What Does an Innovating Leader Look Like?

I was really curious to read Paul McGuire’s thoughts on this.  In his retirement, he’s known for making some brutally frank observations via his blog.

I would suspect that, if you ask any leader in education, that they would self-identify themselves as innovative.

It’s got to be a challenge; all of the administrative details could conceivably keep you nailed to a desk doing paperwork all day long.

Doug Peterson – This Week in Ontario Edublogs

It is always great to get writing prompts and Doug Peterson has just provided this one for me.

This is a good question – last week I wrote a post in response to  George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavor?  In the post, I wrote the following:

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.

Yes, I agree with Doug, brutally frank. However, this is not good enough. I am trying to define what innovation in leadership is by writing about what is missing in contemporary education leadership. It is easier to write about what is lacking rather than taking on the challenge to define what innovation in leadership really is.

So, what does innovative leadership look like? First, I think innovative leaders need to be willing to rewrite the book on how to manage groups of people. They need to look at every situation and reflect on how could things be done differently and hopefully, more effectively.

This means a bunch of things. It means that education leaders need to hand power back to the teachers they work with. Allow staff members to set the agenda when it comes to professional development, meetings, scheduling and in general, the running of the school. The idea behind this is that principals need to empower their staff members. These are exceptionally creative people and they need to know that they have control over areas that have an impact on the daily running of the school.

Teachers should be in control of their own learning, just as students need to be in control. Educators need to know that their voice matters and that the running of the school is a collective endeavour.

That is only one element of what I think it means to be an innovative leader. Being innovative means being open to new opportunities. One very innovative leader, Derek Rhodenizer took the opportunity to be innovative last week – for his last staff meeting of the year, he took his teachers fishing! He related later that this was a great way to encourage creative conversations amongst staff members.

To be really innovative, you have to take risks. When you think out of the box, you are trying to do things in a way that has not been tried before. What you try will not necessarily be popular with your supervisors, but you have to be willing to take this risk. This will come with a personal cost – you have to be ready to accept this.

Being an innovative leader has to become the way you think about everything you do. George Couros writes about this really well in the Innovator’s Mindset.

You can’t be stuck in the way things have been done, you, as a leader, are called upon to do better than they way things have been done.

There is one important caveat to all of this. As education leaders, we are part of a bigger system. In Ontario, we are responsible for fulfilling the curriculum as outlined by the province. Being innovative means looking for opportunities for change without calling into question the curriculum we were hired to implement.

Donna Miller Fry, someone I consider a real innovative leader in Ontario and now Newfoundland makes this point very clearly.

If there has been no learning, there has been no teaching.

As educators, we work in service of student learning.

We ask where a learner is now (assessment), where a learner is going (curriculum learning expectations), how a learner will get there (strategies to ensure students construct that learning) and how we will know (monitoring through assessment).

Donna Miller Fry – If There Has Been No Learning

This is an important cautionary note – yes, we need to be innovative, but we also must respect the fact that we are responsible for the learning that goes on in our building. Our innovative practices cannot be mindless. We need to keep aware that we have a great responsibility to the learners in our school. George Couros makes this point in the Innovator’s Mindset – we need to be able to innovate within the system we are a part of.

Innovative leadership has to be a fine balance. It has a great deal to do with the vision we have as leaders in our schools and it has to support the learning that goes on in your building every day. In my opinion, we can’t do a good job at leadership unless we challenge ourselves to question our practices every day that we are on the job. As George Couros writes,

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.  As budgets are cut in many places, how leaders rethink how they spend money, rethink timetables and learning spaces, allocate resources, is part of the  “new and better” thinking that is needed.

George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavour?

Have I defined what innovative leadership needs to be? I doubt it, but maybe this is at least a first attempt. Thanks Doug for the prompt. I hope this generates further discussion.

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Response to George Couros – Empowering or Stifling Voice?

As a blogger who tries to find something to post every week, I find lots of inspiration from the people I follow and read every day. I try to read something and comment when I can. George Couros is one of the best and I find I get lots of inspiration from his writing. Today’s post by George, Empowering or Stifling Voice? inspired me to make the comment below. If you read this post, please consider reading and commenting on what he has written – I think he really gets to the heart of the risks bloggers take when they go public with their ideas.

Thanks for this post George. I am sure I am one of those bloggers who makes errors each time I write. I find it a bit weird that people would make comments on a post that pick up on small errors – what is the point? Why try to bring someone down?
I remember meeting you at one of the BIT conferences in Niagara Falls. The encounter was so positive and friendly, you encouraged me as an educator and as a blogger. I really appreciated the positive nature of that encounter.
I think we always learn more from the positive encounters. The negative ones can be instructive, but criticism needs to be delivered with kindness for it to be effective.
I am now a retired educator which has allowed me to be more critical of established educational institutions than I could have been as a principal. I have received great support from people like Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley, and this encouragement has propelled me to write more. I sometimes feel like I am writing for an audience of two or three, but at least there is some audience out there that reads and comments on my posts.
What I do find bizarre and rather hurtful are the people who disagree with what I write but who respond by actually blocking me on Twitter.
To my knowledge, this has only happened once, but I truly don’t understand this behaviour.
If something you read upsets you, how does it help to block out that voice? How can you continue a conversation when you turn off the speaker?
Blogging is a risk. Everytime you hit the publish button you really don’t know what will happen next. People may like your writing, some will ‘unfollow’ you and I guess in rare cases you might be blocked.
As a blogger, what I would rather see would be a response. If you disagree with what is written, write back. It may take more time, but it shows more respect for the writer.
All that being said, positive comments are appreciated too!
Thank-you for being the inspiration for this piece of writing!
I hope your day goes better.

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?

Innovation – the New Overused Word in Education

Last week I read a Twitter post from a  colleague who works for my former school board it read, ‘Education is the key to making innovation the new standard.’

First, how can innovation be the standard? Innovation should be on the outside edge – innovation should be challenging the norm and innovators by their very nature are critical of the status quo.

Yesterday, I took part in a good conversation on innovation during one of the #MADPD sessions – a really different way to deliver PD unfettered by the typical school board staff who usually are the deliverers of PD to our educators. We were all very good at congratulating each other on being ‘innovative’, but I think we were all missing the point.

Innovation within a system is almost impossible. What we call innovation is usually just cheerleading, especially what we see summarized in the 140 characters of Twitter. It’s a lot of ‘look at me’ and it’s really not very helpful.

I say this because true innovation unsettles the system. The primary goal of the system, or any large institution –  is to protect itself. Protection means maintaining the status quo. Innovation cannot be the ‘new standard’ because true innovation might very well call for the elimination of large education corporations like the one I worked for.

Let me be very clear. Being innovative in a system can cause a great deal of pain. The organization will do almost anything to protect itself. In my case, this resulted in a fair amount of what I call ‘institutionalized bullying’. I was seen as a pariah for some of the things I said and did and I actually retired early to avoid any further disciplinary action from my employers.

Without going into the grimy details of what happened to me, I was seen as a trouble maker because I refused to just be a cheerleader for the latest system-wide ‘innovation’.

Last year during a study on George Couros’ book, ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’ I took part in a great Voxer chat on topics connected to the book. At one point we got into a conversation on the consequences of being an innovator. I was really surprised by the number of educators who were able to admit that they too had been scapegoated by their board for working outside the norm. You could feel the hurt in their voices as they talked about what had happened to them and I realized my story was in no way unique.

So, when we have conversations about ‘jumping into the unknown’, we should really take a step back. It’s not fun to be an outrider when you work for an education corporation. You shouldn’t be congratulating yourself for being an innovator because no one really likes someone who truly thinks outside the box. If you do, you threaten the box.

So maybe we need more truth-telling on Twitter. Maybe less cheerleading and less ‘8 things you can do today to be an innovator’. Maybe we need more clear and honest criticism of a massive system that eats and spits out those who think differently.

 

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.

Response to The Fear of Sharing

I just finished reading George Couros’ post The Fear of Sharing.  It is a great article.  I really wish I had a chance to work with George before I decided to leave the profession.  He is a real leader in education and is always empowering and positive – that is where the real growth and learning takes place.

I am borrowing a visual from another positive educator Amber Teamann.

the-fear-of-sharing-immooc-the-principal-of-change-clipular

What would it be like to work with positive educators like this?  I can only imagine.

Sharing makes us all better. Really liked Amber’s line: “If someone feels uncomfortable because you are doing good work, you are not the problem.”

I agree, but I can also remember being reprimanded for ‘sharing’ too much on my blog. Fortunately, this did not hold me back but pushed me to create more and be more critical of the people I worked for.

There is a certain amount of courage that comes with sharing – it is easy to be snubbed withing the small professional community you work in for really trying to connect with other educators. This does not bother me at all – I get so much more positive feedback from my PLN and the professional groups I work with outside the narrow group that used to employ me.

It is important to remember that sharing and creating and sometimes criticizing is what we should be doing.  You will rarely be rewarded or recognized by your own district – to criticize is often seen as being negative, not being a member of the ‘team’.  This doesn’t matter, if we are motivated by receiving the praise of others we will never get anything done.

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

couros

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!

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?