Monthly Archives: May 2011

Thinking Digital – taking an adult conference to children?

Now I’m not a techy – no argument. I am however really interested in how to better use technology, to maximise its value in supporting what I am in interested in. And that includes encouraging young people to be be active and selective engagers of it rather than arm chair (or should that be swivel chair) consumers –  knowing that some of them will fast exceed my technological know how and even be the makers of the future.

Given all this when I first spotted the Thinking Digital Conference, a two day event coordinated by Herb Kim CEO of Codeworks, I thought it looked really exciting but wondered if I’d be able to understand it. Nervous about how valuable it might be I tried, unsuccessfully, to get someone else to send me (well pay for it!) and finally settled for access to the live webcast. This was a first for me – remote access to a conference – and as the day got nearer I began to regret not going there live, as the speakers being announced were making it more and more interesting. Would watching it in the comfort of my own office be a disappointment?

A few people asked me to tweet about the talks, so I settled down to the computer ready for a hard days work. And it was easy to tweet along – a little too easy perhaps (sorry twitter followers! although some of them got v excited too and are booking for next year) as great conversations flowed as well as great inspiration being offered. Half way through the first day I found myself tweeting:

It got lots of re-tweeting and some great messages back:

In fact it turns out there has been a Thinking Digital Next Generation for 16 – 18 year olds already, how fantastic. I’d certainly say there is scope to go younger too. There were many things that made me so excited about such a possibility, I’ll mention a few. Getting a sense of the future is inspiring, things that children will assume are science fiction are getting really near possibility (eg a wheelchair moved by brainwave thoughts). The way we use basic computer functions, like search, is heading for enormous change – learning suggestion engines that respond to you as an individual. Technology is so not just about machines – it can make the beautiful links between people as shown by Jer Thorp’s respect for 9/11 victims in his work supporting the memorial design for them, as well as his visual explanations of how people share information. And finally, lots of the really good presenters, and many of my favourites, were women (Nicole Yershon, Erin Mckean and Nancy Duarte among them)- it was so evident that this is no longer a boys-only game. There are many more reasons of course…

I’m not going to review all the talks as they will go up on the Thinking Digital website so you can make your own responses, I recommend you look at their video archive too. The webcast did drop signal a few times, the biggest disappointments being not seeing Heather Knight and her robot and the breaks in Erin McKean’s Wordnik talk, but really it is fantastic that you can be elsewhere and yet still feel that you attended. There were a couple of talks that went a bit over my head but on the whole it turns out you really don’t need to be a ‘geek’ to Think Digital!

Let young people know about these videos, yes they were made for adults but in the TEDxKids@Sunderland project introduced in my previous post we have seen 8 year olds understanding so much more than you might assume. And many of the Thinking Digital presenters are fantastic communicators. But lets not be satisfied with that and continue to find other ways to enable pupils through access to such future thinking and design.

All in all it was a wonderful experience, I am really keen to be there in person next year, not just for the free pick and mix(!), but if that isn’t practical I’ll be happily be joining in via the webcast – hopefully with some young people around me. Let me know if you plan on being there too..

Thanks Herb and your team.


TEDxKids@Sunderland – the start of the story

TEDx shapes appear at every authorised TEDx event

Pupils making the freestanding TEDx letters which appear at every licensed TEDx event

Anyone who follows my twitter feed – or that of Ewan McIntosh or Tom Barrett of NoTosh probably couldn’t miss that last Friday, 27th May 2011, was the day Year 3 and Year 4 students from one primary school in Sunderland, UK achieved a remarkable event – their own TEDx developed, organised, performed and documented by the pupils in those two classes. Through a wonderfully pupil led project those young people approached a task many adults would think twice (and maybe more) about.

TED is a global phenomena – inspirational talks presented at TED events but made available through the internet. In their words: “TED’s mission is spreading ideas. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building  a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”  TEDx is: “designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.”

The first of the audience arriving for TEDxKids@Sunderland

So how did a group of pupils in Sunderland tap into and respond to this? In this first of a number of posts I’ll be making about the project I’ll describe a little of the early part of the journey. This journey that led pupils to be delivering talks about their passions and concerns, talks including: Why you should raise money for Cancer Research…Why my Mum is my best Friend… How big are families?…What are you doing about car pollution?… What would it be like to win Wimbledon?… Why slugs have slime… Do you know what it is like to be me?

In its final year of the Creative Partnerships programme, the TEDxKids@Sunderland school wanted to continue with a strand that had run across the two previous year. The enquiry question summarised this as: “Can more opportunities for ‘speaking out’ support pupils in extending their vocabulary and understanding situation appropriate language, and support the understanding of body and facial expression?” They particularly wanted pupils to be able to better understand the range of appropriate language forms that exist and to be able to modulate between them successfully – thus extending their speaking skills to benefit both their literacy skills and to support them through life.

One of the joys of working as an Agent on the Creative Partnerships Change School programme is it giving me a three year relationship, assisting schools to build enquiry based creative programmes (supported by creative practitioners) which aim to respond to key objectives within their school development plan. My knowledge of the pupils and staff grew and with that an understanding of approaches that would challenge everyone but also energise them and stand a good chance of being deliverable. But there are never any certainties in a process which encourages appropriate risk taking.

In Spring 2010 I had the opportunity to see Ewan McIntosh speak at a conference. I was inspired by his emphasis on learning for purpose and willingness to challenge school leaders about their fears of new technology. I immediately applied for a bursary to secure some mentoring support from him – around building knowledge of use of social media and wider technology (It was successful – hurrah!!). In spending time with him I came to learn that language was something Ewan was passionate about so it occurred to me that he might have an interest in the school’s  enquiry. The response he came up with was a brave one, and he enthused to me (on my mobile phone at a service station carpark!) “wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when you offer young children a format like TED, what would they make of it? How far would they take it? How might they respond to it?”

I hope you can see that right from the start it was a curiosity about the pupils response and actions – it wasn’t ‘lets organise a TEDx’ but ‘lets see what the pupils want to do with this.’ This pupil led approach was perfect for the ethos of Creative Partnerships, and taking it back to the school it was greeted with enthusiasm from the Head, who turned out to be a TED lover already, and with a deep breath, and some intrepidation,  we were off…

Facebook and mobile phones taking students in new directions

Developing facebook profiles to explore the historical characters selected for the performance

When Prior Pursglove College, Guisborough came into the Creative Partnerships programme in the hope of support for students developing a performance for the College’s 450th anniversary celebration they can be forgiven for not imaging that it would lead to facebook profiling and actors on stage receiving instructions via mobile phone to determine their next actions thanks to an audience empowered by interactive tablet computer technology.

A great blog post of the project, written by Adrian Riley of Electric Angel – the artist brought in to work with students, can be found here.

Audience members made selections which activated mobile phone messages to actors on stage giving them performance instructions

The idea for the project came from looking at how additional funding could bring significant challenge and new practice to the performing arts department who were keen to work with arts professionals from beyond the world of theatre. The notion of pervasive games I introduced was new to staff and pupils, and we felt it could make links beyond what others expected of a celebratory piece of outdoor theatre, offering pupils a highly contemporary starting point to look back through history. The brief we circulated among potential arts partners was more specific than is often the case, and students were delighted with the proposal offered by Adrian Riley, which suggested some starting points for exploration but kept the project very pupil led.

Pupils had never developed a piece of theatre like this, and it was far from a comfortable experience as they learnt about the unpredictability of audience led interactive work. They gained confidence but did decide to scale down some of the possibilities to help limit their nervousness. About half of the students cited the research period as a highlight – a surprise to them, with one realising that she could bring her joint passions for history and theatre together in a fantastically engaging way. Another pupil talked of how she “had done more work for this project than the rest of the course put together, because it depended on us – if we didn’t make it it wouldn’t happen. No-one was going to do it for us, and there was no script to just perform. It was really down to us – Adrian gave us great inspiration, showed us some amazing things but he expected us to use that and do something with it. He isn’t from theatre, he was clear about that, he didn’t know about making performances – that was our job.”

Students presented the work twice during the College celebrations, in their words “it was more like something you’d get in London – things like that don’t happen in Guisborough.”

Staff are keen to replicate some of the approaches Adrian introduced and have already developed a range of possibilities for how facebook can be used across their curriculum. Lead teacher on the project Laura Hawley feels “students will carry this experience forward with them probably more than all the other work they have done. It was more experimental and something that they will deepen their understanding of over their next few years at University. When they look back they will be even more impressed with what they achieved.”

We’d all like to hear about any other examples of work like this – do let us know if you have dabbled with technology in similar ways.

Y5/6 using geocaches, google maps and QR codes to tell their story - one of a number of individually designed geo-cache treasure boxes hidden around the trail, created by pupils.

“Y5/6 have been transformed in how they work together and they have managed to change their attitude towards their own learning and the different styles they can use in order to achieve this.”

Deputy Head, Thornton Dale Primary School.

When the pupils of Y5/6 interviewed four candidates to work with them it was Invisible Flock, and interactive trio of artists based in Leeds that they wanted to work with. Artists had responded to a very open call for practitioners who could assist the pupils in learning out more about their area through an enquiry based approach. With over 40 applications the pupils had a lot of choice, from animators to storytellers, from dancers to writers, from musicians to actors – but at the end of the project were still absolutely sure they selected well.

Invisible Flock appealed to pupils partly because of their immediacy of engagement; they spent the whole of their interview time with pupils in the school grounds – encouraging pupils in making a secret trail which their friends could try and work out at playtime. But also the quality of the idea they offered – that they could assist the pupils in them developing a mystery trail across the whole village that could draw on factual knowledge but be enhanced by fictional content, that could involve people finding out about it on the computer and bring them to North Yorkshire to try to follow it. They were very clear that the pupils would lead this, that they would need to come up with ideas and ways to make it work. For the school this was a great fit to the enquiry based learning model that they sought to embed in school.

Together the artists and pupils created an interactive story trail around Thornton le Dale which follows clues hidden in hand made treasure boxes and backed up with online access through the projects own web-site and geocashing sites. On completion of the trail the final code discovered allows access, through the website, to a print out of the full story written by pupils. The trail stop off at key areas, where the treasure boxes are hidden and must be sought out in order for the participants to continue on the adventure. These boxes each hold small tasks and puzzles that need solving, send them to other places on the map, and ask them to annotate and alter their maps as they interact with the geography of their surroundings in a brand new way.

Pupils developed over a number of weeks an extended story, full of characters and plots that took you on a circuit of the area, introducing intrigue and mystery along the way. Key spots had been determined on a class tour of the village, and some characters built from church and graveyard inscriptions backed up with classroom research and plenty of  fictional spice.

Pupils took turns capturing the story being developed aurally as text

Some pupils recount: “Making the story up was really hard. Our group decided we had to involve all the class, so there were quite of lot of agreements and disagreements.” “We made up all of the story, we mostly did it as a big table, we haven’t done it like that before. It is easier to make it up together – because there are different ideas, not just yours” “We took some votes to help make decisions, like the title – the people who lost just got on with it really, they didn’t make a huge fuss or anything. That was good.”

They felt what made it easier was… “imagination” “Everyone’s ideas helped, someone would say something and then all of a sudden you would get an idea like theirs but a bit different. Although sometimes you’d say ‘how is that going to work?.’” Others added “I was surprised that most people’s ideas could get in. When you think about it there are 29 of us in the class, and there are 8 characters in it – but that is everybody’s ideas” “We wound up at the end of one day with 2 whole big boards just full of ideas. We were working quite hard really. It didn’t really feel like work – it felt enjoyable.”

Building up a google map on the website

A pupil spoke of his “Disbelief sometimes, about what we were doing. The first week or two weeks we’d had fun but we weren’t very far on, we had loads of stuff to do, we were ‘we’re not going to finish this’, we had a lot to do.” “We only started to create the boxes on the second to last week.” “Everyone worked hard at the end – all you could see was everyone was getting their head down and doing, people were walking about getting stuff straight away, back down on with it. Before that it was a bit more casual. We had to finish it.”

Pupils were aware that their two class teachers had taken on a different role, describing that “they wandered around watching what people were doing and stuff, and giving ideas” realising that the teachers were supporting rather than leading. One boy added “Because it was quite busy they were kind of like kit managers – making sure we had what we needed.”

Staff were of course taking notice of pupils response.”They took responsibility for their own learning because it was their product. It wasn’t a stuffy map – it was state of the art, cutting edge practice they were doing. It was relevant to them. It captured their interest from the start.  But the pupils had to be creative with the story they created – they had to have the basics behind it, they had to have the skills to make the boxes – it was a great blend of technology, traditional arts and crafts and creative writing – it had to be all of those to make it work. It wasn’t about just being behind the computers.”

“It was research for a reason, they were ‘we have got a map and we are putting things on the map’, so they had to transfer over the results of the research so it was there on the map and people could click on it. It wasn’t theoretical and this meant pupils wanted to be thorough in the way they approached it. They were coming up with ideas and generating solutions – all the time. The amount of discussion they had with the artists was impressive, who listened to their ideas constantly. Even the daftest of ideas were in there – Invisible Flock were very good at including everything the children said, if they wanted a troll under the bridge they had a troll under the bridge. They saw how this could all be made to work – they were challenged to find ways to make it all work”

Checking the QR code in a treasure box lid

Staff saw a considerable level of cross transference of skills, from geography and history work previously completed (such as use of mapping and historical study of the local area) to home based computer knowledge feeding into to the classroom (such as annotating google maps). The project introduced pupils to new materials and approaches – from QR codes and scanning and manipulating of images  to varnishing wood, engraving metal, wood and plastic. Developing a story as a group created a very explicit experience of how it could be built – as everyone pitched in and negotiated and accepted or challenged each others ideas. They had to find congruence between suggestions to maintain the integrity of the story – and always think of the external reader, how to engage and surprise them.

Pupils value that others will experience the results of the project, that their work was an appropriate standard to place in the public realm “it is exciting that people outside will find out about the story – they can find out what happens as usual but they might have a race if they do it with friends, see who does it best” “I will do it with my mum and dad but won’t tell them the answers, see if they can work it out.” “We have put a geo-cache in Wardle’s [newsagents] shop window, they let us because we have done this really good treasure trail thing.”

Pupils’ biggest surprise was that they actually did the project “At the start of it I didn’t think we were going to do, it was just an idea that was out of this world. Sometimes you plan things and they don’t happen – but sometimes they do like in this case. It is better than I ever thought it was going to be.”

As a Creative Partnerships Creative Agent my role in this work was to work with the school to develop creative ideas in response to key learning targets within the school development plan. This included linking them with appropriate artists to support them. I assisted everyone through the delivery as well as gathering documentation and evaluation along the way. The school really appreciated the child led approach  I encouraged in this role, right from the early ideas generation and selection of artists to the final reflection processes.

Do let us know if you follow the trail…..

A hint - don't tell anyone

8 Characteristics Supporting Success

Not strictly about artists working in education, but Helix Arts work extensively with young people. Over the last four years I have observed and reflected upon their implementation of a major organisational development programme. As part of the final report I pulled eight organisational characteristics which seemed to be key to their ability to thrive as an organisation.

I think it is really valuable for organisations to understand not just how but why they succeed, and encourage all of you – whether self employed or part of a large organisation – to spend time thinking about the conditions which help you to do your best work. The better you understand them the easier is to ensure you create or recognise working situations where they exist.

Robert Laycock, Helix Arts Chief Executive until he left to set up an consultancy business in April this year has written an article for Arts Professional drawing extracts from the my report, below is an extract from the article to help example some of the things you might consider for yourself or organisation:

Adapt and thrive  (Arts Professional issue 237, 23 May 2011, page 11)

Learning how to embrace change and achieve it on its own terms has been hugely beneficial for Helix Arts. Robert Laycock explains:

In December 2006, Helix Arts was one of 21 projects awarded funding for organisational development as part of Arts Council England’s Thrive! Programme ….. Thrive! aimed to provide “A systematic approach to developing organisational performance in order to build capacity to respond to and influence a rapidly changing environment”. Helix Arts’ ambition was to move from being a reputable regional organisation to one with national and international influence. We defined the business outcomes as: leadership – becoming a national leader in the field; growth – becoming a larger organisation; and sustainability – becoming a successful charitable business. To achieve this we invested in five key areas: market development, organisation development, product and practice development, research and building capacity.

Between April 2007 and March 2011 we grew from six to nine permanent staff. 2009/10 was our fifth consecutive record year in terms of turnover, project volume and earned income, and our reserves are now heading towards 25% of annual core cost. We have a new vision and mission that is attracting new stakeholders; we have an integrated business plan and robust finance, legal and ICT systems in place. Perhaps most importantly, we have developed a greater, more nuanced understanding of quality in relation to our practice and the practices of the artists we work with, and we are beginning to embed research into our programme.

We commissioned our own evaluation of this process in order that we could reflect on the journey and better understand the success factors. The report summarised the following eight characteristics that appear to have contributed most significantly to our success:

1. Size – Helix Arts has grown, but everyone can still fit around the meeting room table: “Things didn’t get lost in translation,” Rowena On, Head of Operations.

2. Work in balance – all of the staff work part-time: “At least 75% wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case,” says Toby Lowe, then Head of Programme. Andrew McIntyre, Fundraiser and Business Support Manager said: “It is just so healthy, people come in on time and leave on time, they never seemed really stressed.”

3. Empowerment – everyone in the organisation has a voice. It is a hierarchical model, but staff sees that as a management strength, and not something that gets in the way of dispersed leadership. “It is unusual for a small arts organisation to have such strong hierarchy… but it is a strength. It makes our roles very, very clear. We each have a very specific role to play in the organisation… It helps us to know that what we say counts,” says Kate Roebuck, Senior Project Manager.

4. Desire for improvement – “The key people when I arrived were all passionate about improving the organisation, and the way they do their bit of the organisation,” says Toby Lowe.

5. Interest in business practice – “I like working in this organisation because it runs as a business… It feels organised, it feels like a proper company in the sense that it is structured, has a clear focus on where it is going, plans in place and the right staffing structure in place to deliver that” (Kate Roebuck).

6. Using systems – “When I arrived and saw the rolling archive shelves I knew this place was going to be organised… there is a lot of clarity. But crucially it is that everyone is happy to work to those systems, no-one sees them as a hindrance,” says Andrew McIntyre.

7. Open to challenges – The team copes well with challenges, it is the people who do this – that is why we thrive – they are up for considering new ways, and are willing to explore them.

8. Trust and Support – “We do look after each other and look out for each other, that keeps the stress levels low and the trust high,” says Yvonne Dobson, Finance and Administration Officer.


1‘A Story of Change, Helix Arts’ implementation of Arts Council England’s Thrive! Funding, An Organisation Development Programme’, Gayle Sutherland, A Creative Touch, December 2010.