Educational Mashups Part four: creativity boosts from the wise

In this fourth part of Educational Mashups (see Part 1Part 2Part 3) we’re looking at a range of ideas from a cross-section of industries which can encourage us to become even more creative, or if the worst case scenario has already kicked in, break that dreaded writer’s or thinking bloc.

Take a Mini Retirement?

The remarkable designer Stefan Sagmeister realised that his studio was coasting, lacked spark and innovative ideas – not good for a forward thinking design studio. To halt the continuation of a potentially dire future Stefan decided to take time off. In his view, we spend approximately 25 years of our lives learning, then there’s another 40 years for working and 15 for retirement. To combat this lack of creativity and drive, Sagmeister decided to take 5 of the 15 retirement years and intersperse them with the working years leaving 1 year sabbatical every seven years.

Take a look at his talk at the TED 2010 conference where he explains his ideas further:

Most of the design ideas Sagmeister produced over the next 7 years came from that sabbatical. Take a look at his website to discover his amazing work and inspiring book Things I have Learned in My Life. Sagmeister does not advocate that you ‘just take time off’ without planning your sabbatical. On the contrary, he tried that and it did not work. He produced a timetable for thinking and stuck to it and there is of course that tiny little detail of funding your time off…

Sagmeisters timetable

As teachers and educators isn’t it impossible to take time of from work to reflect? Isn’t that a luxury we can’t afford? In some respects it is impossible, well at least if you wish to take 12 months. However, the potential to use some of your holidays as reflection time and experience booster, is possible and should be encouarged. Humour us here, take out a pen and paper do this:

Write down three things you’d always wanted to do but never seem to have the time.

Many of us can probably agree that holidays seem to disappear once started. Time off is spent visiting friends, catching up speaking to people on the phone, drinking good wine and going on that well-deserved holiday to the French riviera. Work, Love and Play. That’s the way life goes? In March last year Johannes decided to refrain from doing any additional work as he had just completed two books and two interactive CD-ROMs together with Neal. It was time for a long break. As Johannes’ wife became pregnant and because he also started a new job in September of the same year, rest seemed to be the perfect thing. This was a very exciting time of course and much of the time was spent preparing for the new arrival (!) but there was also plenty of time to read, listen to talks, watch good films, reflect as well as visiting interesting locations in the UK and Sweden. This time away from writing really provided space for thinking and developing ideas. It was also during this time that the idea for a new book came up.

After eight months Neal and Johannes meet up to discuss the idea for a fifth book and they both agreed to start a blog to keep ‘brainstorming’ ideas, and in essence, write small chunks of the book online something which they did with Exam Class Toolkit (many of those core ideas can still be found on the old website). We had not discussed any writing projects for more than a year and it was that time away from writing that inspired us to start Take the Plunge (which is migrating soon). Moving forward and becoming more creative requires us to broaden our horizons just like Stefan Sagmeister so when you plan your break or holiday next time why not include moments of reflection and new experiences that are not neccessarily linked to work.

Making the ‘dull’ interesting

How often do we miss, skip or ignore some of the minor things that happen or appear during a normal working day? Read each statement below and immediately say/write down what you do:

  • when students enter your classroom?
  • during the first 5 minutes of your Department/Team Meetings?
  • if a student arrives late?

What do you do then – prep, hand out worksheets, wait? Chat to colleagues; go through the agenda? Tell off the student; ignore them; show them to a chair? What do you think students do outside your classroom while they wait for you; or what colleagues do whilst you talk them through the agenda and so on? If we consider that these seemingly insignificant issues can make a difference and try to use our imagination to make them matter then we are not only developing our own creative teaching repertoire but this process could, indirectly, lead us to encourage students to examine the details in the fabric in whatever they do. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Watch this brief clip to see what we mean:

Being creative about minor details could also make students’ learning experience more enjoyable. If you want to make students remember your lessons as something different and making them feel positive and engaged when they walk through your doors or get your colleagues inspired in meetings, then consider how you could make the dull more interesting.

Here are a few examples of using the smaller details to your advantage:

  • take photographs of the students as the walk in and then at the start of the lesson show a selection and ask them what they were thinking or felt as they walked in
  • use QR codes outside the classroom and get them excited about what they will learn (see this post on using QR Codes in your lessons) even before they walk through your door
  • if you have a new student to the class, and particularly if they arrive late, shake their hand and introduce yourself, then show them to where they should sit

Can we make a movie, Sir? Or, How to Get Students to Listen

Students enjoy producing their own mini movies, either by piecing together other people’s clips or by recording their own dramas. Some of these can be amazing movies particularly when they have gone out of their way for example by using Green Screen technology or used different locations to enhance the content of the production. Sometimes, however, without the guidance by the teacher, the movies students create can lack substance and are simply a ‘fun thing to watch’ – a wasted lesson. Next time one of your students ask if they can make a movie to answer the key question of the lesson why not challenge them to write a script and create an animation that illustrates the key messages of that script. A bit unclear? Watch the first 30-40 seconds of the movie below to see what we mean:

This brief animation was produced by The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and uses Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk ‘Smile or Die’ to encapsulate key segments of her speech – great speech by the way. If students use this way of presenting their information and the script will have to be purposeful and the illustrations clear.

If you want students to really listen to an audio clip, understand a piece of text or make them watch that important documentary without having to play video bingo or fill-in-the-blanks-as-you-watch, then showing them examples of animated typography can inspire them to listen more carefully, particularly if they have to create one themselves. The following audio has been taken from the movie Snatch and the producer of the animated clip could quite easily have used a combination of Prezi and a standard video editor to create this effect – students could do a similar version on their own:

Using typography, even at a very basic level, can engage students more creatively in their work. This is worth exploring further. Here is a series of links if you would like to look into typography a bit more:

Design Notes
Typography tutorials
Best Typography Videos on Youtube

And to finish off – a brilliant example of using typography:

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Educational Mashups part three: creative ideas from the ‘Industry’

As teachers we strive to perfect our practice by observing colleagues, reading good literature as well as communicating with other enthusiasts at conferences, workshops and online. We also seek out new resources whenever the opportunity arise or wherever we may be in the world. We generally know what to look for because it tends to be within the boundaries of education, however, have you ever considered exploring ideas from ‘big business’ with your classes to get them to remember more and for a longer period of time?

Make it stick: can marketing strategies help teachers?

A Sixth Form student once told me a story he’d read in the Guardian:

A guy in the midlands, Sam Jones, had a 1957 Harley Davidson in his garage which he took out for a spin every summer. The rest of the year he’d polish and maintain the bike until the next summer. Last year Sam decided to buy a side cart so he could take his wife for a drive as well so he phoned Harley Davidson USA to try to get hold of an authentic 1950s version of the cart. They said that there were no such cart available but they could build one at a cost. Money wasn’t really an issue for this guy so he gave them the model number which they required to match the side cart to his model. Three days later a sales rep from Harley phones and asks for the model number again as it was incorrect. A few hours after the conversation there’s another phone call, this time it’s a different person from the company. The man introduces himself as Stan Hendriksen, CEO for Harley Davidson Inc. USA. He asked if Sam could check that the model number was correct and if he could read it out to him over the phone? Sam did so whereby the CEO asked if he could lift up the saddle and see if there was any text there. Sam found this to be a rather odd request but so was the whole phone call but he did what the man asked him. Sam lifted the saddle and inscripted into the metal at the back of the saddle read the message:

‘Happy 40th Birthday Elvis, from you friend Johnny Cash’.

Sam sold his Harley Davidson after much media interest for $4.7 million.

The question is of course whether this story us true? Maybe, perhaps not. I searched online for the story but I never found it. Yet, I remember the story almost word for word. Why did I remember this story so vividly? Think about it: why do we remember some facts and information and why do we quickly forget others? As teachers we know our syllabus inside-out, we know our audience well and we are great communicators. So, the goal is clear, the audience is identified and the format of our lessons is clear. Yet, the design of the messages we are trying to put across is far from obvious as not all students remember the core message, the ‘Golden Nugget’, of our lessons all the time. There are infinite ways to teach a topic but which one will stick and what skills will they take with them?

The brothers Chip and Dan Heath have explored the idea why some things stick and why some disappear in their brilliant book Made to Stick. They believe that the main reason why people, such as teachers, fail to create effective, memorable – ‘sticky’ – messages or lessons is because what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge‘. This refers to the notion that educators and presenters of information sometimes fail to see that abstractions, the wealth of knowledge which they have and which makes sense to them, may not make sense to the students. In order to ensure that their their lesson become memorable and therefore ‘sticky’, according to the authors, we need to consider six simple principles which the Heath brothers call SUCCESs:

Simple: Stripping off everything so that only the core remains. Think of this as a sentence so profound that someone could spend a lifetime learning from it. Well, you get what we mean,

Unexpectedness: Get interest using surprise and get students to see that there is a gap in their knowledge. Fill that gap by providing insight.

Concreteness: Make it clear so that everyone, no matter who they are, understand what you mean.

Credibility: This will ensure students believe in what you have to say.

Emotions: Make sure students care and feel something about your idea, message, topic and about learning new or improving current skills.

Stories: By telling stories or embedding your ‘golden nugget’ in a story, students learn to remember them easier as the internal simulator kicks-in. Stories can also inspire students to act which helps them understand complex issues better.

Ok let’s see how these six principles can work in the context of the classroom.


Why have Flip video cameras become so popular recently? Sure, they’re fairly cheap and pretty portable but that’s not the reason why they sell so well. Their popularity lay in the simplicity of the camcorder itself : point, click and flip. That’s all you have to do to film and transfer to you PC ready to upload to Youtube. How does ‘simple’ translate to education and, more importantly, to your lesson? In order for students to understand, learn and remember what you teach them you must strip away the abstractions and provide a clear explanation. For example, in Business Studies all students understand the basics of the concept ”recession’ thanks to the credit crunch’ without you having to explain global economics. It’s simple, the country is not doing well, people are getting laid off and (!) Wollies closed down, enough said. Whatever you’re about to teach them think about what the core message is and what’s in the way of that core. It is a matter of breaking down those barriers to learning and teachers are very good at doing just that. However, we can learn to utilise ‘simple’ more often and directly in a day-to-day basis with students.


This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspect of ensuring that your teaching stick with students over a longer period of time. Now you could of course dash into the classroom screaming like a banshee and that would probably be unexpected behaviour from you (if it isn’t then you’re under a lot of pressure…). The best way of making something unexpected is to grab students’ attention and show them that there’s a gap in their knowledge. You essentially ‘tease’ them into wanting to find out more, but of course surprise doesn’t last so we must hold their interest and then finally fill the gap in their knowledge by providing them with insight. Let us look at a couple of examples of how a seemingly low impact story can reveal something completely unexpected.

The Car Park

I played this clip and students came into the classroom. It took awhile before they realised what actually was taking place. The video clip of a seemingly uninteresting car park suddenly change and students begin to infer what they already think they know but also asked questions about the clip. I used this video to discuss what makes something ‘significant’ in history.

Thinking Skills mysteries are also ideal. The ‘Paul Tibbets’ mystery below begins by asking students what they think about the man they see in the movie and then provides them with suprise and later insight whilst constantly asking them to reason what they believe and if/why they have changed their opinions of Tibbet.


Teaching skills can sometimes be a difficult task, especially if you want students to understand the core of the skill itself as this can sometimes be be perplexing and too abstract for young adults. An excellent way to get students understanding skills is to provide them with examples and activities that are not only relevant but show them that the skills actually matter in reality and not only in their exams. Take a look at the clip below. This example makes ‘inferencing’ source material more concrete and encourages students to consider the way they view photographs beyond the classroom.

[This selection of images were provided by Terry Haydn, Senior Reader at the University of East Anglia].

The Cafe Test

Another example of making students see that skills will be useful later in life is to set them a challenge that could potentially happen any day. In a nutshell:

You’re sitting in a cafe sipping on a nice cup of tea when suddenly Paul Tibbets walks in and sit by the table opposite you. You know Tibbets to be the pilot in charge of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. You look over at Tibbets, he’s drinking an espresso so he’ll only stay in the cafe for a few minutes… here’s your chance to ask him a question! What will you ask him?

Of course, if you want to make it even more concrete then you do a brief role play where you get one student to be Tibbets, or even better get your Head Teacher to act wise and sophisticated 😉 It is always interesting to see how nervous they get when having to think on their feet!


A great example of getting students to believe in your message is to discuss the importance of developing skills and so that they can understand and gauge the accuracy of information and then use content on the Internet as an example. Take a look at this video clip from a lecture by Alan November where he discusses ‘Who owns the websites your kids look at’:

Credible Statistics

Although using statistics is one way of making, let’s say, an argument more credible they can sometimes become vague and lack that important ingredient for student to make them believe in them. One way to make certain they believe in what you tell them is to explain the statistics you use in a more ‘sticky’ way. For example telling students that the UK  lost 1 million people at war over the last 100 years may seem staggering but if you instead say that if you divide that up across the century that would mean 1 person dying every 48 minutes.


This may seem like the most straight forward principle to do as it deals with how we feel. However, it is not simply empathy we need to tap into but something more powerful, that is, challenging students to want to feel and understand what you are telling them – like becoming part of a story.

The Loan Photograph

The Loan Execution

This is an intriguing mage as it does not provide evidence about ‘guilt’, and students are left wondering about the story behind the photograph. As the truth behind the photograph still remains unclear i.e. why the man on the left was executed, issues dealing with war crimes or rules of engagement, it is an ideal enquiry activity and we can provide them with current discussions about the nature of the image.

Prize-winning photograph in Sudan

This shocking image of a little Sudanese toddler and vulture brings up many reactions with students. Initially they ask questions about where this happened, and what happened next but eventually the crucial question arise: Why did the photographer take this image?

Discussions can become rather heated when students begin to explore the background of the photograph and about Kevin Carter, the photographer who took this photo. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature photography in May 1994 the same year the photo was taken. Two months later he committed suicide.


Stories are perhaps the most powerful tool we have as teachers as they bring together information and knowledge and makes sense of it all – if told well. Stories can open up complex and abstract ideas and concepts and provide students with something to hold on to which will help them remember and understand. Let’s look at an example of a story that does just that.

The Teszler Story

The following talk has been taken from, one of our favorite websites. This story deals with several issues and can be used in many subjects and for different reasons and is truly remarkable. Perhaps the strength of the story lay with the notion of the powerful lone ‘individual’. Students love the story about Mr. Teszler.

The principles mentioned above are useful and they work to help students remember and understand. We are not saying that we must plan our lessons according to these ideas, not at all and in fact we are already using some of these naturally anyway. However, it’s worth exploring them further.

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Create meaningful and relevant stories with a difference

Add stories, photos and sounds to map
Create living maps with sound, stories and images

One way of creating meaning and relevance behind stories is to use illustrations and photos of various kinds. An even more powerful way is to add sound to a story to really capture a particular moment or event. Imagine including all of these features and add them to the exact location on a map. This is what MapSkip offers its users: create stories around a particular place.

After registering with the website find a location you wish to write about, for example the Normany landings in 1944 or example of coastal erosion on the North Norfolk coast, add a ‘marker’ in the shape of a hand and a small box with a form will appear and you can give the place a name. Now you can also upload a photo or drawing, and why not include an MP3 file which captures the fierce fighting during D-Day landings? Another good idea could be to create longer investigations with a class and keep adding to the map as you work through a unit, for example as they discover more about an individual’s journey, they can create a very detailed, meaningful and relevant story about this person.What about producing sound-trails or interviews from your locality and add them to your map like a local study?

Imagination is everything with this tool and students tend to think of 100s of ideas about how they can demonstrate their understanding of a topic or unit. This is a superb educational tool and one worth exploring further.

Educational Mashups part two: The 30 Circle Test

This post refers to an previous post added in July on  educational mashups.

Students need to see how units of work tie together, link up, sequence and that there are recognizable patterns across what they have learned. It is of course our job to do this well but sometimes it can be very hard to make it concrete so that students understand. This is when the 30 Circle Test can help. We have adapted this activity for education from a task invented by IDEO, an innovative design company in the US (please watch Tim Brown’s talk on to see how they use it).

The 30 Circle Test

The 30 Circle Test
The 30 Circle Test

The key behind this activity is to get students thinking about the bigger issues and how they link together.

Print off a copy of the image/worksheet for every learner. Give them a Unit or Course area e.g. Surgery in Medicine through Time and give them 60 seconds to draw everything they know about the topic or unit. Students are not allowed to write anything just draw. Notice that quantity not quality is key here, so sketches rather than Monet will work better. Then get them to compare with each other and talk through what sort of items they have added to their 30 Circles – probably not many… Allow them time, round 7 minutes, to finish their drawings. Then in pairs ask students to compare with each other and give them a new 30 Circle sheet and get them to produce a new piece using their (can also be three students involved) previous ‘circle drawings’. It is important that they have established what the core of the topic or Unit is and what the key issues are for the activity to work so it needs to be guided by the teacher.

Works every time.

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