Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption: Executive Education at the University of Auckland


One of my goals this year has been to try and put together a kind of DIY MBA for myself.

Not really a proper MBA, mind you… who’s got time for that? I like my marriage.

What I mean is more of a collection of training and inputs from sources outside of what I would normally have access to on my own. Things to help me think differently.

My first step was to take a course in Service Design Thinking through the Exec Education programme at Auckland Uni.

The university has changed a lot over the nearly 20 years since I studied and worked there, but it still feels very familiar to me.

I like it there and I really enjoyed engaging with the Service Design content. I had done a little bit of reading beforehand, but much of it was new to me.

Professionally, those two days have laid the groundwork for a methodology that I can implement over the next couple of big projects I’m hoping to be involved with.

Because the first course was such a buzz, I enrolled in a second one in March. This time the focus was Critical Thinking.

My relationship to critical thinking is different to service design, however. Service design was a new subject area for me personally.

Critical thinking though is something that I’ve been reading about and working on for a long time. At least since my studies at Auckland as an undergraduate.

One of the things that really resonated with me with regards to this course was what provoked it. This was two things according to the course facilitator:

  1. The requirement for you (i.e. me) to change.
  2. To enable you (i.e me) to influence, lead and coach others.

This pretty much sums up where I’m at right now.

I’m aware of the need to foster a kind of radical open-mindedness about what I need to be working on. This applies personally and professionally.

As Bob Dylan almost said: “The times they are a-changin’ and in fact accelerating more rapidly everyday…”

For me, this means I need critical thinking skills more than ever. So the course seemed a good opportunity to brush up on things I thought I knew but also expose myself to some new thinking about thinking.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the course spent a lot of time defining critical thinking. So I’m not going go over that ground here apart from to say there are some really great definitions out there and lots of frameworks that people can tap into.

What I want to get to is some of the key takeaways for me that made the two days really worthwhile.

Here’s one: The connection of critical thinking to the age of disruption in which we live right now. Here’s an illustration:

The largest taxi company has no taxis – UBER.

The largest accommodation company has no real estate – AIRBNB.

The largest telephone company has no infrastructure – SKYPE.

The largest retailer has no inventory – ALIBABA.

The largest movie theatre has no movie theatres – NETFLIX

Eric Schmidt – Executive Chairman

Alphabet Inc



If you don’t recognise where the reference is from, Alphabet Inc is the company that owns Google.

Here’s another below. This relates to the need for all of us to become better critical thinkers:

As we enter what has been termed the 4th industrial revolution (a period of rapid and fundamental change brough about by the convergence to the internet and technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics) there are a few skills that are becoming more valuable over time.

The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Future of Jobs Report

World Economic Forum 2016

I looked up this report… Here are there conclusions in summary form, by 2020:

  • Over one third (35%) of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.
  • Advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced materials, biotech and genomics will transform the way we live and work.
  • Some jobs will disappear altogether, others will grow and there will be jobs that don’t exist today that will be commonplace.

Based on their compared the top 10 skills needed by global employers in 2015 when the survey was done, to their predictions. Here’s what you get:

In 2015

In 2020

1. Complex problem solving 1. Complex problem solving (no change)
2. Coordinating with others 2. Critical thinking (+2)
3. People management 3. Creativity (+7)
4. Critical thinking 4. People management (-1)
5. Negotiation 5. Coordinating with others (-3)
6. Quality control 6. Emotional intelligence (new)
7. Service orientation 7. Judgement and decision making (+1)
8. Judgement and decision making 8. Service orientation (-1)
9. Active listening 9. Negotiation (-4)
10. Creativity 10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

Keep in mind these are just predictions, but it’s interesting for lots of reasons. One is that the need for critical thinking isn’t going away. It’s just going to increase.

Another thing is that this need for critical thinkers is going to be coupled with a need for the same people to be highly creative and good a solving complex problems.

Things that disappeared off the list for 2020 include quality control, judgement and decision making and active listening.

I don’t think that these are going away anywhere. But some of this will simply be automated and overshadowed by the need for a different skillset.

Also, new to the 2020 list is emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Food for thought: I’m writing this right now in 2018. This means we’re somewhere in the middle of these two lists.

  • How well prepared are you? Not for the next 20 years, but for the next two years?

If you want to brush up on your critical thinking skills there are plenty of great books and online materials.

However, if you’re after something more “hands on” that can set things in motion for you, you’ll find it hard to go past the Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption short course at the University of Auckland.


Four Tools For Building Cool Stuff Online: Or How To Start Thinking Outside The Box


I went to the Supercharge conference the other day in Wellington. This was a business conference… nothing to do with literacy, numeracy or even education (I know… thank goodness right…?)

Lots of cool stuff. The coolest though was the 40-minute presentation by Justin Wilcox of Customer Development Labs.

At the start of his presentation, he said that in the 40 minutes that he had to speak he was going to do the following:

  1. Come up with a product idea.
  2. Get some customer feedback.
  3. Build a website
  4. Launch the product

Considering that by the time he had said all this he only had about 35 minutes left I think we were all rather skeptical.

But he pulled it off. And these were the tools that he used:

1. Customer Discovery Ninja

Just this on its own was very cool to see in action. The Customer Discovery Ninja is a tool that allows you to connect to potential customers in North America. They sign up because they have time on their hands and get a small reward for participating.

Justin had decided that he wanted to create some kind of Fitness Tracking App, so he had selected various categories and subcategories in the Customer Discovery Ninja. And ended up with something relating to fitness, weight loss, and diet as the key areas.

From there, he opened the phone line and waited for the call. 10 minutes later someone connected and we listened to him interview a guy in New York who was struggling with diet and weight loss issues.

After a few minutes, it was clear that what this guy needed was not a fitness tracking app, but some kind of product that allowed him to track what was working when it came to diet.

So based on the dialogue, Justin switched away from his initial idea to the diet tracking idea. And then he had about 10 minutes left to do everything else.

2. Instapage

And this is mostly what he used: Instapage. Within about 2 minutes, he had built two landing pages for his new product. Instapage allows you to create web pages via drag and drop.

And then he  created an alternate version of the page so that you could do A/B testing. Instapage makes this really easy. I haven’t tried any of this yet, but based on the demo I think it’s all doable.

3. Powtoon

From here, Justin wanted to jazz up the landing page a bit with a short animated video. For this he used Powtoon. Powtoon advertises itself as an alternative to Powerpoint. It;s drag and drop like Powerpoint or Keynote, but you end up with a animation at the end.

So another 2 minutes to create a short animation. And then he imported this into the Instapage landing pages.

4. Celery

Finally, he wanted a button on the landing page to take pre-orders for the product. So he used Celery for this. Celery is very simple. It’s just a button for taking credit card information for pre-orders. Buyers don’t get charged until your product launches.

And then he launched it.

So Justin didn’t actually create the product, but he did something that was in line with the lean startup method: Come up with a minimal viable product idea and then see if anyone would buy it.

From here, he would be able to take pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product.

It was fast and dirty. But it was impressive.

Justin practises what he preaches as well. And you can have a look at his series of books on how to implement this kind of thinking at his website here: The Focus Framework.

This stuff is cool. I wish I knew this when I started in business. Talking to Justin afterwards, he said that everyone wishes the same thing. And that we all come to these conclusions late.

In my field, we tend to be good at what we do. But this is only in terms of our technical skills. We get professional development and training in these areas.

But we are often rubbish at the skills we need to use our technical skills to build and run a sustainable business. We don’t know how to make a buck… to put it in crude terms.

Most of all, I think we need this kind of thinking in education: Customer validation, lean startup methodology, designing a minimum viable product, product testing.

And then quickly pivoting when it’s obvious that something isn’t working. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment (both TEC and NZQA) act in ways that run counter to this kind of thinking.

This is not their fault. But it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Really thinking outside the box.

How can we open source our training and still make money working in education?


It’s a good question… and one that is constantly in my mind as the owner of a small niche education business in a very small country.

I’m not sure I’ve got the answer, but this is how I see the way forward at the moment. What I’m describing below is a process that for us is well underway. It represents a big investment of time and money, especially in terms of time not spent doing other things. And money spent stopping doing things that we no longer wanted to do.

Here’s the answer in one word:

  • Unbundling

This is similar to what the telecoms have done, but we’re applying it to education. Here’s the longer answer below. I’ve framed what we’ve done (and are doing right now) in terms of steps if you want to head down this path yourself:

  1. Build relationships that can become strategic partnerships that allow you to collaborate effectively. This takes a long time. And it has to be genuine. Our key strategic partnerships have been in place for several years now. Our relationship with our funding organisation and several key organisations – some large and some much smaller – allow us to leverage our core skills and try to create win-win situations for the people we work with.
  2. Hack the traditional education business model. This is the unbundling. New technology means new business models, particularly online. Our future as an education business is going to be mostly online (but not completely). We’re trying to pull apart traditional delivery, assessment, and credentialing. Thinking in terms of unbundling allows us to full apart a 20th century model and reconstitute it for 21st century application in education.
  3. And then hack it some more: You can even pull apart delivery and assessment. Delivery breaks down into the deliverers (e.g. face-to-face facilitation and delivery by humans, online delivery by humans, online computer mediated delivery). Assessment is similar – assessment by humans, automated assessment by software.
  4. Focus on scalability: This is going to be a big deal. Dollar for dollar investment in educational projects and programmes that are scalable are a better investment for education spend at government level. But we have to get this right… or our learners will suffer.
  5. Learn about MOOCs: There’s that four letter word again. A MOOC is a massive open online course. They’re not the solution to all our education problems and challenges. However, the idea behind a MOOC is a good one. Think of open source software as a kind of metaphor. Ours is a mostly open online course. It’s not just a sandwich of youtube clips, and there’s no social sharing at the moment. Think what you like, that’s what we want.
  6. Deal with the challenges of MOOCs: We’ve been thinking for a long time about some of the challenges of working in this way. One challenge relates to our most “hands on” learners, e.g. the ones who don’t or won’t like working online. The solution here is simple: we need to keep doing our face-to-face training and retain or reinvent this business model to work in with the online and blended components. Other challenges of MOOCs relate to student completion. Or mainly the lack of it. That’s why ours is not completely open. Candidates need to unlock the higher stages of the assessment process by enrolling with us in an official capacity.
  7. Have a business model: Learners’ organisations will pay a fee to have their staff assessed and credentialed in this process. We also have access to limited government funding to subsidise this. So the content is fully open and online, but we’ve unbundled the assessing and credentialing process which will become our new lean business model.
  8. Think about the options moving forward: This all gives us options. We can still deliver our face-to-face training. This will still need to be led by demand and remain financially viable (so no changes there), but we’ll have other options for people and organisations including a fully online and distance model, other blended models, and the possibility of increasing how we and organisations customise the training for their own purposes. And these options could be priced differently as well.

And all of this gives us a great model to implement next year with the new New Zealand Diploma in Adult Literacy & Numeracy Education (NZDALNE) that we want to develop next.

What do you think? Any suggestions on how we can continue to tweak this…? Let me know in the comments.

12 Steps You Can Take to Disrupt Education

93-10-31-disrupt-logoI know, I know… you’d rather not. Nor would any of us really, but I’m working on a manifesto for disrupting education. This is not because I think I know how to do it, but rather because I think it’s inevitable and I want to set myself something to work towards.

These are some of the underpinning actions and ideas that I think underpin positive disruptive education models:

  1. Adopt a new business model. Despite their inertia, our old 20th century business models will not survive. This is especially true for any business model that relies on customers (or learners) just showing up. If you’re sitting around waiting for your customers or learners to show up you may as well shut the doors now and save yourself the pain later. By the way, this new business model probably involves the internet (which is the mother of all business models).
  2. Figure out who your customer really it. Who are you providing value for? In education this is complex. Are your learners paying you to create value for them? If not, who is paying you to do this work? It’s a problematic relationship in education. We at least need to ask the question. If you’re like me you have funders as well as learners and multiple layers of bureaucracy to appease.
  3. Develop amazing niche content. If our content is generic and boring it’s going to be dull to deliver and mind numbing for our learners. The hardest thing is to make it accessible to the target audience given our tendency to bludgeon our learners with our much larger vocabularies and subject area knowledge. That’s not even the problem… we usually don’t know we’re doing it.
  4. Work with a great (and small) team. Who can afford a large team these days? Small teams are great. Working with contractors rocks. The tools for working and collaborating over distance and independent of geography are available and mostly free.
  5. Crush it with killer design. This should go without saying. But it doesn’t. In education we are guilty of some of the worst design sins ever committed. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think it’s worth setting our sights a whole lot higher than we have in education. I’ll spend money on a graphic designer or a professional photographer before I spent money on a website company these days.
  6. Help people get better at something. If we’re not doing this then what are we in education, let alone in business for.
  7. Get savvy. And by savvy I mean internet and technologically savvy. The new education tools are mainly digital. Actually, the new work tools for anything are digital. This is unavoidable. But I guess if you’re reading this I’m preaching to the choir. So tell your colleagues if you can stand the arguments that will inevitably start.
  8. Create social objects. Social objects are things that people can’t stop talking about. We want people to care about our stuff. And then share it with a bunch of other people. This means some of what you do has to be shareable.
  9. Iterate quickly. This is the difference between an innovative education provider and… one that’s going to struggle and die. The innovation cycle is well documented in industry and it works for education too. Change it.
  10. Deliver great experiences. Again, this should go without saying. But so much of education is not a great experience either for the learners or even for those doing the delivery of the content or assessment. Learning is not always easy and effortless. Sometimes it’s damn hard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t deliver a great experience.
  11. Start with the big picture. As educators we know this and teach it as a principle of adult teaching and learning. But we’re typically hypocrites. While we understand this academically, we don’t actually do it. Or we do it badly. We need to start with the big picture, then break it down, and then put it back together again.
  12. Get mean and get lean. Perhaps this should be at the top of the list. Education is hard work. Getting paid to do education is even harder. None of us will survive if we don’t pull out all the stops to reduce our large fixed costs and tighten up on everything else. The implications of this are uncomfortable to put it mildly.

What else can we do to disrupt education? What do you do? Let me know in the comments.




Embedding literacy and numeracy: What’s your plan?

Here’a another one from the Literacy Numeracy Pro infinite content generation engine…

Image 12-06-13 at 2.40 PM

It’s important to have a plan. If you are a trades trainer or vocational tutor you need to have a plan on how you’re going to deal with the literacy and numeracy needs of your learners.

Why? Well… because the same stuff that they struggled with at school is going to be the same stuff they struggle with in your training. You know… when their eyes glaze over when you start talking…

This means reading and mathematics.

The best way to get a plan is to get your head fully around your own context first of all. And that means more than just the industry context that you already know so well. I’m talking about your regional and national context… including reasons why your learners are the way they are. Why they can’t read or write as well as they should. Why they can’t do the math like you think that ought.

I mean… have you really thought about why your learners struggle with things like reading and mathematics?

Perhaps you have. I don’t know. What I do know is that you have a huge advantage over those in the school sector and over the so-called literacy and numeracy “experts”.

You might not see it this way. But the huge advantage that you have is as follows.


And to take advantage of your advantage you need to have a plan. And the best plans distill both context and content knowledge as you carry out these steps:

  1. Map the demands of your training: This simply means working out where the pain points are for the particular literacy and numeracy demands of your course, training, or work. Examples might include specialised or technical vocabulary. Or particular calculations or measurements specific to your trade.
  2. Administer diagnostic tests: Based on your mapping and using what you already know about your learners you need to design and administer some quick and dirty diagnostic tests. These short tests should have a go at working out what your learners do and don’t know about very specific areas of literacy and numeracy. Just pick micro skill area at a time and design a quick, appropriate assessment. Think of this as a pretest. Analyse the results.
  3. Embed the literacy and numeracy: Then you need to write and deliver some very specific and targeted teaching. This teaching (and learning) needs to be an attempt to deliberately and explicitly deal with the literacy or numeracy skill that you identified in your mapping and diagnostic testing. Think of this as a literacy (or numeracy) teaching intervention. I also call this an #MVP or Minimum Viable Pedagogy. It is, after all, the least you should be doing for your learners to help them engage with and comprehend your teaching and training.
  4. Assess your learners’ progress: After this you need to check to see whether your intervention made any difference. The simplest way to do this is to recycle your pretest. You might need to create a “Version B” of your pretest. But for our purposes you could probably just re-administer the pretest as a posttest without making an changes.

That’s it really…

Oh. One more thing. Now you’ve got data. You can compare the differences between your pre and post tests and workout whether it made any difference or not. If it did, you probably just did something that would make a useful change to your future programmes and training. If it didn’t then you just eliminated something that you might not want to repeat. This is called evaluation.

And then what…? Repeat. And then repeat again. And again. And again. Pretty much forever.

What literacy and numeracy-related content would you like to see on YouTube?

I’m looking to develop further content to go on our YouTube channel for embedding literacy and numeracy.


  • What kind of video content would you like to see on YouTube?

I’m particularly interested in material that supplements our professional development process, but open to any ideas at this stage. Here’s what I’m currently considering creating or adding:

  • 1 minute video overview for the whole channel.
  • More information around the process for mapping literacy and numeracy demands.
  • Case studies of successful graduates.
  • How to create easy embedded literacy activities especially for vocabulary and reading comprehension.
  • Where to find other literacy and numeracy diagnostic tools online (and how to contextualise them to your trade or vocational training).
  • More infographics and explanations of the content that they summarise and explain.
  • Examples of embedded literacy and numeracy learning outcomes and related sequences of activities for teaching and learning.
  • More information on Maori literacy and numeracy.
  • Other aspects of literacy and numeracy that don’t relate to the current professional development programme, but that are still interesting… such as the connections to “Lean” and “Design thinking”.

You can let me know in the comments or email me privately.

Minimum Viable Pedagogy (MVP) – Or Why Lean Thinking Works with Embedded Literacy and Numeracy

I’ve written about the possible match of Lean thinking and my field of adult literacy and numeracy education before.  I’d like to narrow this down and talk about how Lean thinking works with the idea of embedded literacy and numeracy.


One of the key principles in Lean is the idea of the minimum viable product or MVP for short. This is not a minimal product, but a product that has just the barest features that it needs to be deployed. You can read more about MVPs here on Wikipedia.

What I’d like to suggest is the idea of a Minimum Viable Pedagogy – also conveniently labelled MVP for short. The point is to think about your training, and in particular your explicit embedded literacy and numeracy teaching interventions like this:

  • What’s the least that I could do here (with some very narrowly focused aspect of literacy or numeracy) to gain the most impact in my training for my learners (in terms of the vocational or trades content or context)?

In other words, when we think about designing and delivering explicit embedded literacy and numeracy training interventions they should be MVPs. They should also be “bookended” by assessments – not big external high stakes assessments, but small micro assessments that we design ourselves to measure the impact of making one small change to our training. This idea of testing and iterating also fits well with lean thinking, as it also does with action research.

For example, if you are teaching a new unit in your horticulture course and you know from past experience or previous diagnostic assessment that your learners are going to struggle with some aspects of the new technical vocabulary that you are going to introduce, then a possible MVP that you could employ would be a deliberate focus on 20 key words and terms that they will need to know to understand the content.

Here’s how we would do it:

  • Establish a list of the 20 key words and terms that you think will make the biggest difference to your content delivery.
  • Create a short assessment task using the new words and their meanings and pre-test your learners to find out what they already know (if anything).
  • Deliver a short teaching session deliberately explaining and discussing the new words. Make it clear that learners will need the new terminology to make sense of the new unit.
  • Follow up the teaching with some vocabulary practice activities (card sort, matching, cloze, writing sentences, creating a glossary or word bank together, or anything more creative that you can think of).
  • Deliver your regular content instruction.
  • Post-test your learners re-using your pre-test (or create a Version B of the same test).

What you’re trying to measure here is the impact of changing one small aspect of your regular teaching delivery. In this case, the effect of “front loading” your learners with 20 new vocabulary items before they encounter them in the context of your normal teaching and training.

Because you’ve gathered pre and post-test data you’ll be able to see what the uptake was on the new words. You may even be able to have a look at how the learners score for their content assessment following your delivery of the unit compared with other learners in other groups or from a previous year.

That’s it in a nutshell: Create a MVP for your training content today and get underway embedding the literacy and numeracy that your learners need.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments…