If you want to be a great thinker and inspire great thinking in others, learning about thinking itself doesn’t hurt. There are many excellent resources on cognition, metacognition, and practices like visible thinking that can help you and your team.
Russell Hazard is the director of the Teaching, Learning, and Innovation school at Aidi in Bejing where he engages in educational research. He is passionate about improving education at both the grassroots, school level and at the level of international policy. Russell works to build partnerships across sectors such as public/private education, NGOs, and international educational organizations to improve their impact on the ground level.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
The Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Center is an entrepreneurial research and development department within an education company, rather than a stand alone company. I was in the process of completing my doctorate in educational research and I was doing a lot of work in the education group that was innovative, such as outreach with external research institutions, identifying and trialing emerging technology, and redeveloping areas of our curriculum with practices from leading edge teaching and learning groups such as Harvard’s Project Zero, project-based learning work from the Buck Institute, and global citizenship education research from UNESCO.
The senior leadership of the education group approached me and suggested we form a dedicated department around this innovation effort so we would remain hyper competitive. They suggested an emphasis on trialing educational technology start-ups and supporting entrepreneurial project-based learning opportunities for students. I loved the idea, but felt strongly that technology is just a tool to fit into teaching and learning and should not be implemented without considering how it is integrated into great practices that inspire students and teachers. So, teaching and learning research had to remain the heart of the work in my view. I received the green light to develop the concept on that basis. That diverse field of research study on the very nature of creativity, cognition and metacognition, and measuring sociocultural impact, so the idea of how to develop a concept generation laboratory that produces real world results was heavily informed by it.
The driving idea that brought it all together is that of a highly adaptable, research-based, center of excellence that allows our whole community of learners to work together to first explore and then try to address real world problems by supporting Sustainable Development Goal attainment. From that came the more grounded process of developing the impact strategy, hiring initial staff, connecting to international EdTech startup ecosystems, as well as planning the actual building of our Innovation Lab and the programming that would be housed within it. This has led to work that extends from the group to projects around the world.
So, the idea for TLI comes from a mixture of influences.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My days have incredible variety, which is something I really value. When I am in Beijing, I have a short meeting with my core team every morning. It is completely horizontal in structure, so whoever needs it has the floor. It allows us to keep a high situational awareness of all the different projects, opportunities and problems to overcome. From there it a combination of strategic planning, program development on my computer, and working with people both across the organization and externally for implementation. One way I keep it productive is by hitting the gym at lunch. My days are exceedingly busy, and I find that an intense burst of physical activity halfway through the day energizes me as well as providing a solo space for creative reflection.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We deal with a lot of pedagogies for developing 21st century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaborative leadership so we model those techniques. I like to use visible thinking protocols to map out my ideas and concertize the inter-relationships between the moving parts early. This has the additional benefit of allowing me to bring in other relevant stakeholders or team members to give feedback after I have an initial vision sketch. There is a different feel to the creative process when it is physical and graphical rather than encased in a prose-based report too early.
Once I have feedback and have tweaked the vision, it is a matter of defining the crucial elements that will become the focal points of development and also are to be evaluated to gauge the success of the initiative. I think that this is really important for innovators to consider as it helps to get the message out that you are going to track whether the idea is good from the earliest stages rather than just assuming that it is a good idea because it happens to be yours. That helps to get stakeholders on board, which is the next critical step. Without emotional buy in from everyone involved, the idea may be developed but may not carry the spirit of inspiration that is the difference between something being good and something being great.
This is one reason I like a Participatory Action Research approach. Any idea is just a starting point that is completely open to change once all the stakeholders have a chance to give input and make it their own. Also, the PAR approach is cyclic, meaning that ideas are tested and modified continually. That reflects the need to constantly adapt to an ever-changing environment. Given the speed of change in our world, building this attitude in early means that as ideas come to life, they are born with adaptability built in.
What’s one trend that excites you?
One trend that I find really exciting is the notion of Education for Sustainable Development as a model for training innovators. It is an incredible way of looking at innovation because it changes the lens that we look through from one in which we create without considering the positive or negative ramifications of our work to one in which we prioritize innovation that improves the lives of people from a holistic perspective rather than just an economic one. Of course, it also values the environment, which is clearly something we should be considering at this juncture in history.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I like to think that it is empowering people. I really try to help the people around me bring their own good ideas to fruition and to feel passionate about what they do. I think that when that happens you become part of a community of innovators and overall productivity goes way up. It is also exciting and interesting to be a part of.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Focus on practical, measurable outcomes. They can be quantitative or qualitative, but it is really helpful to evaluate impact. I have been very philosophically driven my whole life but just because a project, program, or idea fits your ideals does not mean that it will create a real and useful impact. Building evaluation into the design process is very powerful if you want to make your work valuable to others.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I don’t know about “almost nobody” agreeing, but I think that it is still very early days for the push to bake the Sustainable Development Goals into all of our workflows and institutions. Those goals are far from perfect, but they are an important first step to consider and discuss. I think that our education, health, finance, legal, and other institutions would benefit from at least considering these issues part of their foundational workflow.
Aside from the broader issue of having your own life work be driven by this framework, when you are actually taking an idea from the mind to reality, the buy in and ownership from others is important and the SDGs are a vision that people get excited by once they understand it.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I remind myself that I am a lifelong student and that I am here to learn from everyone and everything around me. I don’t have all the answers and I am often wrong.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Being involved with the international research community in my field has really contributed to impact. This happens for a number of reasons. Research is like looking into the future to some extent, so it is often possible to identify important emerging ideas well before they become trends. Meeting with researchers at conferences can also lead to unexpected new insights and sometimes having a number of people from different research perspectives thrown together into the same room can result in entirely new cross-disciplinary avenues to explore. Finally, researchers are critical by nature so you will have insightful critical feedback at a very early stage.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When the Innovation Lab was still under final construction and we were trying to train the first staff to run the building, operate the technology, and execute the programming for the lab and across other departments it was a very intense period. The trainees became stressed because the challenges seemed insurmountable and the number of small but complex tasks we had to work through made it seem like we were in a state of chaos. Because I had the big picture view, I could easily see how all the moving parts fit together but, due to the already high tempo, I failed to take the time to constantly reconnect everyone to our short, medium, and long term vision. That resulted in early staff turn over.
That was when I realized that having a daily open forum in which joint visioning, questions, and concerns was really important. So, in the set-up phase of a new project, even when under extreme time limitations, a collaboratively designed understanding of how small tasks fit into larger goals is important.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
We need adaptive educational technologies that are available ubiquitously, available at low cost, and that create measurable positive impact. Being adaptive means that they pitch directly to the level of the learner, whatever the discipline. Being ubiquitous means anyone can access them from anywhere in the world, including someone in a low-resource rural area through a mobile device. Low cost does not mean a business person can’t make money. The right products could positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world so even if it only cost a dollar to access there is the potential for receiving significant returns on this type of ethical investment. Measurable positive impact is important both because you will receive the backing of a great many international institutions and also because you will have the knowledge that you are doing something genuinely useful. We are seeing more of this type of work emerging and I think it will become an incredibly hot area for future application development.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
It’s not revolutionary but I purchased new running headphones so I can listen to podcasts while I exercise. A History of the World in 100 Objects is my current obsession.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I started using Zoom for teleconferencing and it has been extremely useful. I have to teleconference a lot and the meetings always suffered from audio and video quality issues. This product has been faultless so far.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I would recommend 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. It is well written and researched and offers an accessible launchpad for building an understanding of humanities’ current big picture situation into your own vision. That situation is the rapidly evolving context in which all of our ideas and activities function, so it is an important consideration. Aside from providing that critical context for innovators, I think it is good reading in the more holistic sense as there are issues in the book that we should be more aware of as a species.
What is your favorite quote?
“A culture of thinking produces the feelings, energy, and even joy that can propel learning forward and motivate us to do what at times can be hard and challenging mental work.”
― Ron Ritchhart,
Again, I am not sure about having such a thing as a favorite quote. However, I chose Ritchhart because I believe it applies to all institutions and even at a broader social level. What are we doing to promote a culture of deep thinking within our schools, institutions, companies, and our societies? How are we contributing to a culture in which complex thinking is valued? Do can we empower the thinking of others? Do we help to draw out a diversity of viewpoints? Do we model these attributes and engage our teams, families, and communities to be hotbeds of creativity and problem solving? Do we learn constantly?
- If you want to be a great thinker and inspire great thinking in others, learning about thinking itself doesn’t hurt. There are many excellent resources on cognition, metacognition, and practices like visible thinking that can help you and your team.
- Consider taking a researcher’s perspective, regardless of industry. You don’t have to be an expert researcher, though you might want to work with one eventually. This is basically learning about how to formulate clear problem statements, gathering the correct kind of background knowledge to give context to your problem, identifying potential breakthrough solutions, collecting the right types of data, analyzing it appropriately, and then repeating the process as a never-ending process of improvement.
- Empower people to co-create.
- Be clear about your personal philosophy and make your work an extension of what you want to stand for. If you haven’t already, you might want to consider the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework.