Google Innovators: Finding Your Hedgehog

desktopI currently have 22 tabs open on my computer. I’m writing a blog post, following the #deeperlearning Twitter posts from the conference in Pittsburg, chatting with my #MTV16 peeps on Google Chat, Google+ and on Slack at the sametime, listening to the Startup Podcast, writing a thank you email for a Massey Hall fundraising committee I’m part of, working on a unit plan for my Grade 12 course, prepping some ideas to send off to my Google Innovator mentor, the incredible Kevin Jarrett, working on an application for yet another PD program, logging my latest run in my Ironman training plan and online shopping for a new cycling backpack that converts into panniers.

My March break hasn’t been very exciting, but I’ve been consuming information at an incredible rate and trying to get a lot of things done. Yet despite all my free time, I feel like I haven’t really accomplished very much and my head is swimming with so many idea and the only time I have to process and think about it all is when I am actually swimming. After my last post about how I’m not really into meditation, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I should find some space in my life to just sit and be present after all.

With all these ideas, things to do and possible pathways to follow, how do I focus on building one thing this year for my Google Innovation project?

Enter Jay Atwood, a teacher at the Singapore American School and part of the ever-so-talented EdTech Team crew. Jay’s presentation was all about how to decide where to focus our energy, using the humble hedgehog as a metaphor for mastering the ability to do ONE thing very well, rather than trying to be many things at once, like a fox would.  

hedgehogThe concept originally comes from a Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” and was made popular by Isaiah Berlin in his 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In his essay, Berlin contended that some people are like foxes, sleek and shrewd, in pursuit of many goals and interests at the same time. The result is scattered and unfocused behaviour that limits their ability to be successful in the long run.

On the other hand, some people are slow and steady and focused on doing one good thing well, much like the hedgehog, who has perfected the art of defending itself. Their attention helps them succeed because they can simplify their lives to work towards a singular goal. I need to find and channel my inner hedgehog.

“There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel- a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance- and on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.”

Then Jay introduced us to the work of author Jim Collins, who applied this concept of the hedgehog to his 2001 book, Good to Great. According to Collins, companies are more likely to succeed if they focus on one thing, and do it well.

So how can this be applied to our lives as teachers, in particular teachers who are interested in innovation? Teaching is a job that inherently requires multitasking, being able to juggle a dozen things at once, and switch gears easily from task to task. We need to know a little about a lot of things, be curious about the world and constantly learning alongside our students in order to stay relevant. How can we possibly focus on just one thing?

Jay encouraged us to think about this question in terms of our project for the Google Innovator Program by taking the venn diagram created by Collins:

Slide courtesy of Jay Atwood

Slide courtesy of Jay Atwood

And also to consider the venn diagram created by the X team, which I explained in an earlier post:


He also reminded us that sometimes, what is easy or obvious to us, might be amazing to other people, with this cute video by David Sivers:


To help us figure out what our own skills and strengths are, Jay walked us through an exercise with post-it notes. First, we generated a list of all of the things that we think we are good at, in relation to our work. 

My initial list

My initial list

Then, we sorted the list, in response to a variety of prompts:

hedgehog prompts

In the end, I came up with my hedgehog(s). I couldn’t focus on just one thing, because I think that they are all connected. 

  • Understanding problems from multiple perspectives and developing solutions through design thinking.
  • Identifying connections between students and the real world to make learning more relevant to students.
  • Learning as I go, not being afraid to fail.

Maybe we need to be good at more than just one thing?! (Poem by Jack Gilbert)

But for the purpose of this project, Jay encouraged us to think about our hedgehog in terms of a “why” question. Why is X important.

For me the answer to path to my “why” lies in my second hedgehog: making learning relevant for students. If students can learn from me how to solve problems as they go, to not be afraid to fail and to solve problems incorporating others perspectives (empathy), then they will be more prepared for success in the future.

Jay then invited Jenny Magiera to join his presentation. Jenny spoke about the need to “Keep our eye on the why..” She spoke about how when we are trying to create change, in schools or anywhere else, it is easy to get bogged down in the little details, which can lead to sidetracks and tangents, and weeks later realizing that we have lost our path to our purpose.  

We see this in schools all the time. Jenny talks about it in the start of her TEDx Talk about empowering students. It is easy to put off making change until tomorrow, or to get lost in 22 open tabs on our computer and forget about the bigger picture. But, with Jay’s guidance, and the help from a little prickly friend known as the hedgehog, I am hopeful that I’ll be able to keep my eye on the prize. 

Thank you, Jay for helpful (and slightly challenging for us foxes) session! Up next in my Google Innovator series: Designing Solutions for People – advice from the Co-Founder of Google Docs, Jonathan RochelleJoel Solomans, of Google Expeditions.


3 comments to “Google Innovators: Finding Your Hedgehog”
  1. I get so frustrated with my tab management. I’ll open things up, get distracted, move onto another and consistently have multiple things on the go at the same time. My sticky note to do lists are out of control, and then I have even more lists on my idea sticky notes, and then more notes on brainstorming other alternative ideas… I love/hate how every answer generates more questions, how every tick on my my to-do list adds a few more items to the bottom.

    Thank you for sharing the hedgehog and the ‘x’ diagrams, I think those are really helpful when thinking of how to organize time and priorities! I went to this session at NAEA conference where they talked about Wendy Belcher’s accountability charts. I kind of always new about these, but never really thought about the power of them. The presenter talked about how just 15min a day, are over an hour a week, and are over 5 a month, and over time it just accumulates. I was going to commit to drawing for 15min/day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *