Obstacles to Innovation in Education – reflection on George Couros

 

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This morning I read a great post by George Couros: Flipping the Script; 3 Obstacles to Innovation Viewed Differently.

It ended with this statement:

If we start looking at the challenges as a great way to get people to think differently about the “why, what, and how” of education, we are in a good spot. If we ignore these statements and running away from the challenges, we are actively doing what we don’t want to happen in our schools.

We need to start looking at the challenges as opportunities to create something new and vital in education.

I have always heard the traditional reasons for not making radical change – ‘we don’t have the time, we don’t have the money, we are not sure this will work.’

George does a great job at debunking these obstacles.  I would add one other great obstacle that is really stifling innovation – the impact our practices will have on test scores.

We are really afraid of making radical change because of these obstacles and I think test scores create the greatest barrier to change.  It works a little like this – ‘If we just keep doing what we are doing but we tweak just a few things, we will finally get the results we have to get.’

One big question – even if we get these ‘results’ how do we really know that we are providing an education for our students that will help them to be the innovative and independent thinkers that our society really needs right now.  I can’t help but think that we are really missing the big picture here.

Why not risk?  Why not innovate?

For example, what if we tried some of these ideas?

  • allow schools to develop local partnerships to fund initiatives in their schools
  • put professional development in the hands of individual schools, principals and teachers
  • do away with any meeting that does not allow for active participation and learning for those involved
  • invite the community into our schools and allow them to offer their expertise to our staff and students
  • finally get over the textbook and the ‘5 computers per class’ model.  Provide every student with a good computer and make sure it goes home every night.
  • ask people what they think and what they want – students, teachers, parents, school administrators – stop telling everyone what is ‘good’ for all of us

This is a provocative list and readers may immediately respond with the time, money, results, will it work paradigm.

We need the collective courage to start over and ask very challenging questions on what innovation should look like – the compliance model simply doesn’t work and begs to be thrown out.

Thanks to George Couros for asking these tough questions.

Compliance vs.Engagement – A response to George Couros: Creativity, Daydreaming, and Cat Videos

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The purpose of this post is to just make people think about the changing expectations that we have for ourselves in our changing world, and the often stagnant expectations that we have for our students.  If our focus is truly on quality learning, creativity, innovation, we have to understand that a culture of compliance does not foster this for adults, nor our students.

Creativity, Daydreaming, and Cat Videos – George Couros

So much is at stake these days in education.  We want to develop innovative thinkers and to do this we need to open our eyes and learn to innovate on a system-wide basis.  In my experience, this is very hard to achieve.

As an administrator, I found that many colleagues would be on their e-mail or social media while at meetings at the district office.

The reason for this was pretty simple. These meetings were all about compliance and rarely about engagement or empowerment.  There was little interest in engaging us as learners or even asking what we thought about the policies and practices we were being presented with.

The overall mood at these meetings was that compliance is king and we will innovate for you.  As a result, many educators turned off and buried themselves in their computers.

Many of these administrators then returned to their schools and did the same thing to their staffs.

This is the plan and we all have to follow the plan.

How can we expect our teachers or students to engage when the model we experience as administrators is one based on blind compliance? How do we learn to innovate when we are not encouraged to become engaged in true decision-making about how to become innovative as a district?

When your opinion is not valued and when you are expected to comply with someone else’s ideas there is a serious disconnect.

It is possible to innovate as a system and George Couros argues that this is essential for systems to succeed.  While I always see ‘islands of innovation’, I do not see districts adopting innovation as the standard and the challenge.

Can this change?  Of course it can, once we engage educators in the discussion.

Leaders as Servants First

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Everyone in education has heard the line that the principal is key to the success of a school.

I have never been comfortable with this, more so after 12 years as an administrator in a variety of schools.  The administrator plays a key role, but the overall success of the school depends more on the leadership style of the principal.

It is difficult to teach a leadership style and to be honest, I am not sure how you would do this.

As administrators, we are well trained in a number of areas.  We take a whole host of courses that prepare us to deal with the administrative side of the job.  We are well equipped to deal with ministry regulations, curriculum expectations, school finance and management practices.

We are not well trained on how to deal effectively and compassionately with staff and the wider community.

I say this because over the years I have heard so many stories of administrators fumbling relationships with staff, parents and the wider community.  I have worked in several schools where I replaced administrators who had run roughshod over the emotional landscape of their school.  To be fair, I have also replaced excellent administrators and in these cases, I have done my best to continue to support their excellent practices.

The problem seems to be that you can’t teach ‘heart’.  You can’t teach a principal to lead from the back, to empower their staff and to make themselves the servant leader in the school.

Years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about how to test for true servant leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the last privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

This is not new.  Greenleaf wrote about Servant Leadership over 40 years ago. However, this essential ingredient in teaching people to become effective leaders is entirely lacking.

The result is troubling.  Administrators regularly act as if the teacher, educational assistant, custodian or parent do not truly matter.  Administrators routinely believe that their way of leading is the only way and what they know is what is best for their school.  The idea that they should stand back and play a supporting role is lost on many people.

This is not to say that there are no great leaders out there.  I have met many of them, some in our own district and many more at conferences I have attended and learning groups I have joined.

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It will be seen by many that writing about this smacks of disloyalty to other administrators.

This may be true, but I sincerely believe that we are not put in these positions to support other administrators, we are here to support our staff, students, and community.  We are here to create the conditions for the best learning environment possible.  We are here not to put our stamp on our school community, but to get out of the way and allow others to thrive.

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I love reading the work of George Couros.  He is a true leader when it comes to innovation in schools and the use of technology in education.  Most importantly however, he is a true believer in the importance of building healthy relationships.

When I talk about “innovation in education”, creativity in schools, or meaningful use of technology, I always begin by saying that nothing I say matters if you do not build relationships in schools. There is no “culture of innovation” if there is no positive culture. It is the foundation of which we build things upon.

George Couros

Maybe this is one reason why schools are failing to become centers of innovation.  If everything depends on the ‘vision’ of one individual, how can we expect innovation to take place?

How do we expect our staff to really express their creative voice?

This is what I see.  I am happy to hear from others with an opposing view. Whatever the case, we should consider the role of the leader and the enabler, the true servant of their community.

This is where true growth and innovation will flourish.

The Innovator’s Mindset: Powerful Learning First, Technology Second

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What I really like about this book are the provocations that are put out there in every chapter.  In chapter 9, George Couros writes about the importance of the appropriate technology being introduced into schools, but more importantly, he writes about the mindset that needs to go along with that.

We are trying to implement 21st-century technology with management systems that sometimes seem to harken back to the 19th century.

Our management systems have not caught up to the terrific learning opportunities, assisted by technology that are out there.  Couros quotes Seymour Papert in this chapter and I have to add part of the quote in this post because it defines the bind we are in as we try to revolutionize our inflexible education structures:

So if I want to be a better learner, I’ll go find somebody who’s a good learner and with this person do some learning.  But this is the opposite of what we do in our schools.  We don’t allow the teacher to do any learning.  We don’t allow the kids to have the experience of learning with the teacher because that’s incompatible with the concept of the curriculum where what is being taught is what’s already known.

Seymour Papert, Seymour Papert: Project-based Learning,” Edutopia, November 1, 2001.

What is really needed is a change of course (pg 146) when it comes to the application of educational technology in our schools.

George quotes Tom Murray from the Alliance for Excellence in Education and an article he wrote on “10 steps Technology Directors Can Take to Stay Relevant.” Based on this article, George poses  four questions that focus on the intelligent implementation of technology:

  • What is best for kids?
  • How does it improve learning?
  • If we do ______, what is the balance of risk vs. reward?
  • Is this serving the few or the majority?

These are essential questions – how often are these questions asked when it comes to the implementation of technology?  I believe, in my experience, these questions are asked by technology departments, but too often their way is barred by system decision makers who do not have as clear a vision on how to answer these questions.

Are we really asking what is best for the learner, or are we asking what is easiest, cheapest fastest in the short-term?  Are we really exploring what is best for all learners and do we really have a comprehensive plan to come up with the intelligent implementation that involves all learners – students and teachers alike.

 

OSSEMOOC Blog Hop – What if…

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What if we promoted risk-taking to our staff and students and modeled it openly as administrators? 

This is the ‘what if’ statement that really jumped out at me from George Couros’ book, The Innovator’s Mindset.  As an administrator, I really think that risk-taking has to be part of our job.  How can we expect that anything will ever get done if we wait for someone else in our organization to do it?

This is one of the great challenges of leadership.  Administrators must be accountable to the school boards who employ them.  School boards are ultimately accountable to the public.  This is very clear, but at the same time, I would argue that part of being accountable means taking the risks that are going to push the boundaries of educational practice.

If not the administrator in your school, who else is going to do this?

Taking risks can be a challenge.  We work in systems where compliance to a whole set of regulations is expected.  I recognize this and I take my responsibility seriously.  But, at the same time, I think we are all called upon not to ‘wait’ for the next great innovation, but to play an active role in being part of that next new wave.

This does not mean you have to have to jump on every bandwagon that comes along, but it certainly means that you have to live out on the edge a bit and be willing to take the kind of risks that will create an atmosphere in your school where others will also feel free to innovate and create.

This can get you labelled as a ‘rogue’ from time to time, but at least you are out there trying to make a difference.  The discomfort of being labelled will always pass, but the changes you initiate can have lasting benefits for your school community.

Just imagine.  When teachers and students feel free to create and follow their dreams in a safe environment that accepts innovation what great things will happen?  Things that you could never imagine if you spend all your time being in ‘control’.

I think more of us need to take that leap.  I think it is part of our job.  We were not put in these positions to remain complacent and comfortable.

So, start taking risks and see where this leads!

Leading and Empowering – reflections on George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset

I am combining a few ideas in this post.  In chapter 5 George Couros writes about leading, learning and innovating while in chapter 6 he writes about engagement versus empowerment.  He also focuses on compliance and how this stifles any real, deep learning.

These are challenging chapters because schools continue to be places where compliance is valued and innovation is in short supply.  As George mentions in an earlier chapter, it is not good enough to have islands of innovation, we need systems that encourage innovation and engage people in such a way that they are willing to take the risks necessary to bring about real change.

I think this is a tall order in education where compliance is valued as a way to make sure that the corporate vision is sustained.

Maybe real innovation, and real learning cannot be done on a system-wide basis.  There are organizations that thrive on innovation and engagement like Google and Apple to note the two best examples.  In neither corporation is compliance a core value.  Valuing compliance kills creativity and invention.  So how are we going to manage change and encourage innovation when we are more about ‘school’ and less about ‘learning’ as outlined in Sylvia Duckworth’s graphic above.

I would argue that there is nothing wrong with having our islands of innovation.  Over time, as more people write about creativity and learning there is always the chance that these islands will grow and possibly merge into subsystems where the results of innovative, empowering leadership may be noticed as the real way to encourage student growth and creativity.

My hope is that more people will write about the innovator’s mindset and that true innovation in education will become more than a convenient label.

People who want to lead their educational community will have to  seriously consider the lessons in these chapters.  Leaders need to ask are they all about learning or all about school.  Do they empower their staff, do they create a climate where risk taking is encouraged, have they moved away from a compliance model to one that favours empowerment of staff and students.

We are charged with developing the next generation and we need to always question and assess how we are doing.  Are we creating a generation of consumers or creators?

The Innovator’s Mindset – It’s all about Relationships

We need to build more organizations that prioritize the care of human beings.  As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other and advance the organization together.  As employees or members of the group, we need the courage to take care of each other when leaders don’t.  And in doing so, we become the leaders we wish we had.

Simon Sinek (pg. 67)

In chapter Four of The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros starts out with this quote and I think it sums up the message of this chapter.  So far, George has defined innovation and its essential elements.  In this chapter, he begins writing about laying the groundwork for innovation in an organization.  We all want to either be in or lead innovative organizations, but how common are these organizations?  How do we move from having ‘pockets of innovation’ to an organization where innovation is accepted and encouraged?

You can’t make innovation happen by stuffing the newest concept down the throats of your teachers.  This may encourage compliance, but it hardly encourages people to try new things, take risks and think outside of the box.

People need to know that their ideas will be valued, that they will be protected and that they live in a culture of ‘yes’ rather than in an environment where innovation is actually feared.

What a bizarre concept!  Fearing the innovative spirit because it may put more pressure on others in the organization or that it will raise expectations beyond what is considered reasonable.  When we create an atmosphere where we are most concerned about managing people we discourage innovation and stifle creativity.

This would not be acceptable in a classroom, so why would it be considered appropriate for a school or a system?

Still, we have all been in situations where ‘no’ is the norm.  No means the status quo or it means that one person’s ideas matter more than anyone else’s.

What we need to focus on are relationships.  We need to trust the people we work with and let them know that their ideas will find acceptance and understanding.  As George writes, “…we need to strive to create a “culture of yes.”  When trust is the norm and people know they are supported, taking chances seems less “risky” – for learners, educators, and leaders.” (pg. 73)

I totally agree with this approach.  Our job as leaders is to develop positive relationships with our staff so that new ideas have a voice and teachers are confident that their ideas are being listened to.  We need to be the spark, build confidence, then get out of the way. (pg. 78)

Why do we so often feel that we need to be the ones leading the change?  Why is our opinion so much more important than the collective? How do we limit the imaginations of our teachers managing the change process in our schools?  I really have no idea, but I do know that this approach stifles innovation and creativity.

Last week I watched a video on a Google experimentation lab.  The video is amazing, so I have included it here.  Basically, the idea behind the lab is to try new ideas without the normal institutional restraints.  If failure is going to happen, the members of the lab are actually encouraged to ‘fail faster’ so they can move on to some other new idea.  When you watch the video is clear there is mutual respect amongst the members of the team and all ideas and notions are valued by the group.  

What would it be like if we ran our schools even a little bit like this lab?  What would we be able to create?

What Innovation is and isn’t George Couros

 

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graphic by George Couros (pg 24) adapted from @PlugUsIn

 

I am working through George Couros’ new book, The Innovator’s Mindset.  It is a great read and it needs to be digested slowly.  In the first chapter of the book, George writes about what innovation is and isn’t.

This is extremely important.  Innovation is the new buzzword in education.  Just saying that we are being innovative doesn’t make it so.  We all know innovative teachers and administrators, but as George points out, having pockets of innovation is not enough, we need to be able to innovate as a system (pg 18).

Innovation according to George has to do with creating a mindset that leads to something new and better.  Making change just for the sake of change is nowhere good enough.

Richard Rohr has a wonderful quote that has meant a great deal to me.  He says, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” (Simplicity: the art of living, Crossroad, 1991)  What I take from this chapter, is that for true innovation to take place, we really need to start thinking differently.  We don’t need to change the whole structure of education, but we need to constantly evolve to make things better for student learning (Pg 21).

What a liberating idea!  To be innovative we do not need to reinvent ourselves, but we must live our  way into new ways of thinking. Technology can be a part of this new thinking, but it is not an end in itself, especially if it does not produce results that benefit the student.

What does this mean for our school?  If we are to be truly innovative, we need to constantly look at the ways we are teaching and how we offer new opportunities for our students to grow.

Staying still is simply not an option, not if we are to assume an innovation mindset.

The Innovator’s Mindset – George Couros

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I have been a big fan of George Couros for a long time.  I love his spirit and how he inspires people.  Now he has a book out – The Innovator’s Mindset (Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc 2015).  I think this is a very important read.  Even in the first chapter, we are encouraged to share our own stories, “because our students benefit when we learn from each other.”

I would like to use this blog to comment on what George is writing about.  When I can, I will add observations from my own innovators journey in the spirit of sharing that George is encouraging.

What I love about the first chapter is that George is clear on saying that innovation is not reserved for the few; it is something we will all need to embrace if we are to move forward.(pg 9)

How are we embracing innovation?  We all belong to large systems that thrive on stability.  How can innovation happen within these systems and how can it become part of what we do every day?

George makes a great point in this chapter that we can’t expect teachers to learn new technologies and train on ways to implement them on their own time.  At our school, the focus of our professional development is on digital transformation and we will do the learning during the school day as part of our professional development plan.

I am intrigued to see how we can develop a plan for constant innovation.  I think this idea is so important that I hope to write something about every chapter as I go through this book.

The bottom line is that we have to keep learning – George starts off the book with a great quote from Albert Einstein which we all need to consider, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

 

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We are embedding our learning into the school day this year. “As leaders, if we ask teachers to use their own time to do anything, what we’re really telling them is: it’s not important.”(pg 5)