I recently had the privilege and pleasure of attending the latest Google Teacher Academy at Google HQ in Sydney. It was a fantastic experience. 51 amazing educators from 14 different countries in the same room. Each one of them I imagine would rarely be in the same room with someone else as competent as they are in using digital tools in the classroom, now in a great big room with at least 50 others of type.
We learnt lots and lots about some of the newer or more recently updated Google tools (You Tube editor, Google Maps Engine, Google Art Project) and were privileged with inside information about the future directions of Google’s main suite of apps (Docs, Sheets etc).
What I valued most of all though, what a sneak peek inside one of the most successful companies on earth. I greatly valued the talk that Suan Yeo, the man in charge of Education Sales for Google in the Asia Pacific region, gave in relation to the ‘Google Culture’.
I also greatly valued getting a tour around the offices of Google. As most know, these are not just any offices, and the lessons learnt just by wandering around with our tour guide, who worked there, were great.
So here are some of my take aways, from a school management perspective:
Google has every different type of workspace you can imagine. Big and open. Small and closed. Light or dark, relaxed or formal. From wide open social spaces to literally holes in the wall you could crawl into. In education speak, we would say they have catered for every different possible learning style. Our tour guide told us that the workspaces were continuously being reviewed. If something wasn’t working it was changed. All the walls were moveable, and things could, and were, adjusted as necessary.
What a wonderful correlation to our classrooms. Google did not accept that the practices of their workers have to fit around the furniture and the office layout. Instead it was the other way around. The office layout can change according to need. And the variety of spaces allows for every different preference a worker might have.
I’ve long argued for entirely portable classrooms. Get rid of the front of the room. Have open spaces separated by moveable separators. Move your tables and chairs as needed. Fit your classroom around the learning that needs to take place, not the other way around.
Creativity doesn’t happen at a desk
We all know this. But designing your office block (or classroom) to truly represent this truth is something else. Google understands that just because you’re sitting at your desk, it doesn’t mean you are being productive. There are lots of different rooms, from quiet libraries to fun games rooms, where employees can go to ‘clear their head’ and let the creativity happen. If you’re stuck on a problem you are encouraged to go for a walk, get something to eat, play some pinball or playstation, and let the solution come.
Everyone works as a part of a team at Google. There is simply no other way. Ideas are developed collaboratively. Problems are solved as a team.
As Michael Jordan said: there is no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘win’. This means that although you work collaboratively, it is still everyone’s responsibility to step up when it counts. Everybody is a somebody who can and should take action. And a team requires each individual to put in in order to achieve greatness.
This confirmed to me that we are doing good things with our Challenge Based Learning at Kalinda, where students work as part of a team to solve real problems or make real improvements – just like the teams at Google do. They are challenged to work collaboratively, but at the same time asked to reflect on their effectiveness as a part of their team.
Share Early and Fail Fast
When working on a project, you share it with someone as early as possible in order to receive feedback from them. This leads to the concept of ‘fail fast’. That person might pick out 5 ways your product can be improved. In other words, you failed to get it right. That’s a good thing. You need to fail lots and keep getting that feedback in order to build an end product that is truly great. Prototyping is key.
This is a huge lesson for our students and the way they are encouraged to work by our teachers. Traditionally, students were often expected to go and work hard on their projects over a number of weeks, handing them in right at the end of the unit for a teacher to mark. This is a completely flawed approach. In our Challenge Based work, which has also been influenced by the Design Thinking approach, students are asked to build up a solution to a problem as part of a team. They need to actively seek feedback about their proposal early on in the process and make adjustments accordingly. I now want to go further with the kids, and build in them the mindset of seeking out feedback from both teachers and peers. Take the fear of failure out of the equation by meeting it head on and welcoming it. Fail fast. Prototype your product or solution until it is better than it could ever have been had you not sought feedback from your teacher and your peers.
The Famous Google 20%
Lots has been written about this already. The famous working conditions at Google that say 20% of a worker’s time can be spent on their own projects. These are projects that might improve the company in some way. They may even be products that end up getting used by Google and becoming famous in the process. Google Now is one of these such projects which is just starting to hit the ‘big time’.
It got me thinking, imagine putting a philosophy like this in place in my school? Obviously we don’t have budget to give over 20% of a teacher’s time each week to their own ‘projects’, but is there maybe some sort of time each week we can dedicate to this sort of idea? As an Assistant Principal, the idea of each person in our school spending part of their time each week on projects that would improve our school is exciting. Of course many teachers do this sort of thing anyway, but it’s the teachers that are trapped in that cynical ‘victim’ mentality that this could really be powerful with. Instead of complaining about things, the 20% encourages a change of mindset to one that actively looks for ways your workplace can be positively improved.
Focus on the User
Finally, what is perhaps most obvious and also most often forgotten in schools and any other business. ‘Focus on the user’ is the first and, one assumes, the most important in a list of Google ‘Innovation Principals’. For schools, ‘focus on the learner’ would be a guiding principle that should see you developing the best possible programs at every turn. How could you not offer an engaging program if you are focussed on the learner? How could you not be interested in what your students know, and then specifically design and differentiate your program to meed their needs, if you were focused on the learner?
Like much of what Google does, its almost obvious once you see it being done. The challenge is in actually making it happen.