constantly working at all three.

So here’s a ten minute video where I describe why I make the choices I make. It was one take each so excuse the pauses and droning but maybe it will provide some insight. Leave any comments or suggestions. Don’t feel you have to be an expert to comment. Perhaps I haven’t explained something clearly or didn’t address something you felt was important. We can learn from and with each other.

THIS is a 21st Century Skill

I’ve struggled with the term 21st Century skill since many of these skills have been around for a long time. It’s not a discussion I’m passionate about but sometimes I’m struck but the clarity of a skill that is clearly new to this century.

Video is indeed a 21st century skill. Take the recent contest for the Best Job in the World. Applicants were charged with creating a one minute video as their application. The ones highlighted on Presentation Zen are impressive. But Stephen Downes nails it,

They are, of course, creative and imaginative and effective. Now for the kicker: ten years ago, not one student in a hundred, nay, one in a thousand, could have produced videos like this. It’s a whole new skill, a vital and important skill, and one utterly necessary not simply from the perspective of creating but also of comprehending video communication today. Some people out there argue that such skills (a) are old hat, and (b) not worth teaching. The world is passing such critics by, and they should not be heeded.

Our schools need to re-evaluate how much time we spend on print alone and start broadening our focus. Joe Brennan, among others, does a great job connecting the dots between writing and video. Unfortunately, most of our educators have difficulty understanding the value and nuances of creating and viewing effective video. Even more unfortunate are those who think of video as faddish or no different than teaching writing. While there are similarities, there are enough differences that it requires teacher training to make it as required as learning how to teach writing.  I’ve been using video in the classroom and making movies for the past 10 years and I know I’m far from being an expert. 95% of our teachers I’m guessing know less than I do.

How long will it be until employers will ask applicants to submit a video? Not just for unique and quirky jobs like an Australian tourism promoter but for teachers, lawyers, managers. Any job that features communication as a primary skill, will ask future employees to present themselves in this way.

Here’s my favourite from the contest. A Canadian of course.

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Seed Planting

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “how to” style workshop. I’ve purposely shied away from them instead trying to move the conversations more towards, “what might you do that makes a difference for kids?”  I’ve been referred to by a local high school principal as “Big Idea Dean”. I can’t say for sure, but I take it as a compliment. I guess I’m trying to aspire to this:

Wishful+Spring+ThinkingThe reason I’ve not done many “how to” or tool based workshops is simply because as an initial introduction to I don’t think it works. That said, I’ve done some in the past and do support teachers with just in time learning. I’ll get teachers and administrators asking about blogs. My first response is always “why?”. Without a belief and understanding of how it might help kids, it’s generally a waste of time. Instead I ask them to take a step back, do some lurking, determine what you want to do and then dive in. Backward by design. I’ve just seen my early approach of showing how easy things are to be less than successful. I’ve said it many times, just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean you’ll do it or that it has value.

So I do more of these “big picture” style talks, focusing on shifts, and often leave wondering if I’ve done any good.

Lately I’ve had a number of conversations that tells me maybe I have. One teacher in particular tracked me down in a coffee shop and told me, “I get it! I didn’t get it 2 years ago when you talked about it but now I do!”  She went on to talk about how she uses a wiki to provide learning opportunities for her students, about how their work is public and transparent, how the look after each other and how the learn from each other.  I’m less frustrated, less concerned when teachers are banging down the doors to make shifts in their classrooms simply because I or someone else has presented a compelling idea for change. For many these talks and presentations need time to sit and stew.

They are seeing the shifts all around them as well. Whether it’s network news talking about the impact of twitter on election coverage or simply their own experience connecting and posting content on Facebook, teachers are beginning to see how these things might impact their classrooms.

So if you’re out there and feel like you’re a voice in the wilderness, take heart, you’re seed planting.

Image: ‘Planting Seeds

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Still images more powerful than video

I’m not sure I completely believe that but certainly my last post hints this.  Today I see Barbara Ganley, who is one of my longtime blog heroines and thinkers refering to the post and of course takes the idea much further and further complicates and spins the idea of writing and imagery to new depths. (that’s a compliment by the way)

Then I grab this little gem from Garr Reynolds about Ken Burns:

When you think about it, often the photo really is more powerful than video at telling the story. The photo captures a moment in time allowing the viewer to slow down and think and wonder and reflect. Photos allow for greater emphasis and may have less distracting elements, giving the presenter or narrator/film maker more freedom to augment the photo (or the other way around). We can learn a lot from documentary film, especially the kind like those created by Burns which rely so heavily on still images. One tip is to avoid the usage of imagery as ornamentation. What you see in Burns’ films is a simple and powerful use of photos and other imagery that support the narrative and illuminate the story on a visceral level, thereby making the experience richer and stickier.

As someone who has been using video for a long time and is considers himself a better videographer than a photographer, I am becoming more appreciative of the still image. As Burns says in the video excerpt below, “video is simply a series of 24 still frames per second”.

You can think of stills as slow motion. As a sports enthusiast, the advent of slow motion has transformed the viewing of sports and allows us to gain an understanding of the intricacies of athletics in ways never before possible. We’ve had this for a long time with stills, it was simply hidden in plain sight at least for me.