How do you create the ideal conditions for dialogue, creativity and feedback?

If you are interested in this you should come along to my session at TeachTechPlay on the 13th April in Melbourne. I will be running a workshop style session exploring some of the different things we can do to positively impact on these topics.

I thought I would share in a little more detail about some of the concepts behind it all.

Creativity Can Be Blocked

One of the most interesting areas to read about is the disposition it takes to be able to be creative.

In this context I refer to creativity as the generation of novel ideas that add value. Much of the time we face a range of blocks that get in the way of this endeavour.

These can often be our own approach and self-censoring, even self-sabotaging. Or the environment around us sometimes has a negative impact through exuberant judgement or too much pace.

During the session we will have a look at the different types of blocks and explore the ideal conditions for ideas to thrive.

Speak up!

Dialogue is no different and it can be a delicate experience, swayed and influenced by dominant voices or even culled by assumptions and an underlying threat.

Of course we can control much of these issues through deliberate protocols and practices. Long term it is about establishing a core set of habits that work for you.

Dialogue is different to discussion, the former being much more akin to building and developing ideas together in a highly supportive environment. Certain conditions will encourage this and some will detract from it.

Feedback, up, down, forward

Getting feedback right has been a focus for thousands of teachers the world over for many years now. And yet we still seem to spend too much time exploring how to give feedback.

Ultimately we might all be expert feedback givers, but unless the recipient is an expert receiver of feedback, and it is done in a supportive and encouraging space – little may change.

In the workshop we will explore practical tools and activities for providing and receiving feedback effectively.

We will pay close attention to how we might design the ideal conditions for feedback conversations to take place and what we might do to ensure it is heard and acted upon in the most positive way.

Imagine each of these – Creativity, Dialogue and Feedback as three little seedlings, each ready to burst forth – we just need to carefully surround them with the ideal conditions to thrive and grow.

Join me on the 13th April in Melbourne for my keynote and workshop at TeachTechPlay.


Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash

from The Curious Creative


Find a Doorway That Fits Us Both

I grew up reading Stephen King and I recently stumbled on some of his advice and tips for writing.

He has authored over 100 books and one piece of wisdom that resonated strongly with me was to write a compelling first line, but not just as advice for writing.

“There are all sorts of theories,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

[From Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers]

Stories are like worlds that we are invited into – they possess their own rules and laws, in the same way games draw you in. Stories are part of play and maybe an instigator of it or an extension.

[Children] negotiate and choose and build together under what seem to be a silent set of rules encoded deep inside them. The social aspect of immersive physical play just feeds the imaginations at work and you see worlds evolve and collapse, characters develop and disappear in quick succession.

[From In A World of Their Own – the features of immersive play]

As King suggests the first line is an invitation. As a teacher this might be the first interaction in a school day, or the opening activity of a period of learning. Crucial moments to draw learners in and engage their curiosity.

But Stephen King also states how important it is for the writer to orientate themselves, as it would be for the teacher – finding places where we can start learning together.

We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.


from The Curious Creative

Will this cause harm?

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s brilliantly tangential book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

A concept and mental model he shares is iatrogenics. This is a medical term that refers to “harmful unintended side effects”.

In Antifragile, he writes:

In the case of tonsillectomies, the harm to the children undergoing unnecessary treatment is coupled with the trumpeted gain for some others. The name for such net loss, the (usually bitten or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits, is iatrogenics.

Iatro– means “a physician; medicine; healing,” from Greek iatros “healer, physician”. –genic means “producing, pertaining to generation.” So harm caused by a healer.

While some have advocated using ‘iatrogenesis’ to refer to all ‘events caused by the health care delivery team’, whether ‘positive or negative’, consensus limits use of ‘iatrogenesis’ to adverse effects, possibly including, broadly, all adverse unforeseen outcomes resulting from medication or other medical treatment or intervention.


Taleb extends this concept beyond medicine and it has helped me think about the total impact of any intervention.

When we intervene without a full appreciation of the potential positive and negative effects, Taleb describes this practice as  “naive interventionism”.

What does this look like in other fields like education?

In schools these interventions might be a simple timetable change from one year to the next. You may be experiencing that now – as the the new academic year in Australia has just started. Perhaps you are only just realising the negative impact of that extended first session or the longer lunchtime.

Perhaps something more significant like streaming in primary maths classes causes obvious missed opportunities for building relationships – perhaps the negative impact outweighs the positive. We are causing more harm than good – this is iatrogenics.

I experienced many primary schools in the UK with complex intervention programmes for students I taught in my classes. I don’t remember ever fully evaluating the negative side effects of those interventions and how they were delivered.

Taleb suggests any intervention will have iatrogenics – the question for leaders is whether we are even aware of them?

It is easy to begin to use the mental model of iatrogenics in your development planning – all we have to do is ask ourselves a few questions:

  • “Will this cause harm?”
  • “How might we understand the negative impact of this idea?”
  • “What can we do to minimise the negative impact?”
  • “How will we know if the negative impact of this outweighs the positive?”
  • “What would happen if we did nothing?”


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Tear Off Your Label

When we pay attention to setting clear expectations and creating the optimum conditions for dialogue, our meetings and sessions with our colleagues will be much improved.

This effort to establish a safe environment for talk – before the talking – is one of my core activities when working with a team.

It holds for me that this effort will have a significant impact on the quality of the experience. It is one of my 20% activities that has 80% of the impact – Pareto Principle in action.

Anthony Bourke, a former fighter pilot, refers to a version of this during flight debriefs. In his article he explains how members of a squadron remove their symbols of hierarchy to signal an open space for feedback.

However you structure it, the debrief must be a safe place where all team members — regardless of rank or seniority — are free to share their open and honest observations on how they and their teammates performed during the mission.

In the military, we create that safe space by stripping off our nametags and rank insignia at the beginning of the debrief (they attach to our flight suits with Velcro). With the nametags off, we create a learning environment where the sole purpose is to improve performance both as individuals and as a team.

All the practice has been hard to verify, it got me thinking about how powerful that would be for members of the military.

The very symbol we covert is removed and any hierarchy is set aside for open dialogue and critique.

I wonder how we might create strong gestures and symbols of equality in meetings and development sessions?

I am sure you have been in meetings when a more senior member of the team arrives part way through and the whole dynamic changes and we all become a little more closed.

Equally I have been fortunate enough to work with leadership teams who have explciitly developed habits that allow open dialogue, however tough those interactions may be.

Perhaps it is just continued intentional practice from all of those involved to lift up every voice in the room – but especially for those who hold a “rank” to reinforce the open protocol.

What do you think?


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from The Curious Creative

4 critical thinking mental models to use when exploring research

In a few recent weekly newsletters I have been exploring some mental models for interrogating  research. These mental models are a handy set of structures and ideas to apply to any research you might be exploring.

With growing access to research in education we need to be better equipped to think in a critical and creative way about what is shared. The emphasis on evidence informed decisions means there is a need for more critical thinking tools or models like I share below.

Correlation does not imply causation

The example of research that started me down this path was some of the emerging research findings into learning spaces from Melbourne University led by Dr. Wesley Imms.

In particular how they have been reported – take this quote from Dr Imms:

we’ve found a very strong correlation between innovative learning environments, high levels of deep learning and high-quality teaching.

The first mental model we might use is: ‘Correlation does not imply causation.’ This is directly related to the quote from Dr. Wesley Imms. We might safely assume his words were chosen carefully.

What does ‘Correlation does not imply causation‘ mean? Well just because we have innovative learning environments and we have observable high levels of deep learning and high quality teaching, it does not necessarily mean these positive outcomes were caused by the innovative learning environments.

Cause and effect is much harder to capture and that is why research continues.

Check out these Spurious Correlations for a more alternative explanation of this mental model.

The Hawthorne Effect

Some other related mental models we can deploy here are things like the Hawthorne Effect. This explains that sometimes the effect of an intervention is because observation (paying attention to people) alters behaviour positively. An ongoing research challenge I imagine.

Gambler’s Fallacy

Gambler’s Fallacy, also related to statistics, is the belief that future probabilities are influenced by past events. “Although this has not worked in the past I am sure it is bound to work this time around.” This is similar to the model of Path Dependency.


One final one is the mental model of Randomness as explained by Farnam Street: “much of the world is composed of random, non-sequential, non-ordered events. We are “fooled” by random effects when we attribute causality to things that are actually outside of our control.”

Remember the idea with all of these mental models is to build up a bank that we can draw from at any time to help interrogate and explain situations we are in.

There are plenty more to use – feel free to share any other thinking tools and mental models to use when exploring research in the comments below.

I use these types of mental models all the time when I am working with leadership teams on development projects. I hope you have found these four a useful addition to your critical thinking toolkit.


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from The Curious Creative

Has the meaning of “blog post” changed?

Naturally these types of intense periods of blogging attract some discussion about the relevance of the blogging format. As well as the habit forming / repelling nature of writing every day for 28 days.

I enjoyed hearing from Aaron Davis as he shared some ideas about this in his post Sustainable Blogging. It is also good to read through the comments from Kathleen Morris and Bill Ferriter as they contribute some further thoughts.

In his audio post Aaron questions the purpose of blogging everyday and how this might be setting people up for failure.

It depends of what we all count as success I suppose.

I have no expectation that this month will lead to some miraculous daily writing habit. Far from it. I have already been successful as I have been able to share a few blog posts that were half baked ideas or languishing links on my computer.

Davis ponders on whether we should [still] be promoting blogging as a way to connect with an engaged community of thoughtful contributors.

The halcyon days of education blogging has long gone and I think those still running a blog have shifted their expectations. Including me.

I used to enjoy the way ideas I shared on my blog were regularly built upon in the comments and new ideas emerged. It was a great example of asynchronous collaboration. [Take a look at Aaron’s post for a good example that crosses platforms too]

But those types of experiences are just not around anymore and I think my own expectations have shifted accordingly.

I write about my ideas to process them and to help others.

Those two goals have always been there. It is just over the last five years, maybe more, that it has become harder to understand the impact your blog posts have on your audience.

All we are left with is the temporary traces of visits and the fleeting analytics of micro-engagement.

Bill Ferriter raises an interesting aspect about the way that highly polished content and professional writing has narrowed what the community thinks is acceptable, or even what a “blog” is anymore.

 It used to be that quick, transparent reflection that wasn’t perfect was the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Now, the people with the biggest followings — and therefore the biggest influence on our notions of what a blog should look like — are almost universally creating stuff that is beyond even my ability to create.

He continues his train of thought further on his own blog:

Have we gotten to the point where “blogging” no longer means messy reflection in the minds of most people?  Is there now an expectation that blogs have to be filled with content that has been carefully created and “spit-shined?”And if so, does that discourage new bloggers from ever getting started?

I agree with Bill that the sands have shifted beneath us. The definition of the blog post is no longer the same and new contenders for benefiting greatly from running their own education blog, have experienced a very different diet of articles and published content than we did even five years ago. And definitely ten years ago.

I would still say that a blog is primarily a space for a person to process their thinking and do the messy reflection Ferriter suggests.

We might be inundated with the polished self-help style articles that panders to a dependent audience but that doesn’t stop every writer forging their own rationale for creating their own digital space.

It might be harder to define that messy space than before but it is just as important for our education colleagues to have them. I will always advocate for people finding their own path, crafting their own rationale and not to dance to someone else’s tune or writing format.

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Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction

A mental model that I frequently use is the Ladder of Abstraction. It was developed by the American linguist S. I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book Language in Action.

The model describes varying levels of abstraction (up) and concreteness (down) and helps describe our language and thoughts.

The higher up the ladder you are the more abstract the idea, language or thought is. The lower you are on the ladder the more concrete the idea, language or thought is.

You can also think about the ladder as scaling out (abstracting) and scaling back in (concrete). I often use the language:

Let’s zoom out for second. Why is this connected to other projects?


What does this look like in the classroom? Zoom back into the day to day experience for me.

And of course there is a parallel to the ideas of theory Vs experience.

It is helpful to note that different types of questions or interactions move dialogue up or down the ladder.

Let’s look at some simple examples based on developmental work in schools. The first few illustrate how you can use the ladder as a way to think about problem solving. You can also use the 5 Whys mental model here.

*Remember that the ideas illustrated on the ladders below would each emerge during discussion and dialogue. Each idea might unfold as different questions are posed and pondered on.

The blue example below is simple enough to see it is a not a behaviour issue but a communication issue perhaps.

The green example suggests the link between report writing and staff wellbeing. It not just an assessment issue but something that might have a negative impact on health.

Yellow and purple below are slightly different as they might illustrate a more general use of the ladder. Not necessarily to understand the problem, as above, but to broaden our understanding of an idea.

When we ladder down into the concrete and back up into the abstract concept we have a much more rounded sense of the idea. This makes communication much more successful as you work both ends of the ladder.

Be mindful of which end you spend time in the most when working with your ideas or with your teams. Try and strike a balance.

The Ladder of Abstraction is commonly used as a model for interviewing and I have used this many times  during the design thinking process. As this piece from the dschool illustrates.

Often times abstract statements are more meaningful but not as directly actionable, and the opposite is true of more specific statements. That is why you ask ‘why?’ often during interviews – in order to get toward more meaningful feelings from users rather than specific likes and dislikes, and surface layer answers.

So it is great model for your design toolkit.

Take a look at these further thinking prompts to help you move in an agile way on the ladder, by Andrew Dlugan on the Six Minutes site. A great post that is well worth a read.

Moving Down the Ladder

  1. Embrace the phrase “For example…” .
    Provide real-world tangible examples for your theories and ideas.
  2. Use sensory language.
    Help your audience see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.
  3. Be specific.
    Provide ample details.
  4. Tell stories and anecdotes.
    Stories add emotion and realism to any theory.
  5. Cite datastatistics, and case studies.
    They offer support for your theories.
  6. Feature photographs and props.
    Remember that all words are a higher level of abstraction compared to the real thing. Use the real thing.
  7. Have a strong call-to-action.
    Show your audience how to put your message into practice.
  8. Answer “How?” questions.
    Questions like “How does this work?” force you to more concrete explanations.

Moving Up the Ladder

  1. Answer “Why is this important?
    Give the deeper meaning behind the concrete facts and data.
  2. Provide the big picture.
    Explain the context and orient your audience.
  3. Reveal patterns and relationships.
    Help your audience see how the ideas connect — both to other ideas and their lives.
  4. Draw diagrams.
    Help your audience form mental models of processes, objects, etc.
  5. Use appropriate charts.
    Go beyond pure data to show trends.
  6. Reveal the lesson.
    Follow every story or case study with the key insights.
  7. Draw inferences.
    Apply sound logic to generalize from particular cases.
  8. Summarize into principles and guidelines.
    Help the audience learn from your experience by providing principles they can use.
  9. Appeal to shared ideals.
    Draw connections between your message and the ideals held by your audience, such as justice, truth, liberty, or freedom.

Let me know how you get on with this little model, a worthy addition to your toolkit. This is a core activity for me, something I keep coming back to again and again.

Emerging leaders often find this difficult as they have to step out of just thinking about their own classroom.

I firmly believe that the capacity to move up and down the Ladder of Abstraction is a key skill for any leader.

Some further reading:

Method 19 of 100: Laddering Questions | Designing the User Experience as Autodesk

How/Why Laddering | The K12 Lab Wiki | dschool 

Abstraction Laddering: Clearly Define the Problem | Autodesk 

The Ladder of Abstraction and the Public Speaker | Six Minutes 

from The Curious Creative