Leon Cych

By Pete Roythorne
You could say that Leon Cych is the innovator’s innovator. A truly independent ICT consultant, Leon travels the length and breadth of the UK – and beyond – iPhone and video camera in hand, capturing innovation in action and spreading the word, often streaming it straight to the internet.

“I visit teachers, thought leaders and people that are actually innovating in the classroom in their day-to day practice: I look at what they are doing and then try to disseminate that as widely as possible,” he explains. “By the same token, I look at technologies and see how we can best use them within the current education system.”

As with all good ICT enthusiasts, Leon, a former primary school teacher, practises what he preaches. In September last year, with collaborator Drew Buddie, he brought together some key ICT thinkers in a tree house in London’s Regent’s Park, and broadcast this rainy meeting of minds live over Twitter – you can still see the discussions online (here).

“For me the starting blocks for innovation are all about finding and disseminating best practice and best use of technology,” Leon continues. “Increasingly it’s about plugging into different communities at various levels – individual, local authorities, UK or wider – to push out exemplars for people to reflect on.”

Filming has, for the past few years, formed a crucial part of this process for Leon. And you can find a wealth of video material on ICT for learning through his Learn 4 Life website. He was first drawn to the power of video in the lead up to BETT 2007. “I was involved with one of the early Moodle adopters,” he explains, “and as part of this I decided to go and make a film of people using the system, which was shown on the company’s stand at BETT.

'New communities where people are more willing to be engaged as self-starters'

“What was interesting was that the big VLE providers at the show witnessed a general lack of interest, but the Moodle showcase had people lining up down the corridors wanting to see the film and talk about it. We started a small change which then rippled out.”

And it’s this rippling out effect that Leon is fascinated by. “One of the things that has come out of all the new technologies that I have looked at is the creation of new communities where people are more willing to be engaged as self-starters and co-learners,” he says.

“There’s a whole new group of super-professionals using ICT up and down the country who are actually self-starting and using the internet to compare and contrast their practice with other people’s,” he continues. “And they are disseminating this information out to the global community through applications such as Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies.”

Indeed, Web 2.0 technologies have given innovation a serious shot in the arm. In the past a teacher would be doing something quite innovative in a school but no one knew about it. Now, because teachers are linked globally through social media, they are able to connect and form a community of support and sharing, way beyond anything a school’s senior leadership team would be able to provide.

'Innovation is now a bottom-up transformation'

“It’s as if the most technologically innovative teachers are able to leapfrog their individual local circumstances and connect up to global communities and compare best practice – and that didn’t happen before,” enthuses Leon. “It’s become easier to do now. Innovation is now a bottom-up transformation, with teachers trying to pull in best practice and widely disseminate it out through the school, the LA, the DCSF, Becta and beyond.”

Sadly, Leon, does not see this mindset being imbedded in the general teaching population just yet, because many schools are so tightly bound in to meeting the needs of the national curriculum. And some are even questioning whether Building Schools for the Future (BSF), the Government’s massive £45 billion school rebuilding programme for England's secondary schools, has the ability to challenge this.

“At the moment there is a problem with the structures that are coming out of BSF,” says Leon. “A lot of people are worried we are simply ‘pouring new wine into old bottles’ and that the new buildings are already outmoded. The social structures that are being put into place need to be radicalised and the curriculum shaken up.”

But he also says these shackles are loosening and things are changing, and although the innovation cycle within BSF is hard to change, opportunities are increasing. “You have champions within BSF like Tom Cooper in Lewisham, who is pushing hard to speed things up on various platforms – seeing what works where and how,” he says. “But it’s like a big experiment with everyone trying to work their way round all the technologies that are available.”

For all those that are innovating there are those that aren’t, and this is a source of frustration for Leon. “A lot of teachers in very good traditional systems are working towards set exams; the big question we need to tackle is how to convince people like this that they need to have innovation within what they are doing. They may function well and successfully within their own parameters, but they are not necessarily representative of the way things will go in the future in the world outside education.”

'I hunt them down and push what they are doing out into the mainstream'

However, innovation comes at a cost, and there has a to be a judgement call on this. Those people who are innovating are often able to do so with small groups of pupils says Leon, but if you’re working with 30 pupils you will have a more industrial approach so there has to be a trade off at some point. Where does the innovation come in and how can it be assimilated and then explored within the curriculum?

“It’s the people who do this that I find fascinating,” he says, “and I hunt them down and push what they are doing out into the mainstream and create communities around it.”

Leon feels he is lucky when he does his filming and community building as he starts to see how things link together and to develop an overview of innovation taking place across the profession. “You might go to a commercial enterprise, local authority, private school or state school and you start to see different exemplars and then join the various dots up to see where people are naturally taking the technologies at their disposal,” he explains. “You can see if people are pointing in the same direction and then get various groups and individuals communicating with each other.

“You can see models for new kinds of pedagogies and new ideas start to flesh out. I would like to see more of these taken on board by institutions, and see them examined in more detail to distil a new type of teaching and learning, that binds old and new together.”

While Leon believes there will always be institutions where people have to turn up and do social and academic things, the big question mark remain over how, when we have so much information at our fingers tips, the rest of the time is managed. And it is these messages he is trying to spread.

Conditions for innovation

  • Has to be plumbed into the community – relevant and globalised.
  • People have to be self-starters – develop the mindset and kick-start the enthusiasm.
  • Engage with other practitioners globally. Get on to Twitter and talk to people. Find little communities to tap into.
  • Start with something small within your own community, but make sure you have awareness and buy-in from your seniors. This is important especially if you are going to use things like video where you will need to get relevant sign-offs.
  • Underpin everything you do with an element of digital safety and digital identity training. More secure in what can do and how can innovate.
  • Try to convince senior leadership and senior management teams to move this forward - creating a role for yourself within your own institution.
  • Find links and pathways forward and people to hold your hand.  There are plenty people out there who are more than happy to communicate and share.
  • Start blogging! Talk about what you are doing even if it’s just as a professional development for yourself. This will give you a personal map of where you want to go.
  • Keep making connections and look at how you can bring things back to your students and how you can plug into their beliefs, passions and interests.

Sources of inspiration

An informal gathering of teachers at weekends and in the evenings where they discuss the future of pedagogy.

Peter Twining, Schome Project
Peter presented a completely radical way of looking at teaching and learning. How education could use a distributed platform to bring people together and to create a situation where there could be true co-learning between children and adults. His exploration of virtual worlds gave excellent insights into the nature of transformational technology.

Vicki Davis
Vicki, who teaches at Westwood school in the US, uses Open Sim to bring virtual worlds into her teaching and is very precise about how she structures what her students do. There is a lot of co-creation and co-learning and she doesn’t let the fact she doesn’t know as much as them technically put her off. And she also uses the traditional facilitation, guidance and pastoral skills of a teacher.

John Davitt
John’s creativity and unique way of looking at the world challenges how people think about what they should be doing. He takes apart and then reassembles the way people look at pedagogy. His recent RAG (Random Activity Generator) iPhone app was a fantastic case in point.

Tom Barrett
Tom for his practical classroom uses of Google Earth, blogs and Twitter.

Ollie Bray
Ollie and the Consolarium are taking risks in the way they look at gaming in education. They are putting games into the education community and having academics follow and validate what they are doing.

Drew Buddie (@digitalmaverick)
Drew is a social media education hub. He has the ability to pull people from totally different fields together.

Futurelab’s Innovation Map
This will provide a fascinating insight into the innovation that is going on.


You can follow Leon Cych on Twitter - @eyebeams


Pete Roythorne is a freelance journalist and digital communications/content specialist (www.three-sixty.co.uk)

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