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.

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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

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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!

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?

Reflections of George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset – Chapter Three – Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset

There is lots to write about in reflecting on this chapter – too much for one post.  Examining the characteristics of the innovator’s mindset is really important, so this is a chapter that should be read carefully – a few times.

The first point that resonates for me is that we don’t have to sacrifice innovation because of the limitations of the system.  It is a poor excuse to surrender just because it is too hard to work ‘within the box’.  We will always be inside a box – that is where the students are so we need to challenge ourselves to innovate where we find our students.  We can clearly do this and we have an obligation to do so.

The challenge for the innovative teacher is to find a way to reach every student, to help them to find the problems, not just solve the problems that we hand them.(pg 49)  Giving them the freedom to find and solve their own problems will create a generation of students who can learn effectively.

As an administrator, I am really interested in what George has to write about how educational leaders can support innovation in their schools.  What is especially important is the notion that every staff member needs to be able to progress from their point A to point B (pg 47).  Too often we see the one-size fits all PD that does not consider the learning needs of the educator.  As George puts it, we need to be able to lead with empathy and help teachers to find their ground so that they can become effective innovators.

In our school, we have chosen to focus on a few digital tools that can help teachers to innovate and meet the needs of the different learners in the classroom. Through a series of great webinars and prepared lessons, our teachers have been equipped to explore the possibilities of Discovery Education, Mathletics and Atomic Learning.  While some of these sessions were structured in a way to give teachers an introduction to these programs, they are now ready to develop their own learning plans to explore the great potential of these and other programs.

As an administrator, I see my role as the risk-taker for the staff.  If I don’t innovate and try new ways of doing things why should anyone else try?  It is certainly more easy to do things the way they have always been done, but then we are not serving our students.

This is not an easy route, and there can be consequences for taking these risks, but as educators that is what we need to do if we truly want to have an innovator’s mindset.

The Innovators Mindset reflections on George Couros

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I am now completing my third chapter on George Couros’ book The Innovators Mindset, and it is a truly liberating chapter.

Innovation is a complex idea.  I have seen innovation, especially in the last two years as having something to do with the use of technology.  What I am learning now is that innovation is all about mindset, technology can only be an assist.

This morning, I asked my wife – a wonderful teacher – ‘do you see yourself as an innovator’?  She said no, I don’t use the technology that you do.

My wonderful wife needs to read this book.  She is a true innovator.  She adapts her methodology to fit the child.  She is all about making her students successful.  She is truly an innovator.

I think what we need to do is let our courageous teachers know that they can innovate simply by assuming the mindset that failure is not an option.

George also makes a really important point – in an earlier chapter.  We are not all about scores.  We  want our children to be ready for a brand new world.  We need our children to be free thinkers with the ability to come up with ideas that have not yet been thought of.

I had a conversation with a supervisor who questioned the concept of digital innovation as there was no proof that this led to higher test scores.  This was a really disheartening conversation as I thought it missed the whole point about what innovation is all about.

As a wonderful solace, I was  offered an article by Dean Shareski.  If you are getting discouraged, read this.

It’s not about the scores, it is about creating new learners.  Teachers with an innovative mindset can do this.  Lets encourage the innovators and support them in the brave  work that they are doing.

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.