4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation: A Response to George Couros

1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?

2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?

3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning? 

4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?

George Couros 4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a principal’s meeting where everyone, including the superintendents, were asked these four questions? What a rich conversation this would be!

School Boards love to be seen as being innovative. Mostly this is because while they truly value innovation, it is almost impossible to achieve.

In my last school board, we all had to have a school innovation plan. It used to be a school improvement plan, but innovation sounded so much better. Basically, we were all going to be innovative and we were going to make sure we were being innovative by June 1st at the latest.

It sounds silly and it certainly was. I think large organizations really value compliance over innovation any day because innovation is messy and is hard to regulate. Large school boards are not good at messy.

Compliance, however, means that there is alignment from the top to the bottom (school) of the organization. We are all moving in the same direction and that direction is very innovative.

George’s questions are great and we should be asking our school boards and school administrators these questions. They are really hard questions. Take the first one – does our professional development mirror what we want to see in the classroom? Maybe, but then principals would have to have autonomy over what professional learning is in the schools and that seldom happens. More often, the professional development plan is directed by the school board and the plan has to align with the greater goals of that board. Not a recipe for innovative practice.

One more question – are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practice? To examine this, we would need to look at a school board’s policies and procedures and see who they actually serve. Do they work to develop a more compliant culture or do they truly allow educators to innovate and take chances – another tough question.

I responded briefly to George’s post below. If you are an administrator, how would you do with these questions?

My response:

Really thoughtful post thanks for this. School boards love the idea of innovation, but it is really hard for them to practice this. By their very nature, they attempt to preserve what they have. This does not lead to innovative practices, but no school board will ever say they are not innovative. They may have ‘school innovation plans’ but they are hard-pressed to actually do very much that is innovative. I don’t think this is really the fault of the school board – how can a large organization or corporation really be innovative? This is a really big challenge

Response to George Couros: 4 Ways To Not Let Others Dim Your Light

One of the great things about walking all day is that you have lots of time to think. This latest post has been on my mind and I think after walking such a great distance, it is a good idea to put this out there.

Again, George Couros is an inspiration, but this is something that was on my mind throughout our West Highland Way trek. I would encourage you to read his entire post. He makes a great deal of sense and I just wish more people in senior administration would do more than just retweet his work and ponder what he is saying.

I hope that what George writes and what I am writing here will help people who are going through similar experiences. If this is you, read carefully what George writes and don’t let anyone ever dim your light!

The reality of our world is that people get threatened when other people shine their light on the world.  This bothers me even more so when it is educators doing it to educators, as our jobs are to empower those we serve, not try to bring them down.  If you are doing this to a colleague or peer, would you do it to a student? Would you do it to my daughter if she was in your classroom?  In education, this is unacceptable.

Here is my response to the post.

Thanks George, a very good post and excellent advice. There does come a time however when you need to consider leaving the system when those in positions of higher authority have made the decision to block you any way they can. I guess this come under #3 ‘move on and ignore’.

You are right to point out that it is strange that educators can treat other educators poorly, but my experience tells me that with a few notable exceptions, educators forget who they are (or were) the higher up the corporate eduladder they climb.

They can be very cruel and unforgiving to the point where on my case, they suspended me for three weeks without cause. While I was later vindicated and invited back into the professional fold, they never apologized which to me is inexcusable.

A year after my suspension, I retired from my board and I am much more at peace. I still have a great community of positive fellow educators that I work and correspond with, but I no longer have to suffer the negative soul destroying authoritarians who made my life so difficult.

Coming on to two years now after the suspension, it still rankles and this is something that could still be solved with a simple ‘sorry’.

How can we expect to make real progress in our education systems when the people at the top expect blind compliance. To forge a different path means that you could be punished with impunity.

That was the end of my comment today.

I don’t expect ever to hear from my former employers. It would be good if they took responsibility for their actions. It was shameful, but I have certainly moved on.

I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have had the privilege of assisting my partner through major surgery and I have trekked more than 100 km through the Western Highlands with my daughter.

I have left the past behind and I love the exciting challenges that the future presents.

Thanks George and the West Highland Way for getting this post written – finally! Now on to more great positive adventures in the future.

Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

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.

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?