The handknitted ‘trauma teddies’ comforting child refugees

Trauma teddy

Marion Gibson first started knitting “trauma teddies” 15 years ago, after she saw firefighters in Australia give cuddly toys to children fleeing bush fires. After seeing how much comfort they gave them she started making gifts for children caught up in hurricanes, conflicts and other disasters around the world. Now, she is doing the same for refugee children. “I think there’s something about a cuddly toy which is very reminiscent of a time when you were safe as a little one”, said Marion, a volunteer for the British Red Cross, one of six charities chosen as beneficiaries of the Guardian and Observer’s refugee appeal.

Read the full story here

In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle

Detective Dot book and apps

News via The Guardian of a new Kickstarter campaign to tackle poor representation of girls/women in STEM subjects (or rather STEAM – they quite rightly include the arts where they belong, alongside the other disciplines).

“In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle. And kids spend up to 9 hours in front of screens seeing this stuff everyday,” explains Detective Dot’s Kickstarter pitch. “We’re obsessed with buying stuff but we don’t know how it’s made or who made it. Kids media is heavily stereotyped. Children, particularly girls and minorities, need positive role models in engineering, science, technology, arts and maths.”

Read the Guardian article here and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here

Japanese bookshop stocks only one book at a time

Japanese Bookstore

A story from The Guardian on a bookstore in Japan that’s hit upon a novel approach to helping people choose what to read next.

“This bookstore that sells only one book could also be described as ‘a bookstore that organises an exhibition derived from a single book’. For instance, when selling a book on flowers, in the store could be exhibited a flower that actually appears in the book. Also, I ask the authors and editors to be at the bookstore for as much time as possible. This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience. I believe that the customers, or readers, should feel as though they are entering ‘inside a book’.”

This reminded me of ‘the one book booklist’ I introduced when I taught at the University of Brighton. Noting that students weren’t engaging with the provided booklist, and didn’t really seem to be reading at all, I discarded it and asked them all to read just one book: The Tipping Point.

After Christmas most came back not only having read it, but having lost their copy to their parents because they’d spent the holidays talking about it, and could I recommend something else for them to read, please?

By the end of the course, they’d read most of the stuff on the original list without even being given it.

Sometimes you have to tackle a problem from a slightly different angle.

Saving Design Thinking from itself

Sevra Davis writing for the RSA on a danger facing ‘design thinking’ 

And yet, as more and more businesses, governments and institutions describe themselves as ‘design-led’ ‘design thinking’ is in danger of being devalued. Too much of what is practiced under the name of design thinking seems to comprise little more than running structured workshops. The process can now sound technocratic and can feel meaningless. We are now faced with real questions about design’s preparedness to tackle complex issues and the capacity of design methods to deliver scalable solutions. This is a shame as design thinking was borne from a desire to share the creative process more widely.

Something that’s coming up in my reading on this topic, and in my own experience, is the issue that design thinking stops being an ideology and starts being a methodology instead. What I mean by that is it stops being a way of thinking and starts simply being a collection of tools. Most of those tools already existed – for example, brainstorming or kaizen. As Tom Kelley says in The Art of Innovation, a lot of people do brainstorming already, but they do it occasionally, to tick a box. Instead it should be practiced regularly as part of your day-to-day approach to looking at what you do.

Just carrying on with the old way of doing things, but calling it ‘design thinking’ to be trendy, is a sure-fire way of devaluing the concept. Worse, saying ‘we do design thinking’ without buying into what that means isn’t actually design thinking.

Too often, even with the best intentions, design thinking has been adopted too quickly and without a real appetite for the messiness, circularity and long (and sometimes drawn out) timeline that successful design process really requires.

This links to a personal frustration to me working in higher education – we’re asked to be innovative but being innovative means taking risks, experimenting, trialling, iterating. But we’re told we have to be right first time, and we’re not allowed to change what we do without going through all the administrative hoops. (See my post on quality assurance versus quality enhancement).

We can’t have it both ways. Innovation is messy. Telling people to be innovative without taking risks is like asking children to ‘play quietly’. It’s an oxymoron.

But while creativity is often portrayed as being random (which is why it’s also seen as something only ‘gifted’ people can do) the creative process is in fact remarkably structured.

Davis mentions the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond model of the design thinking process which emphasises the divergent/convergent pattern.

Double diamond design 600

In the first stage design thinking refers to a process where a problem is identified and explored and then insights are discovered to arrive at a more specific problem definition, which then results in a design brief. In the second stage a range of solutions are developed and prototyped before a final solution is delivered.

It’s important that we avoid adopting important ideas in name only and ensure that the benefit of powerful concepts like design thinking are not lost simply because they become trendy, or because someone goes to a seminar on it and brings back the gist of it, but not the meat.

A Darth Vader waffle maker? You really shouldn’t have…

 Darth Vader Waffle Maker

David Mitchell (the funny one, not the novelist) writing for the Observer on the deluge of Star Wars merchandise, makes the point that not everything we make and sell needs to be ‘worthy’:

I don’t mean it as a criticism when I call this stuff crap. Our civilisation cannot be sustained solely from the buying and selling of sturdy items that people genuinely need. We all need people to purchase things they don’t need; to buy things that, while not necessary, are fun – like chocolate, toys, booze, DVDs – and then, to keep the economy growing, also to buy things that vaguely seem like they might be fun if you don’t think that hard about it, like Darth Vader showerheads and lightsaber chopsticks. The market for hilariously apt dust-gatherers is vast and growing – it makes up a significant proportion of the Christmas shopping spike and we probably can’t do without it.

It’s a fair point. Our GDP would plummet, several developing countries would go bankrupt, and there’d be a lot less fun if we weren’t busy making tomorrow’s landfill.

On a related note…

I was shopping for some friends’ kids the other day and found myself standing in the Star Wars section, feeling slightly jealous. Lightsabers, Millennium Falcons. 12 inch Stormtroopers and Darth Vaders. And all for pocket money prices. When I was a kid, you had to save up for months for some of that stuff. Kids today, eh?

I like this quote from Mitchell’s column – something of a warning to fans everywhere:

Anyone who enjoys their Star Wars Stormtrooper single duvet set is unlikely ever to need a Stormtrooper double duvet set

Still, I was alright. We couldn’t afford a Star Wars Stormtrooper single duvet set when I was a kid…

Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

(Note: entries like this are my ‘thinking out loud’ as I explore my PhD research topic of innovation in teaching and learning, so are aimed at a very specific audience – me! Feel free to share, quote, comment, argue, contradict etc)

This is a summary of a paper by ML ‘Bob’ Emiliani, Using kaizen to improve graduate business school programmes. Bob has a website devoted to his work as the Lean Professor.

At this stage I’m looking at various models for innovation and change from different fields. Of most personal interest are those related to Design Thinking and Service Design but I’ve also begun looking in more detail at topics like Lean, Agile, Six Sigma and so on, many interrelated (Lean seems to be the ‘granddaddy’ of most of them, and the others are branches from it that are sometimes complementary, sometimes starkly opposing in their philosophy.

What is kaizen?

I’ll rely on Wikipedia for this.

Kaizen (改善?), Japanese for “improvement”. When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain.[1] It has been applied in healthcare,[2] psychotherapy,[3] life-coaching, government, banking, and other industries.

Wikipedia 22 December 2015

The problem with usual approaches to change in higher education

Emiliani begins by stating that although there is a need for continuous improvement to improve services or products in ‘competitive market places’ (p.37), approaches taken ‘tend to be ad hoc or complex’ and they are not responsive, i.e. flexible or quick.

‘While the traditional committee-based approach commonly used to review and approve changes in graduate program structure, curriculum, etc., may have served stakeholders well in the past, there is a growing need to replace this with processes that produce better results faster – consistent with the school’s mission, … accreditation standards, balancing the interests of key stakeholders, etc.’ (p.48)

Emiliani writes from a familiar context of changing perceptions of the quality and value of programmes, but also notes that a key accreditor of business programmes in the USA focus on “continuous improvement” while not defining what they mean by the term. The National Consortium for Continuous Improvement similarly does not provide a definition. This leaves it open to interpretation at institutional and individual level. Emiliani notes that ‘it is likely that some things that appear to be improvements may not actually be improvements – especially as viewed by customers’ (p.38)

Emiliani takes a process-oriented view: ‘The question is: Are there processes than can be used to achieve this on a consistent basis, day-to-day?’

The concept of waste

In the business world, continuous improvement is often based on the Lean management model of elimination of waste, unevenness and unreasonableness (muda, aura and muri in Japanese). Waste is something that adds cost but does not add value from the perspective of customers.

This concept of waste, says Emiliani, is something that university management does not understand, or recognise. The result is that financial issues are dealt with in familiar ways: ‘increase tuition and fees, or cut programs, reduce academic or support resources, and sometimes lay people off … actions that few would characterize as improvements’ (p.39). Managers, says Emiliani, look at numbers, but rarely look at processes. He discusses the application of kaizen ‘a Japanese word that means: “change for the better,” and is typically interpreted as “continuous improvement.”’

Positive change 

Importantly, kaizen’s emphasis on ‘change for the better’ means that changes should be positive: ‘innovation, ease of use, on-time delivery, durability, low cost etc’ while ‘Negative actions such as increasing tuition and fees, cutting programs, reducing academic or support resources, or layoff are inconsistent with kaizen’s meaning’.

Kaizen involves making the problem visible and then identifying the cause before correcting the problem. ‘The result is rapid improvement: lower costs, higher quality, and better product or service’.

Kaizen in practice

Emiliani presents a case study of kaizen applied to the improvement of a business programme offered to part-time students at a college in the USA. Kaizen was chosen over other processes, such as Total Quality Management because the goal was rapid improvement of a specific programme of study rather than of the entire organisation. Kaizen ‘was a bottom-up opportunity … the plan was to start small, achieve some successes, and expand to other improvement opportunities if senior management’s approval could be obtained.’

The kaizen process normally takes place over a short period, typically four to five days, ‘though it can be as short as a few hours’. During this time, a cross-functional team of eight to 12 people, with the aid of a skilled kaizen facilitator, identify, measure, and correct the problems associated with a process.’ (p.41) Kaizens avoid the problems associated with traditional business meetings ‘which rarely focus on eliminating waste’. Instead they rely on ‘Observation, data gathering, analysis, and critical thinking’ and participants (who include people at all levels of the organisation) are challenged to identify low cost solutions that ‘eliminate waste, unevenness and unreasonableness’.

The areas to be tackled were identified via student feedback and focused on four aspects: purpose and learning objectives, content, course organisation and sequence, and classroom experience. As far as possible, improvements were made during the kaizen but those that could not were completed within 30 days with specific follow-up actions given to facilitators.

Emiliani notes that some participants felt threatened by the process, particularly if it was their course being examined and if managers were present, but this is not the intent and a skilled facilitator should be able to tackle this. ‘Done correctly, improvement using the kaizen process is a lot of fun, and people feel like they are making valuable contributions to the school and the services it delivers’ (p.46)

Acceptance of methods such as kaizen depends on a number of factors, and Emiliani discusses reasons why participation in process improvement activities can be low or reluctant, including focusing on positives such as enrolment figures to discount the need to improve in other areas. The success of the case study was down to a number of factors (p.47) but of note is the suggestion that the programme team were ‘a collegial group (perhaps somewhat unusual in academics)’, had industry experience so no ideological problems with the method, and the suggestion came from a colleague rather than management. Most importantly, perhaps, they ‘uniformly saw the need for improvement’. The team ‘were willing to give it a try – and with a positive attitude’.

Kaizen is not a one-off activity but needs to be a regular occurrence. ‘Because students’ perception of value changes over time, the job of continuous improvement is never done. Kaizen must be repeated at regular intervals, using data from relevant sources to guide improvement activities.’ (p.48)


The kaizen method is similar to those used in service design activities: structured enquiry, rapid, focused on a few problems rather than attempting to achieve large scale change, iterative, responsive and participative. Whether this is deliberate or coincidental I might investigate. Kaizen predates modern concepts of service design.

The issue of the lack of definition of ‘continuous improvement’ is interesting – I’ve noticed terms like this used a lot without anyone actually saying what they mean (see ‘quality enhancement’ for example).

The importance of buy-in is clear – resistance can occur if the need to change is not recognised, or if activities such as kaizen are seen to be distracting from ‘real work’ where rewards are obvious.

Including people at all levels is important but needs to be managed well so that key stakeholders do not feel threatened, and so that senior staff do not dominate or impose their views.The process of understanding the problem before correcting it is similar to Design Thinking although it does not seem to focus on understanding it from the user’s perspective in quite the same way (though importantly the ‘customer’ is central to the discussion) and this may contribute to the issues of subjectivity that Emiliani notes.

Although kaizen has its roots in Lean methodology it contrasts with approaches such as Six Sigma in that it appears open to variation where it offers value, and is situated in the concept of continuous improvement, while Six Sigma comes across (at first glance) as keen on conformity and getting things ‘right first time’.

I’d place kaizen at the more liberal wing of the Lean methodology.

Quality Assurance v Quality Enhancement – what’s the difference?

What's the difference?

What’s the difference between Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement? They sound the same but both are very different philosophies. For a number of years – at least as long as I’ve been teaching – QA was a key aspect of further and higher education in the UK with entire departments dedicated to it. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is an established part of the education landscape, set up to ‘safeguard standards and improve the quality of higher education’ via a regime of inspections and guidance.

When I moved to Scotland, however, I experienced a different approach. There the QAA adopted a ‘quality enhancement’ (QE) approach which was less about making sure everything was up to scratch, and more about continuous improvement based on honest reflection. The difference is marked, and the result is quite liberating. Conversations about teaching and learning seemed to be more open and collaborative and less about ‘looking over your shoulder’ and worrying about paperwork. It appealed to me because it is very close to the design thinking approach to innovation where things are designed through prototype and iteration rather than presented finished, complete and impossible to change regardless of what flaws become apparent.

Returning to England in 2013 I began talking about QE and found I had to explain the concept a lot, but gradually began to notice it creeping in to conversation and documentation. However, I think it’s one of those terms that gets used a lot, without people necessarily understanding what it means.

Most important to me is that enhancement is an iterative process that benefits from allowing people to experiment and even to fail (the skill is in ensuring the failure is graceful). QE facilitates innovation whereas QA seems to militate against it. An organisation that is overly focused on standardisation and quality assurance will not see a great deal of innovation, except in secret and usually as a way of overcoming the rules (i.e. rebelling). Conversely an organisation that focuses on standards and quality enhancement will empower those within it to innovate openly.

Note the difference between standards and standardisation – this is something that people often miss, and get the two mixed up. In bureaucratic organisations, ‘standards’ and ‘standardisation’ are the same thing. They shouldn’t be.

So what are the key differences between QA and QE?

This table is adapted from Swinglehurst (2008) Peer Observation of Teaching in the Online Environment: an action research approach. In the original, QA and QE are presented as opposite ends of a spectrum, implying that it’s possible (and maybe preferable) to adopt a position anywhere in between the two extremes.

Quality Assurance

Quality Enhancement

Focus on teaching

Focus on learning

Teaching as individual “performance”

Learning as “social practice”

Focus on monitoring/judgement

Focus on professional development

“Top down” implementation by managers not active in teaching

Active engagement of senior staff and teachers during implementation

Inflexible, non-negotiable approach based on “standards”

Flexible context-sensitive approach based on building professional knowledge

Little acknowledgment of the link between teaching and research

Seeks to establish links between teaching and research, through reflection on practice

May undermine professional autonomy through monitoring and surveillance activity

Respects and values professional autonomy

Focuses on the teacher as an individual practitioner

Seeks to increase collaboration between teachers and across disciplines

Emphasis on documentation

Emphasis on discussion

Seabin – cleaning the ocean one marina at a time

This is a rather clever idea… and really simple.

Seabin sucks water in and filters out plastic, fuel and other waste that otherwise floats near the surface.

The Seabin project is currently attracting funding via IndieGogo – find out more here.

How to kill a design fairy


(Image spotted on Twitter from Mitch Goldstein)

No matter how often I’ve insisted to students otherwise, it’s frightening how often “research” is thought to be “Googling” rather than understanding a problem by thinking about it, exploring the situation (e.g. by watching people or talking to them) and then prototyping.

It doesn’t matter what the brief is. The idea that “the answer” exists out there somewhere if only you use the right search terms, and that the job of the student is to gain inspiration from what others have done before them is probably the most dangerous in design education. It’s why I stopped teaching design history and replaced it with design research methods – with an immediate improvement both in students’ research skills and their knowledge of design history, as it happens.

This habit is old. Before the internet, before Google images, “research” meant going to the library and looking in all the coffee table-type books and old D&AD catalogues to seek inspiration. If I had my way I’d ban those publications from libraries altogether.

Somewhere a design fairy dies every time a student prints out a page from the internet, puts it in their sketchbook and calls it research.

Go outside. Make things. Talk to people. Think.

And if you’re going to read, the design section of the library is possibly the last bit you should be looking in if you want to understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

Here’s the original tweet from Mitch Goldstein…

Students aren’t customers

Students aren't customers

The latest in the Guardian’s “Anonymous Academic” series covers familiar territory:

Last week I sent out the first round of grades for a module and had 12 emails of complaint within an hour. One in particular stood out for its misunderstanding of what it means to be a scholar. The student said the grade must be incorrect because he had turned up to all the lectures – as if simply regurgitating what I had taught him deserved a 70+ grade.

As I attempted to formulate a diplomatic, polite and supportive response, I pondered a few things. When did it become an expectation that turning up to lectures is worthy of reward in itself? Moreover, when I was studying would I have ever had the balls to contact my lecturers and not only question their ability to grade my work appropriately but imply that my low grade was their fault?

For what it’s worth, this isn’t a recent phenomenon – I experienced it back in 2000. Admittedly that was from an American student who was paying (high) fees, but later that year I also had to field a telephone call from a parent (a parent!) annoyed that her son had only got a 2.2. Annoyed with me! That was my first year of teaching. I should have spotted the signs.

There are a few points to make here, and even they will only scratch the surface of how I feel about this.

While I do believe in student-centred learning, and ensuring that we understand the purpose of education is to advance the student, not the discipline, the idea that the student is a “customer” is simply wrong. The article condemns the idea that education is a service but I’m not so quick. To me the term “service” covers a whole range of things from the sort of service you get at a supermarket to the sort of service you get when you’re a central part of a complex process. One is passive, the other involved.

So it’s better to think of a student as a “member” of the university rather than a passive recipient of a service. Of course that’s how it used to be, and still is in some universities (students at Cambridge are “members” of their college, for example). The moment you think like this you can compare university with other membership-based organisations. Gym members don’t complain to management when they fail to lose weight – they understand they have a role in their own achievements. Don’t show up, don’t get the benefit. (I realise to some colleagues, likening study at university to membership of a gym is as bad as comparing it to a supermarket but bear with me – I’m on your side. To a point.)

Students should be treated with respect, as fellow scholars. Not as idiots.

The term “tuition fee” is so badly chosen it’s unbelievable. There are students out there who have taken their £9,000 and divided it by the number of hours of lectures they receive and used that to calculate, as in the example in the Guardian article, how much they’re owed in refunds if a lecturer doesn’t show up or how much each session is costing them. (I have no truck with anyone who just cancels lectures because they can’t be bothered, by the way, but genuine reasons do exist as to why a session may be postponed). Tuition fees don’t just cover tuition, in the same way that your gym fees don’t only pay for the bit of equipment you use. Perhaps we should start calling them something else? Oh yes – membership fees, perhaps?

Time does not equal money. Or rather, money does not equal tutors’ time. It measures students’ time. The measure of effectiveness is not the input (the teaching) but the output (the learning). A degree is calculated in terms of credits, and they relate to notional student effort, not notional tutor effort. A degree equates to 3,600 hours of learning, not teaching, and the best teachers facilitate learning, they don’t stand at the front and pontificate. So in terms of “tuition” my students might have got less than with some other colleagues but I would hope that in terms of “learning” they got more than their money’s worth.

The problem really becomes overwhelming when the university itself – or significant parts of it – start treating students like customers as well. The first educational establishment I worked in, an FE college, had changed its student support department to “customer services” and we were all told to stop referring to students as students, and call them customers instead. Fortunately the loudest critics of this policy were the students themselves, who rather liked the title.

So let’s reclaim the word “student” and use it wth pride.