(A snippet from ‘Talk for Teaching’. Published 2017 John Catt Educational.) 

Lawnmower Moments

How do ideas come about? The genesis of Talk for Teaching.

Bizarre, is the only way I can describe this next sentence! The idea for Talk for Teaching was born while I was cutting the grass in the back garden.

I don’t remember exactly when, but it was in the summer of 2008. The birth of Talk for Teaching, in that one afternoon, has caused me to reflect upon where ideas about our future path come from. Why do we do so much in our teaching careers, often for, to put it bluntly, nothing? I had no idea what would be inspiration for anything I did, never mind something like Talk for Teaching. I tended to do things very spur of the moment, without a clear plan as to why; it just felt the right thing to do and I seemed interested in the activity at the time.

I’ll outline my own ‘path’ (for it involved no plan, I can assure you) to Talk for Teaching, as feel the same thought process has implications for anyone considering leadership in schools and it may act as a support for anyone in a profession where material rewards are, at best, deferred and at worst, never acquired. I mean, when an idea or a product doesn’t exist, how does it materialise? Or when a position comes up for which you know you have the skills to apply? How do you manage to have had the experience to qualify you for that experience if you don’t know exactly what posts you are going to apply for in the future? That’s surely the experience of many, as they move into and through leadership in education. It has parallels in what we do for pupils too. They don’t know where their education is taking them and what will be useful for them in the future.

It is a truth that we are educating pupils to thrive in a world of work which will look very different, in their lifetimes, to the one that presently exists outside their school gates. In their lives, a proportion of them will be eventually working in and leading in jobs and technologies which don’t currently exist. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to teach subject content, but it does mean we need to equip then with the capabilities to adapt and learn. We need to expose them to many types of learning and that can be effected best by exposing them to many different approaches to teaching.

Pupils leave primary schools as sophisticated learners, having experience of and usually having adapted to, many teachers’ styles of teaching. The capabilities of the (usually) eager learning machines in front of you in a Y7 class is, unfortunately and often, not as well appreciated by the teacher in front of them as it could be. In consequence, time invested in finding out exactly what skills and knowledge your pupils possess (and don’t possess) could be repaid with interest, both interest in the sense of greater learning gains and interest in the sense of greater pupil engagement.

The genesis of ideas have starting points, however, even though we usually don’t know, at the time, that what we are doing is a starting point for anything! The oddest-seeming combination of factors can sometimes create a future nexus for change, or can put you in a strong position (in the eye of the interviewers) to be successful in your application for a particular dream job. To come back to Thomas Grey and his elegy, from earlier: how could I have known that what I learned in the early 1970s would appear, as a pertinent illustration of the potential need for Talk for Teaching in education, in a book, so many years later?

Corbett Barr, founder and CEO of Fizzle asked Twitter: ‘Where do you come up with your best ideas?’ The responses were not the ‘sitting down and planning’ response that he expected. Instead, the top 7 ways were:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Traveling (airplanes, airports, trains, buses)
  • Falling Asleep or Waking Up
  • In Conversation with Friends
  • Listening to Audiobooks or Podcasts
  • Showering

OK, no lawnmowers, but you get the picture. The genesis of concepts provides insights into the process of idea conception.

Funders and Founders, run by Mark and Anna Vital, have summarised the inspiration from some great business ideas on a neat infographic (One of many on their website):


All these ‘Aha!’ moments appear to have had a very clear reason for conception, but when you dig deeper you find that all are all deeply rooted in past experience and not just ‘eureka!’ moments.

All have arrived from somewhere and in all cases, the idea came to fruition as a result of building a raft of experiences, many of them failures, without which the idea would never have taken shape. However, research on all shows me that none of the people in the infographic appears to have known exactly where their previous experiences would lead them. What is common to all the ‘Aha!’ ideas above is the length of time each idea took to get to the stage where it emerged. Even then it takes time in shaping the idea to be a real live product. In addition, their various routes to their invention vary greatly. A few examples of these average, everyday billionaires (!) follow, to illustrate that point.

My family and I are avid users of Whatsapp, but Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, didn’t really just decide to create the app because of the cost of phone calls to his native Ukraine. The story is far more interesting than that. Koum had an interest in programming from a young age and was part of a now defunct security professionals community called w00w00 (a hacker’s network to some), in the late 1990’s/early 2000s. By then, in his early 20s, he had dropped out of his college degree and was already a senior executive with Yahoo! and he was gaining experience in software and programming that would benefit him later. He had also met his Whatsapp co-founder, Brian Acton, some years earlier whilst working as a security tester for Ernst and Young accountants, on an assignment at Yahoo! They remained friends, eventually quitting their jobs with Yahoo! to go travelling in South America together in 2007. The keeping up of friendships and professional contacts via excellent communications are a vital part of any employment success. You never know when a time will arise, where a current contact may lead to a future opportunity. At this time, the Apple app store, which eventually made possible the development of Whatsapp was a very new concept. The idea of Whatsapp eventually arrived during discussions at a movies night with a friend and the developmental partnership that developed Whatsapp apparently took place during an ultimate Frisbee game with Acton! It’s a great story, but none of it could have happened without the depth of experience and contacts that Jan Koum had accumulated beforehand.

On his ‘Shark Tank’s’ blog in 2015, Nick Woodman, CEO and Founder of the ‘Go-Pro’, surfing camera wrote this: “I’m a big believer that when you’re pursuing your passions, your best ideas come to you. Your passions are a bit like your fingerprints: Everybody has them; everybody’s are different. One’s passions may just be a guidebook to one’s life.” I’m not sure I’d describe mowing the lawn as a ‘passion’, it’s more of a necessary chore, but it’s the kind of chore, maybe like ironing (which I personally hate, but other friends have described in the same way) that allows you time to think and on that summer’s day in 2008, it allowed particular thoughts to coalesce about my real zeal – helping teachers and schools to improve. Surfing was Nick Woodman’s passion and it led to his design for the first camera that could be carried by surfers and allow them an easy, inexpensive, waterproof way to get good photos while surfing. However, Nick had built a business CV, mainly of failures, including a gaming and marketing platform and a website to sell electronic goods. Neither venture appears to be great for developing a surfing camera, but combine these with travel to the far east to surf and the burgeoning video sharing platform of You Tube and the magic produced Woodman’s original design of a waterproof surfing camera and powered its development.  

If you’ve ever eaten Pot Noodles (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) the next example might make your mouth water. In December 2000, Fuji Research Institute, a financial research firm in Tokyo, asked 2,000 adults in the region to rank the greatest Japanese inventions of the 20th century. The top invention wasn’t anything technological, or anything to do with the motor industry either, but was instead instant ramen noodles, created in 1958 by Momofuku Ando.

The original inspiration of their inventor was originally drawn from his seeing Japanese post-war poor lining up for noodle soup in his home town of Osaka. Japanese people enjoy noodles much more than the government’s proposed focus on bread production in post-war reduced-circumstances Japan. Noodles were the national staple dish of choice. However, Ando’s eventual decision to attempt to create instant noodles also came from his extensive business experience – and his failures. His life until 1958 had seen him involved in many, perhaps ‘chancy’, businesses. He had sold dress fabrics, following in the footsteps of the grandparents who had brought him up. He had sold engine-parts, prefabricated houses, magic-lantern projectors and socks. He had presided over a credit association, which went bankrupt and had earlier tried to launch a scholarship scheme for poor students, which had landed him in jail for two years for tax evasion in 1948. While he spent a year in 1957 trying to dry and preserve ramen noodles, initially without success, he was running a small food company manufacturing salt. Ando’s path to the discovery of flash frying noodles in palm oil, which created microscopic pores to allow rehydration in boiling water was a solitary one. He worked alone in a back garden shed, in a process of trial and many errors, though his eventual success came from seeing his wife cook vegetable tempura. The experience he’d gained from all his previous experiences allowed him to see how to rapidly expand Nissin foods and fend off competition to take full advantage of his new invention.

Later, Ando was to say: “It took 48 years of my life for me to come up with the idea of instant noodles. Each and every event in the past is connected to the present by invisible threads.” It is a philosophy with which I wholeheartedly agree and one which I commend to you.

Carol Dweck’s point, made in an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2015 brings this thinking further up to date: Many successful people– Einstein, Thomas Edison– have said they’ve learned more from their failures than often from their successes. So many huge breakthroughs came after a number of huge failures that provided learning’ experiences. Ando said in his autobiography in 2002: “I came to understand that all of my failure—all of my shame—was like muscle added to my body,”. Yet, much as I admire Ando’s powers of perseverance, I’m not quite sure I could subscribe to his view, expressed in his autobiography, that: “Mankind is Noodlekind.” (!!)

If you are presently in such a position, contemplating leadership, or already having embarked upon such, I would always advise; ‘do it’, in regard to extra responsibilities if they are in your range of interest. Do it because you are interested and would like to learn, rather than not ‘do it’ and protect your status quo. Most teachers do and it can be professionally and personally, very satisfying. Putting in the effort required to complete an M.Ed. would be a good example, if you enjoy writing and research. As would writing a book of your experiences. A book is a huge undertaking and yet the list of teachers and leaders who are doing this grows every month. This book is my second. The first was a very short, 16-page effort called ‘The Survival Guide’, written in 1993 ‘for new teachers, or those facing problems in the classroom’. It took me 18 months of research, interviews and writing and it put me off doing anything similar for years, because it took so much work, but I loved doing it and it gave me great satisfaction. It’s years out of print now and think it sold around 1000 copies at the knock down price of a fiver a time! Blog; many teachers and leaders now do. Tweet.

However, be more wary of extra responsibilities that someone else wants you to do, to get ‘things’ done in school, but don’t eschew these completely. They can teach you much more than you initially thought possible. You’ll learn from both, but It’s amazing how time expands for things you want to do and enjoy doing, whereas time can tend to have to be found to support someone else’s agenda. To illustrate http://www.quality-schools.com/lawnmower-moments-genesis-ideas/that, how on earth did I find the time to tweet 30,000 times?! All the billionaire examples I’ve given found that time to pursue things they found interesting (and often greatly enjoyed). Some made their eventual fortunes out of doing what they loved. As we’ve seen, you can seldom know which experiences lead you to be able to develop an idea, or put you in a position to be successful in an application. In addition, you never recognise that a door has closed until you find you need to open it, but can’t.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Talk-Teaching-Rethinking-Professional-Development/dp/1911382098   £14+P&P (signed copy from me, please DM me on Twitter)