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Keynote: Sally-Ann Williams - Inspiring Innovators

Our final keynote speaker for uLearn19 was Sally-Ann Williams, CEO of Cicada Innovations in Australia, speaking on the Auahatanga / Innovation theme. Her keynote provided an inspiring finish to the conference, concluding with some challenges to take back to our own contexts. 


Sally-Ann used her personal story of growing up on the Gold Coast in Australia, where her parents owned a fruit and vegetable shop in a small community. She was the youngest of her family, and the first to graduate from high school. Sally shared how it was the inspiration and encouragement of different teachers she had through her schooling that provided her with the self-belief and motivation to pursue her goals, explaining how they ‘”unpacked the future” for her and “allowed her to dream”. 


Sally-Ann 1

This story provided an important backdrop to what Sally-Ann went on to share as she explained how, as teachers, we never know who we’re going to inspire and what they may achieve! Her message for all at the conference was clear – we have the capacity to inspire an entire generation of innovators!


Sally-Ann used stories from her previous role with Google and her current role with Cicada to illustrate the nature of innovation and how it is not something that is left to a select group of people, but is something that can be engaged in by all of us – and indeed, should be. She explained how, at Google, she was made to question herself on a daily based, and there learned the principles of innovation. Initially she considered innovation to be the domain of organisations such as Google, but came to understand deeply that in fact, innovation is something we can all engage with – both individually and collectively.


As CEO of Cicada, Sally-Ann now oversees a number of start-up companies that develop new products based on scientific discovery or meaningful engineering innovation, referred to as “deep tech” companies. These companies are challenged with solving complex problems in the world and have given Sally-Ann an insight into what a real world innovation hub looks like and how it operates, giving substance to what she believes is an argument for why we, as educators, should be pursuing project-based and problem-based learning in our work with learners. 


Illustrating the magnitude of the issues we face as communities, as society and as a planet, Sally-Anne highlighted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and illustrated how any one of these may provide dozens of opportunities for real-world problem solving at a local level.  


Drawing from this wealth of experience, Sally-Ann offered three principles of innovation to use in whatever context we find ourselves: 


  1. Sally-Ann3Good ideas can come from anywhere! It is important to recognise that innovation can emerge from the actions of individuals working alone or in groups, at home or in school – that it’s not only the prerogative of large technology companies
  2. Launch and Iterate. We need to stop focusing on perfection and understand that if we do so we’ll probably never start innovating. The concept of ‘fail fast, fix fast’ is important here. We need to encourage our learners to ‘have a go’ but in so doing, provide them with the skills to actively review and reflect on what’s happening so that they can iteratively develop their ideas and solutions.
  3. We is greater than me. We should be encouraging greater levels of collaboration and participation as teams – when we get into a competitive mind-set we cease being collaborators.

Sally-Ann concluded by offering three suggestions for how we, as educators, could do this as we return to our schools, kura and centres in the coming days/weeks to work with our learners:

  • Find a problem to solve – this is what causes people to become passionate about learning, when the things they are addressing are authentic and meaningful to them. Reference to the SDGs was made here again for those looking for inspiration. 
  • Co-create an investigation – draw on the minds and talents of many, including those in other classes and in the community. Crowd source the ideas and generate enthusiasm as problem solvers.
  • Create space to give something a go – acknowledge that real innovation takes time, it requires risk taking and will involve failure.
  • Closing the conference with such an inspirational view of what’s possible provided the best possible way of sending delegates off to ‘make a difference’ in their own context. It will be exciting at next year’s uLearn2020 to hear stories of what has been tried!

For more reflections on Sally-Ann's keynote see Sally-Ann Williams keynote and Google doc  in edSpace.



Blogger: Derek Wenmoth

CORE Education

CORE Education

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