Call it what you want: Co-creation is amazing

Call it what you want: Co-creation is amazing

Collaboration, co operation, co creation. Call it what you want: working together is brilliant

After a summer largely spent in the office, I am relishing collaborating with people again

One of the downsides of working for yourself is that you are often working by yourself. It is perfectly possible to go a couple of days without actually speaking to a human being who doesn’t live under the same roof. More worryingly still, it’s possible to do this without really noticing.

Which is why I am really enjoying getting out of the office.

Many is better than one

I am a relatively creative person. I have a lot of ideas for things bouncing around at any given moment. Anyone who has looked at my notebook will have seen that. I enjoy toying and tinkering with ideas for things. I enjoy rolling them over in my head until the bits all fall into place.

It’s a lot of fun.

Sometimes, people ask me for something and I can just pick up my notebook and say: “is this what you were thinking of?”

But it’s not always the best way of doing things.

I’ve been up in London a lot in September, working at one of the Nationals. I am used to working in a small office on my own or in front of classes of people. Suddenly, I’ve found myself in an open plan office with over thirty people in it. I’ll not lie: it’s been a culture shock.

Collaboration is worth more than the sum of its parts

Creating together

I really like working with other people. Creating together you can come up with something far more impressive than you would have on your own. People ask difficult questions and sometimes say things like: “wouldn’t it be better if..?” It challenges me to come up with better ideas and to work those ideas through to their conclusion.

I’ve been getting this kick from working as part of a team again. In my case I’m coming at things with fresh eyes, suggesting tweaks and alterations to things that hadn’t been thought of. It’s great to feel like I’m contributing and adding another perspective.

I am getting to see how someone else goes about things and seeing opportunities for my own practice. I am seeing ways of doing things and getting ideas for new things to do.  It’s great.

This is all well and good


I've got a brilliant idea

Co-creation is an odd thing. You have to pay for it. When I create on my own, I have full control over where I’m going with my ideas. I don’t have to bend them for anyone.

When I create with someone else, I have to give that up. I have to accept that I no longer have the final say over things. That can be hard.


But the payoff is massive. The payoff is that the result can be amazing.

I also love seeing the thrill that other people get out of it. I’ve run several storytelling sessions where the point is that no one has complete control. Everyone has to work with everyone else’s ideas. And that sense of surprise over where the idea goes can be electric.

I’ve watched groups write ghost stories where, part way through, they realised that one of the characters as the ghost.

I’ve led sessions on collaborative story creation with teenage boys. They were writing haunted house stories. One group worked together to create characters who all ended up in a haunted house together, because they all had a relationship with a local boy. At the end of the session I asked them to decide WHY they were there. The lad playing the boy declared: “I invited them all here so I could kill them to cover my tracks.” Everyone stopped dead. It was a moment of genius that only came about because of how the group had worked together and shared ideas. It was brilliant.

Having a blast

The easy and the hard

There are some things about co-creation that can be difficult. You need to have ground rules about how people work with other people’s ideas. You need to have a framework for who has control at any given moment. You also need some rules about how you treat other people’s attempts at creativity.

One of the things I reinforce is that there is no such thing as a bad idea. You are not allowed to say it. You can say “wouldn’t it be better if…?” but you can’t say it’s rubbish. This gives people the confidence to air their ideas knowing that no-one is going to laugh at them.

The other thing I try to do is to make sure that, at any given moment, a single person has control. The rules state when and how this control is handed over, which means their ideas don’t get trashed, they get built upon.

Try it: it’s a lot of fun.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, 0 comments
STEAM Powered girls

STEAM Powered girls

Last week I delivered a science session where two 9 year old girls were overheard explaining the concept of ground pressure to each other.


OK, let’s go right back to the beginning.

Away back in the depths of time, by which I mean a few years ago, there was maths, there was, science, there was engineering. These subjects, or ones closely related, were taught at schools. Someone cottoned onto the fact that they were not seen as cool, and that they were not popular for students. So they decided to find a way of making them cool. They grouped them together and called them STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Someone in government noticed this and, as well as realising that scientists, engineers and mathematicians were economically valuable, decided that this was something worth funding.

So people started focussing on making STEM exciting for people, in the hope that they would choose them for further study or, at least, have a reasonable understanding of them. And people began to take notice. Cool things aimed at teaching “STEM” began to appear and everything was cool.

Except that it wasn’t. Whilst some STEM teaching was amazing and fascinated people, there was a perception that it was easy to make reductive. It began to be seen as boring. More concerningly, it gained a perception as being “for boys”. It gained a perception (rightly or wrongly) as turning off creatively-minded people. Particularly girls.

So some other people decided to do something about it. They decided to put the creativity back in. They added “arts” to the mix. This created STEAM, a much more pleasing acronym if nothing else.

STEAM was taken to mean using science and maths creatively, using science and maths in an entrepreneurial way (whatever that actually means), taking these subjects out of the lab and the classroom into a more freeform environment. It was specifically aimed at telling people that “science and maths are for you, even if you find that kind of thinking difficult.” It was particularly aimed at enticing girls.

And that attracted money.

Which is where I come in.

Reaching out

Hampshire Cultural Trust secured some money for developing STEAM activities at some of its museums with the goal of widening participation in the north of the county. They hired a group of learning people to design those activities. One of those professionals was me.

I was asked to work with Aldershot Military Museum to create something.

After a long chat with the people at Aldershot, we decided that they’d really like something about their military vehicles. For a very small site, their collection of military vehicles is really impressive. Particularly for someone like me who is definitely not an engineer.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “favourite tank fact”, much less actually have one.

It’s been a steep learning curve.

We designed a session where the students play members of a fictional regiment who have to create vehicles to get to remote villages to deliver aid after a natural disaster. They are given a problem but they can solve it any way they like.

The idea is that they go and look at the actual vehicles and use them as inspiration and to help their understanding of the concepts involved.

There are all sorts of links to the STEAM areas of the National Curriculum but they are lurking under the surface during the session as the children focus on getting help to stranded people in time.

 Making models

In my wisdom and in possession of a reasonable budget I decided that we would give the students kits to actually build the models of the vehicles to meet the challenge. I found a German manufacturer of meccano-like kits for education and set to work on putting kits together.

My first attempts to build something with the kits is detailed in embarrassing detail in this post.

After that, I honed in on what we wanted to learn and built some kits that the students would use to build their vehicles. Each of those kits takes about an hour to put together from the box (apart from the bits that need glue: they take a little longer). Which is fine except that there are six of them.

Knowing how much each bit weighs and how big some of them are I could make calculations about what properties different configurations might have.

Now all I had to do was design a session that would help children understand weight, power:weight ratio and ground pressure.

(Ground pressure is the footprint of an object divided by its weight. It’s a measure of how much force is put through each metre square of a surface it’s on.)

If you will excuse the pun: no pressure.

The heat of combat

The first test of the session showed that the session was sound but needed a lot of work. I had tried to introduce too many things at once and things got confused. Not back to the drawing board, but a rethink of the process.

So I created this amazing map of the island they are supposed to be on and a series of small missions so that they work through the concepts as well as giving more people a chance to get their hands on the metal.

It looked great and there were some funky, if I do say so myself, materials I’d designed to go with it.

Second time of asking: STEAM hot

The second test was a very different affair. We walked through the concepts, literally in one case. We managed to clear up the footprint and feet are not necessarily the same thing. We even managed to talk about ground pressure and why it’s important.

Then we set them loose with the kits and chaos ensued. Don’t get me wrong, they were having a blast and learning. But it was bedlam all the same. They all managed to build something that came in under the target weight.

The second mission saw them trying to build something with a certain power to weight ratio. That caused issues, but they understood that they were trying to build something as light and as powerful as possible. They actually got through that with the minimum of fuss.

Then came the acid test: could they build something with a ground pressure low enough that their vehicle wouldn’t sink in a bog? Actually, can they understand what ground pressure is? The answer is yes, even if the term kilopascal causes all kinds of confusion.

This is where the two girls were observed explaining it to each other. It was priceless. Not because it was funny but because they had clearly understood it perfectly. Even if one of them couldn’t remember what it was called. We also saw a number of girls actively wrestle the build kits away from the boys because they wanted to do some engineering. Really.

You cannot buy that kind of engagement.

Operation: forces

It was a great session and a few minor tweaks away from being spot on. It’s even got a name now: Op: forces.

So, if you are looking to engage people with STEM then STEAM with its emphasis on problem solving and creativity may well be what you’re looking for.

For more information on the session, look here. There might well be offers on for early adopters.

Favourite tank facts

Remember that?

I now have two:

  1. My bicycle (158kPa) has a higher ground pressure than a 70 tonne M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (105kPa).
  2. The British army has more horses than tanks.

So, now you know.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 2 comments

A tough audience: honing the craft

I’ve done this thousands of times before, why am I nervous now?

I wasn’t nervous a couple of hours ago. Why am I sitting here, waiting for my turn to deliver with sweaty palms and the shakes? I’ve delivered funny, engaging talks and sessions so many times that I really can’t remember the number. I feel horribly undercooked and unprepared. I’ve delivered countless times with slimmer notes than this. Why now?

Because this is different.

I really have delivered talks for tough crowds like Royal Marines Warrant Officers (chaps with 20+ years of experience as soldiers), I’ve delivered workshops for critical audiences of my peers at conferences, I’ve engaged with unforgiving crowds like teenagers excluded from mainstream education. It really isn’t as though this is a new experience for me. So why am I bricking it now?

I’ll tell you why: because this talk is a Best Man’s speech for an old friend. I’m looking out over a sea of unfamiliar faces, many of whom are waiting for me to fail.

Photo: Thomas Farmer

I’ve seen my fair share of these talks. I’ve seen the best man so crippled by nerves he reads a speech to the table. I’ve seen the Best Man whose tale of the groom’s misdeeds is excruciatingly inappropriate. I’ve seen the Best Man who really didn’t have anything interesting to say. Right now, I’m hoping not to be one of them.

I’m looking at a tightrope. On one side: a boring speech that goes on too long. On the other: offending everyone in the room, particularly the bride’s family. Both sides are alligator pits of agonising failure. The gap between them is a hair’s breadth across. No amount of practice prepares me for that moment when I stand up an everyone is looking at me.

They’re all waiting for me to perform.

It’s time to dig deep. It’s time to remember my craft. I know I can do this. I’ve done it a thousand times before. I’ve succeeded thousands of times before. I’ve convinced highly experienced Royal Marines I’m trustworthy with their heritage. I’ve introduced my peers to new ways of doing things. I’ve even convinced teenagers that a museum visit might actually be something worth doing.

Hold on to that feeling.

I know my material.

Make eye contact with as many people as possible. Watch the signs. Deliver the opening gambit. Watch how it goes. Mentally recalibrate the next element based on that assessment. Watch how that goes. Make eye contact with a different part of the room. Hold on. Watch how that goes and recalibrate again. Ok, I’ve got a feeling for the flow. Move slightly to make eye contact with another table and watch their response whilst keeping the other eye on the head table. Keep going, use the momentum of the early gags to get over any duff ones later. Feel the room warming. Gain confidence and belief in my craft. I know how to do this.

I’ve stopped looking at my notes. I know my material from here. I know where to pause to let the groom know where the punchline is going to fall. I know how long to leave it before bringing everyone else in. Weave the disparate threads together so everyone’s relationship with the groom is included. Build towards the final gag. Steer people’s expectations, set them up so they think they know where I’m going.

Then drop the hammer. Deliver the last line. Back myself to stop on a high and not fill the space with chatter. Let it land and then deliver the toast. Sit down without overstaying my welcome.

Done. Feel the relief wash over me. I’ve survived. I’d be better next time. I’m already evaluating and improving just like I would at work. The slightly duff bits would be ironed out. The pauses would be different lengths. I’d swap the running order slightly and substitute bits that I didn’t include this time for bits that didn’t really work.

Then I remember: there will be no next time. It’s done and I don’t have to evaluate this time. It’s second nature: an automatic reflex now that drives me to deliver better every time I do it.

Not this time. This time I relax and allow myself, for the first time in the evening, a glass of wine.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, Uncategorised, 2 comments
Telling Stories

Telling Stories

Storytelling sessions are some of my favourites and the most memorable sessions I’ve taught.

There’s something incredible about watching young people create something together. The results are always surprising and unexpected so I never get tired of running these sessions no matter how much energy they take to deliver.
Getting young people, particularly teenagers, to create in public isn’t easy. Being creative involves revealing something of yourself and exposing yourself to ridicule from your peers. Some find that a very difficult obstacle to overcome. This, in itself, is one of the reasons why I find the sessions so rewarding when it works.

However, it means that a lot of thought goes into setting up the storytelling game to promote creativity and inhibit the tendency to make fun of people making an effort. The games I build are finely balanced to make sure that the experience is positive for everyone involved.

So today I’m going to lift the lid as I walk through a new storytelling game I’m developing for a new session. The game is currently going under the title “What if?”, it’s a little more fanciful than some of the games I use in the other sessions. The basic premise is that tables of 4-6 people will create a setting in which stories can happen. Each table will create something unique.

Bear in mind that this is very much an initial sketch and there will be a load of playtesting between here and anything going live, but you can see an idea beginning to form.

For a chance to see storytelling sessions in action check out Past Participants Literacy sessions

What If try out

The big idea.

Always start with a big idea. What if? Starts with the idea that members of the group make statements about the world the story is happening. However, only some of those statements can be made in isolation. These are called “What if?” statements. Most of the statements have to be built on statements the rest of the group has made. These will fill in the details.

The big idea is that every statement is true of the story world. Immediately.

Give them somewhere to start

Nothing, in a classroom at least, is scarier than being given a blank piece of paper and told to “create something”. Show someone a climbing frame and it’s only a matter of time before someone’s at the top of it.

So this game will start with three “What if?” statements already on the board. This means everyone’s story starts from the same place. These statements could be “What if you arrived at school and there were no teachers?” or “What if you all went on holiday together?” “What if you woke up this morning to find that there was a flood and your house was floating?” really simple but they set the premise for the story. They should inspire ideas.

For ease of play they’re written on green post it notes.

Give them options, but limit the options to keep focus

So, they’re looking at these “What if?” statements. What now?

The next kind of statement is a “Then…” statement. It’s a response to a what if statement. Where the “What if?” opens up a world of possibilities, the “Then…” says what impact that has on the people in the story. It refines the ideas, it hones them and makes them personal to the story. You can only make a Then…statement in response to a What if? Statement on the table. For ease of play they’re written on blue post it notes stuck on the What if?/ post it note.

What if you arrived at school and there were no teachers? Then…we could play football all day [not a particularly interesting story but somewhere to build from] Then…we would have to get into the kitchens to make lunch [that might go somewhere] Then… we could sneak into the cellars that people talk about but we’re never allowed into [now this is going somewhere].

What if? And Then… statements should form a feedback loop: What if? Statements suggest Then…statements which, in turn, suggest more What If? Statements

People. It’s about people

The Third and final element of the game is the “Who” statement. It adds characters to the story. “Who” statements are added to What if? Then… clusters they tell us who is doing this and something about them. It gives us a name followed by “Who” and something about them. These go on yellow post it notes

In our story about exploring the cellar someone might add “we went with Johnny March Who had the caretakers key” Why on earth has Johnny got that key? “My sister jennie came with us Who wouldn’t normally go anywhere with me” Now that’s odd.

That’s all there is to it.s

Now make a game of it

So the game starts with three notes on the table. Three What if? Statements. The game goes like this. Each person will take a turn. On their turn they can do one of the following:

  • Create a What If? Statement (limit this to the second turn to keep things on track)
  • Add a Then…Statement to any What If? Statement
  • Add a Who Statement to any What If? Then.. cluster.

There you go. Now some rules:

  • No one is allowed to say no to someone else’s idea. You can say “Wouldn’t it be better if?” but they are the ones making the statement
  • No real people apart from those at the table in the story. Otherwise you get all sorts of oddness.

That’s it. Play goes round the table with each person taking a turn to add something to the table. I reckon that’s all it needs.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, 0 comments