Design Thinking in Schools: I need your problems

If you could solve one problem facing education what would it be?


Take whatever comes to mind first or take a moment to ponder, then subject your problem to “the 5 Whys”. Here is an example.

Problem: There is not enough time for teachers to do their job properly

  1. Why do teachers not get their job done in the time they have? Because doing everything required by the school takes longer than there are hours in the day
  2. Why does the school require teachers to do so much? Because they feel under pressure to increase exam results.
  3. Why do schools feel under pressure to focus on exam results? Because that is what they are measured and judged on.
  4. Why are schools measured on exam results? Because other measures are difficult to gauge and compare.
  5. Why are other measures not developed?

First problem: Teacher Time

Real problem: How schools are measured


This process is better when someone else asks the why questions, if you can take your initial problem to someone else and get them to quiz you, please do. You may need to back up a couple of times to get through 5 whys, once you have I would be delighted if you could add it here.

What now?

Solutions will be posted to you within 5 working days… If only! Education tends to tweak what it already has and look for marginal gains, not least after the British Cycling team inspired the use of that phrase in 2012. In the spirit of moonshot thinking, what if we stopped looking for 10% (I know, you wish! But stay with me, think outside of exam results) improvements and looked for 10x improvements in education? Time to throw aside the status quo and start from the beginning.

This can only work if you start from a really huge worthwhile problem, hence I am farming them from you. Finding the real problem is not easy or something that everyone does naturally. We take immediate problems we encounter at face value, this is both genetic and in our nature. Why stick around to find out why someone is angrily charging at you? Some schools are moving past the superficial problems and taking root problems. Schools with a laser focus on curriculum design, designed for learners not inspectors, design by teachers, not civil servants would be one example that comes to mind first. I see a place for inspectors and civil servants in the education space too.

How might government and regulatory authorities incentivise long-term planning and innovation in schools?

I want to gather together education problems, real problems, because understanding these makes ideas much easier to develop. I want to gather together these problems to feed into sessions we run with schools on the use of educational technology. I want these problems so I can reflect on who is best places to solve them.

I also wouldn’t mind writing them up into a follow up to this post too.

Please post your problems, real problems! to this link

Thanks for reading/sharing


School 2.0

The internet looks nothing like it did when it started, but schools have taken a slower approach to change!

No one involved in the early construction of a network of networks saw what we have now coming. Therefore how can we know what comes next, but indulge me in an attempt at envisaging the potential impact of modern internet capabilities on the institutions of learning? Might the ever evolving internet have the potential to finally nudge education to innovate and evolve?

“From the moment you wake up, the web is trying to anticipate your intentions. Since your routines are noted, the web is attempting to get ahead of your actions, to deliver an answer almost before you ask a question.”

Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

The extract from my most recent Kindle acquisition prompted me to apply this idea to my passion, education. Machine learning uses data to predict what you will want to eat, consume, purchase and more. So what will this look like for learning? Google Drive already makes a stab at which documents you want to access when you open it. Google Sheets are starting to predict the formula you want to use, and it will only get better at it. Get your hands on the new Jamboard app which turns your sketch of common items into a neat icon. How? Using all the drawings people have added to quickdraw. If the data is there, a machine can learn from it. Learning is a very complex system but our use of data to measure learning is extremely simplistic.

Learning machines

If you live in Scotland as a 14 year old, this information alone gives a reasonable indication of what you are studying. Furthermore, your documents and data will too. Is it not inevitable that you will receive study materials, curriculum updates, pop quizzes and feedback based on this basic information? Having studied Pythagoras three weeks previous you can be provided with review materials, your notes and suitable problems to solve at the optimal time to review it and ensure it begins to embed in your long-term memory. This is available information ‘the internet’ can use to support your studies with timely content. This is not Sci-Fi, this is functionality many of us experience through our devices because we have traded access to our data for the tools to make our lives a bit easier or more productive. If this kind of automation and feedback were available to students, the kind of efficiency I certainly didn’t achieve (ask my students!), why would they need their teachers? A question you only ask if you are not able to change your view of what a teacher is or could be.

News corporations could not envisage the internet delivering news because their schema did not allow it. They were not able to foresee or imagine all their passive readers and viewers becoming the creators of content, whether that be videos, blogs, social media posts or reviews on Amazon. They assumed the content on the internet would have to be created by them, but that would not be economically viable. Remember, we are abysmal at predicting the future, yet here I am trying!?

What is school?

If a student is receiving feedback on their work quickly and efficiently without having to enter school building then what is the school for? A social place to share your learning, remain mentally sound by providing interaction with other children and experts? Will your schedule be dynamic and each day adjust to your needs? Let’s not forget we like structure… Could a machine learn the structures we work best in?

As a teacher would I have your essay appear in the morning and a meeting scheduled for the afternoon. The marking of your essay against a rubric will already be done the moment you ‘submit’ and I see it too. The thousands of teacher marked essays and millions more marked by machines means the assessment is now better conducted by machine than by a human. Our scheduled meeting is to review and discuss the next steps. Other students may join our tutorial by video link, they are visiting an educational site elsewhere but would benefit from the tutorial so they are added to the meeting if convenient, another institution may have a more convenient essay review of course.

All the while their online professional portfolio is being created and made available to employers and recruiters who might benefit from their skills. Employer data on the attributes of their most productive teams use this to match a students potential profile. This is similar to current sporting recruitment where young athletes with a lung capacity above the mean average might be pushed towards rowing or cycling. As long as every student can participate and have their information accessible in this way social mobility can be accelerated as the screening of portfolios is automated, bypassing our bias for names and backgrounds that we know or are similar to our own.

Don’t be put off by student data being accessed. This can easily sit within data protection laws if the service we want is for students to get prompt and useful feedback, then the data processor is within their rights to use the data they need to provide the service. The data controller, would that be the institution… Or could it be the student’s family? Whether you have “Alexa”, “Siri”, “Cortana” or just “Hey Google..” ringing around your house, you will be familiar with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. My phone gives me driving times to different destinations on different days, based on my previous journeys. So let’s take this scenario to learning. Based on your habits and working patterns might we have these types of prompts from our devices?

“It looks like you are studying, how long would you like notifications turned off”

“This is usually your most productive study time, shall I open your current assignments?”

“Looks like you have finished your essay, would you like to get feedback on it now, if so a lecturer is available in two hours to review the feedback, shall I schedule a tutorial? 7 other students on your course will be present.”

“You are not studying effectively, take a break I will check if your friends are free”

“Ready for a pop quiz on the civil war?”

These interactions could be the way we manage our studies, automated and based on our data. Machines using our responses to improve predictions and support.

Learning Institutions

Where might learning happen and what of the experts, coaches or teachers supporting that process? It would appear unlikely we would do away with physical space dedicated to learning. Our access to online learning is now vast, with reputable institutions offering courses online. However, the completion rates are very poor and these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may not be the future of learning.

The screen in the Principal’s office provides an interactive infographic of feedback metrics on student participation and progress in courses, student ratings for tutorials and dynamic course numbers. Permanent staff include trained councillors, learning facilitators but the teaching staff are fluid depending on need from week to week. Through their profile, many join via video link to support a burst of course interest or required expertise. Others are longer term on site having had superb feedback and progress metrics. They have built strong relationships and reputations for your institution and also contribute content to the courses. Their involvement with other institutions benefits the cross-pollination of innovations in learning. Why not have Elon Musk as your visiting transportation lecturer?

What are your qualifications?

There are signals of the waning value of traditional academic achievements. Will the transition between learning and work blur? How restricted are we in our exam systems? I am going to go and read more on assessment, the skills needed in a changing world and train some teachers on using G Suite for learning.

Writing this post is foolish as I am planting an artefact online that will surely be embarrassingly inaccurate. However, I will continue to consider what learning may look like as the world changes. I am confident change will come, but in education, I cannot predict whether it will be a systematic evolution or a learner revolution.

Thanks for reading.

What’s in your Classroom? Marking… for how long?

Marking, how I dearly miss it. As my son would say “You are being sarcasm” and he would be correct. I don’t miss sitting marking book after book each evening but for how much longer will this be something teachers need to endure? There is a simple problem. Machines are getting better at it than you are. This happened to farmers and factory workers, weavers and car makers in previous centuries so why shouldn’t onerous tasks be removed from teachers? The only reason it is taking so long is that it doesn’t make anyone more money.

Did you ever get tired and rush the last few books? Ever get ten books in and realise that you need to go back and adjust the first few as you were being too harsh or generous? That process takes you longer and is open to many biases and errors. A machine can manage this process and you are welcome to check it.

So teachers… How long until you no longer need to mark?

Design Thinking in Schools: Teaching to the middle!?

Have a comfy drive to work today?

There is a story all designers should know about the US air force during the space race. In short, as test pilots were being put into rockets they were crashing… a lot! Initially the seat was designed for the average pilot and pilots were selected who fitted the average. Crashes continued, and it turns out the average design, based on thousands of pilots, didn’t fit a single one of them. To get the full explanation you can read a more detailed account in “The end of average” by Todd Rose or the full research by Gilbert Daniels who took the measurements in the early 1950’s.

After becoming aware that their cockpit design for the average pilot, and subsequent recruitment of pilots who fitted in this small range of proportions was a problem the air force insisted on manufacturers changing, after some protestations adjustable seats, helmets, pedals and so on were produced and became standard. Because pilots were dying and expensive equipment being destroyed there was an imperative for the Air Force to insist on change. This is the beginning of adjustable chairs, such as those in your car.

Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail.

This is quoted in Todd Rose’s book as the conclusion Daniels came to. Therefore should we consider whether our education systems are designed around the average. If it is… Are we doomed?

I became aware of a tool called Ally, from Blackboard, which scans content submitted by a course instructor through their LMS and gives accessibility metrics on the content. It suggests improvements and the student gets choice of the file type they want, without the instructor doing anything. I am not suggesting you all get this tool, however it shows what happens when you design for individuals. By being user focussed on students with accessibility issues a solution has been created which frankly benefits all students. Understanding their challenge has led to a design which makes the course more accessible for all.

You can find out a bit more about that specific tool below:

How might we design our curriculum for the individuals and not the average student?

This is the challenge we can take on in schools. It does not have to mean 32 lesson plans for each class but how can learning be adjustable because non of your students are average. If you approach this from a traditional teaching and learning standpoint I think the challenge is sizeable.

I was delivering a training session in Scotland on G Suite and the new generation of Chromebook that flip round from laptop to tablet and come with a stylus. As we delved into a task with the devices I noticed that despite the task being the same for everyone (criticism may or may not be fair) the Chromebook was being used in a variety of ways. Some had it in standard laptop mode, occasionally using the touch screen. Others preferred ‘tent’ mode with the stylus in hand. The Chromebook was on laps in tablet mode too. It struck me then more than before that technology is providing us with choice, sometimes about when we learn or what we learn, more significantly it can allow us to choose how we learn and select options we know suit us best.

In my training I was told some children need comic sans font on buff paper. Clearly giving a few students a different worksheet has it’s problems but with technology the student can choose. Who’s to know if they decide to click on the open dyslexia extension to stop words jumping around their screen? So what if they zoom in beyond 100% in the browser?

Teachers don’t have to differentiate, the learners can do it for themselves… IF! If they have an understanding of the options technology gives. Do teachers know Google Docs has a voice typing option for children to express themselves even if they type slowly? Do they know it understands most languages for the children who express themselves best in another language?

Gilbert Daniels discovered that if you design a cockpit for the average pilot it fits NONE of them.

If you design learning for the average learner….

Worth pondering


Reflections on Leaving the Classroom

Today I can no longer introduce myself as “Maths Teacher” as I leave the classroom. Though I might still use my former job title for introductions at parties to make things simple.

I move from the classroom to take up a training and consultancy role supporting schools looking to implement change and embed technology for the benefit of learning. That is less snappy isn’t it!

As I move on from the classroom after 13 years I thought it worth taking a moment to reflect. Telling other teachers you are leaving the classroom was hard, not just the ones you are leaving your tricky classes with! My own reasons were varied but an opportunity came up at a time I was traveling 54 miles to my school. I have also come to the decision that the way schools work can improve for the benefit of teachers and students. I don’t see myself as someone who would necessarily implement this change from within by moving up so I have another route to take. I have had great feedback from my educational technology (edtech) training and speaking events so I am going to embrace this and work to support schools with change.


My Chromebook trial with a year 9 class back in 2013

In my first classroom after PGCE training I had an overhead projector to project notes and develop diagrams on. However, don’t be fooled into thinking I am that old. Within a year I had a Smartboard installed and smartnotebook was my lesson planning tool for years. My own view on interactive whiteboards is they are not a cost-effective resource for schools to invest in, despite replying on mine for many years. It proved invaluable for demonstrating concepts but I feel sure that £2000 per classroom could be spent more effectively. I never had a chance to try out my ideal scenario of whiteboards (normal dry wipe ones) on every wall and surface but I must take this opportunity to apologise to the classroom cleaners who removed dry wipe pen from my desks every day. If there is one legacy I have from my time in Maths classrooms it is writing on desks.

A-level learning

My embracing of technology for learning was due to two factors. Firstly the summer I tried out twitter and discovered teachers sharing! The second factor was a teacher called Dan File who joined our Maths faculty as an advanced skills teacher (AST). We could be found in school beyond 6pm most of the week getting excited about ways we can change learning in our lessons that didn’t work the way we wanted. He joined us having pioneered instructional videos at his last school and we both set about populating our youtube channels with videos. Exam paper solutions to avoid that boring lesson when you go through the exam paper… instead “watch the videos of the questions you got wrong”. Then children started requesting videos so we moved to revision videos. We tried our own versions of the flipped classroom with classes too.

One part of our work which was most important was our efforts to get parents through the doors of the school to see what we were trying and why we were trying it. We we trying to get their kids more excited about maths and make them achieve more. We were willing to fail infront of our classes trying something and take the feedback on board to improve. We had some of the best results in the school’s history over those years but that wasn’t because of technology, it was because we had a dedicated department open to trying things out. And in subsequent years the politics of education has made it hard to hit those results again… so a bit of luck and timing too.

Trying new things in schools take effort, determination and a bit of nerve to seek forgiveness instead of ask permission.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

Grace Hopper, 1986


Good culture is easy to break and hard to build, however the school’s culture is critical to success. What makes it possible for teachers to walk through the doors in the morning with a spring in their step instead of dread? Many teachers are going into work with dread, fear, stress and concern. I have been fortunate to work with teachers who are so committed to their students they put phenomenal hours in and take incredible pride in doing all they can to help students achieve. However, in some schools the culture is such that even working at their limit teachers feel they are not doing enough, failing or letting someone down.

Culture is the difference between a teacher spending an evening planning an parental engagement activity or just marking another pile of books.

Culture is the difference between teachers choosing to spend their Saturday at professional development events or sipping on a Lemsip (other medicinal products are available) so they can be ready for next week.

Culture is critical and every school leader will agree, but their words, actions and emails contribute to a culture that doesn’t bring the best out of their colleagues or leaves them unable to manage the workload.

Get the oxytocin flowing and your school will improve more rapidly than you could ever dream. Avoid your school being cortisol factory!

Read “Why Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek to learn more about hormones and leadership


I have spent time in head of faculty roles, working within a school leadership team and alongside school improvement partners in a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). There are things you learn in leadership and things you discover you bring to it. You learn more about your leadership skills when you leave a role (because that is when people choose to tell you), and the weaknesses… come on, we all know our weaknesses don’t we? The challenge is whether to hide them or address them and I think I have done both at times.

If you read anything else on this blog you may spot my interest in deign thinking. I was aware of the term for a while in passing on social media but it was something I understood better and its place in education first via Tom Barrett and Ewan McIntosh. Sometimes referred to as user-focussed design, design thinking is a culture and set of tools that schools can use to super charge their improvement. Get empathy and find the problems you need to be solving before any ideas get thrown around. Develop a culture where ideas are not precious and owned by individuals. I strongly believe that schools who embrace a design thinking culture could reap profound results in the way their staff think and work. Design thinking provides an empathetic view of the way your school works (or doesn’t) and gives the chance for democratised decision making to prevail. Earlier I mentioned making your school oxytocin rich… this is how you can do it.

I wrote abour the results of our maths faculty a few years back. These are sometimes attributed to me as head of faculty. It is easy to let that stick (with good results) and accept #fakenews. The reality is very different and something I have learnt to be more honest about over the years. I was lucky. We are often judged against our best moments, which are often lucky. I had great teachers in the faculty who came to work and worked hard with integrity every day. I had good leadership who asked me direct questions but let me try things. I preceded some of the changes that have taken place to GCSE’s and A-levels in the last few years which have taken measures to make the qualifications more rigorous. My point is, think team. I see some teachers coming into the profession with an expectation that they should be ordained with promotions and more pay too quickly. Teaching is a fickle beast so take your time to tame it before you put your head in its mouth.


To give a clear understanding or my own view of education’s rate of change in relation to other industries consider the London Marathon. If the elite and club runners represent the nibble industries able to change and even lead change then I see education as Lloyd Scott (look him up), well intentioned, honourable, hard working, but so very slow.

The challenge I am taking on, leading schools to embrace technology to support learning, is a backwards problem. I hear “We need to use more technology” but I have to ask “Why?” and the answers are not convincing yet. Here is another reason to utilise a design culture of finding problems worth solving; attainment gap, accessibility, aspirations are all worthy causes and we haven’t even reached the b’s yet. A teacher in US will have his class voluntarily arrive at school 2 hours before school starts to come to his lesson. The reason? He has arranged a video call with someone on the other side of the planet as part of their current topic. Technology made it possible but is not the reason he does it.

Would your kids arrive at school for 6am for your best lesson? This has resonated with me and I pass the baton on to you… but let me know if you want help making it the case!



Here are some of the people who have helped me enjoy, survive and even thrive over the last 13 years… (Making a list like this is dangerous but hey, if you are not on it there are two possible reasons…)

Jeff Place, Jon Chaloner, Jack Mayhew, Hugh Proctor, Dan File, Pete Taylor, Tom Barrett, Ewan McIntosh, Allison Mollica, Jon Neale, Dean Stokes, Oli Trussell, Mark Allen, Donna Tueber, Ashcroft twins, Christina Dimitrantzou, Matt Duffield, Evan Scherr, Dan Taylor, 10a1, Asiq, Glyn digital leaders, Keri Cloete, Martin Giles, Simon Brown, Tom Able Green.