Tag Archive for innovation

The Metreon’s Lessons for Innovators

San Francisco MetreonOriginally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.

I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.

Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.

Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.

Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.

The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.

Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.

Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.


Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)

San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)

“What happened to the “Where the Wild Things Are” interactive play space that used to be in the Sony Metreon in San Francisco?” (Quora)

Beyond Measure Film Explores Next Generation Learning

Originally published on University Prep

On February 18, University Prep hosted a public screening of the film “Beyond Measure,” which was attended by about 80 U Prep families and members of the public. The film visits several schools across the country to tell the stories of students who are disengaged from conventional forms of schooling, in which standardization, testing, and content coverage feature prominently. The students speak eloquently of the difficulties of staying motivated and working hard in such programs, as their teachers and principals grapple with how to fully realize the potential of their students.

These school leaders, as well as one enterprising student, find examples in innovative schools such as High Tech High in San Diego and the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Throughout the film, experts such as Sir Ken Robinson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Yong Zhao share their thoughts on the best ways to teach for intellectual courage and global citizenship. Individualized learning, student-designed projects, and alternative programs are highlighted, and the students featured in the film find both inspiration and academic success.

After the film, Head of School Matt Levinson, senior Matan Arad-Neeman, English Department Head Christina Serkowski, and Science Department Head Brent Slattengren fielded questions from the audience. The discussion explored the ways in which University Prep has been upholding some of the film’s recommended practices, including teaching for depth over breadth, assessing students on a performance rubric, encouraging student presentation, designing interdisciplinary projects on contemporary topics, and fully supporting teachers to collaborate and innovate.

The panelists also explored University Prep’s ongoing efforts to develop further changes to the schedule and calendar, interdisciplinary learning, social and emotional learning, online learning, and student-designed projects. The school’s newly adopted strategic plan features Next Generation Learning as one of its three key components, and several faculty-student working groups continue to research and design options and opportunities for program innovation at University Prep.

Say “Yes” As Often As Possible

Some years ago, I discovered that it’s my job to say “yes” as often as possible. A school administrator is a gatekeeper whose support teachers seek for permission to try a new idea or change a policy. I used to think that my role was to evaluate a new idea and decide whether to support it. Now, I start from the assumption that we can do it and proceed from there. Saying “yes” imbues teacher leaders with confidence and trust and lays the groundwork for school innovation.

Do I shun responsibility by saying “yes?” Hardly. For one, if a teacher or program director brings forth an idea that lies far outside the mission and norms of the school, then I say so. However, the message is not that I personally disapprove of the idea but rather that it does not have a strong chance of success given the nature of the school. Most people take such feedback well. If they persist with their idea despite such feedback, then either they are right, or their idea will ultimately not pass muster with others.

If a person like me does not pass judgment on an idea, then do all ideas get approved, leading to organizational chaos? Not at all. Rather, I fulfill my role to design and lead institutional processes that thoroughly consider, refine, and approve ideas. When groups of people, working from considered norms, review ideas, then the process is higher quality and more inclusive. Groups possess more collective wisdom than individuals, and any one person possesses personal preferences and blind spots.
Two kinds of institutional processes, natural and structured, may be used to consider an idea. Natural processes include trial, error, and correction, similar to what design thinkers call “iteration.” A person with authority can simply say, “Why not? It seems like you have thoughtfully considered this idea. Go ahead and try it, and let’s see what happens.” This works well when the barriers to entry are low. Starting small is another common design thinking strategy, designed to keep barriers low until an idea begins to show value.
Structured institutional processes usually take the form of a committee. Effective committees include thoughtful members committed to the school mission.Clear norms are essential, so that all participants are operating from common principles. Cultivating teacher leaders through training and practice develops a strong pool of candidate committee members. Administrators in the room must share their opinions only sparingly or else risk making decisions de facto by influencing the decisions of teacher leaders.

“Yes” is a powerful motivator and “no” a powerful demotivator. If the success of a school depends on the collective ingenuity and hard work of everyone involved, then collective motivation helps … a lot. It is practically impossible for a single or group of administrators to come up with all of the good ideas that will help an organization succeed. I have seen many good institutions stagnate due to overly directive leadership and faculty discord. On the bright side, a motivated, confident faculty becomes a wellspring of thoughtful, strategic ideas, the foundation for a culture of innovation.
According to a popular refrain, leadership comes in four styles: autocratic, consultative, consensus, and delegation. Saying “yes” means that one makes autocratic decisions only infrequently or for minor matters that may also be defined as tasks. “Yes” means that we are going to use more inclusive decision-making methods when people come to us with ideas. Perhaps we will solicit a lot of input and then decide whether to support the idea. Or perhaps send the idea to a consensus-based decision-making group. Or perhaps the individual who brought the idea will decide how far to pursue it.
The response, “yes, and” has become a popular way to support free and open sharing of ideas in conversation. “Yes, and” is certainly preferable to saying “yes, but.” However, why not just say, “yes” and stop there? Even when well-intentioned, adding “and” to a colleagues’s idea partially appropriates it. The person has only just expressed a thought, and we’re already improving on it? Better to respect the person’s thoughtfulness and trust later peer processes to further develop it. Say “yes,” as often as possible and design systems processes to support school innovation.
Photo credit: Kai Friis on Flickr

Join Us for Innovative Leadership

I will be co-leading this summer’s seminar on Innovative Leadership, offered by Santa Fe Leadership Center and Hillbrook School Center for Teaching Excellence. It would be great to see you there. This seminar is a great opportunity to engage deeply with ideas of innovation, risk, creativity, and school change, within a retreat setting, and along with 40 thoughtful colleagues from other schools. Seminar leaders include Carla Silver, Greg Bamford, Ryan Burke, and me. Guest presenters will include Jump AssociatesThe Grove Consulting, and Patricia Ryan Madson.

Innovative Leadership
June 23-27, 2013 :: Silicon Valley, CA

Flip.Shift. Disrupt.

  • Why innovate? What forces or compels us to innovate?
  • What are the qualities of innovators and how might I develop these qualities in my own leadership?
  • How can I develop a culture of innovation at my school?
  • What are sustaining and disruptive innovations on the horizon?
  • How do I implement innovations and manage the full spectrum of responses from my community?
  • How do I distinguish between sticky innovations and passing fads?

Learn more and register

Are Independent Schools Innovating?

The theme of innovation pervaded this year’s NAIS annual conference. Keynote speeches looked toward a different future, some schools shared innovative projects, and more responded enthusiastically and expressed the desire to participate. Does this mean that significant numbers of independent schools are substantially changing their educational programs, or not? Brad Rathgeber thinks so. Kevin Ruth says, “not so fast.”

How would we know whether school innovation, speaking broadly, is a movement or a fad? How high will adoption peak, and then how far will it fall? One way is to track stories about school innovation. However, this dialogue seems insufficiently complex to allow one to understand the mechanics or results of innovation. Many reports of innovative practice feel similar. A singular leader invents a brilliant idea, an unknown number of teachers embrace it, and students are transformed by the experience. The focus of the presentation is usually on the idea itself, and the argument for effectiveness is often circular and unsubstantiated.

Another approach is to find quantitative studies. These take years to develop, but as we have seen with studies of youth and social media, the results can be extremely compelling. I am not aware of significant quantitative studies of program innovation in independent schools. Are you?

A third is to gather the wisdom of others. Many colleagues have worked in our schools for decades and may speak authoritatively about whether schools are substantially different from before. Speaking personally, I hear them say that schools have changed significantly on the surface but the core values have remained pretty much the same. Thinking more broadly, some scholars suggest that secondary education in the U.S. has not changed for decades.

I would love to hear about rigorous study of independent school innovation, quantitative reports of broad trends, or other useful information on this topic. Specific information about this innovation trend will surely help us facilitate the best of it within our schools.

Is Innovation in Your DNA?

The Innovator’s DNA (Christensen, Dyer, and Gregersen) offers an uncommon combination of pop corporate storytelling and research study results. Lessons learned from their analysis of innovative leadership practices may be applied to education settings.

In contrast to their own title, the authors find identify seven critical discovery skills that can be developed. They are not unchangeable qualities of innovators.

  1. Association
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Experimenting
  5. Networking
  6. Challenging the Status Quo
  7. Risk Taking

Networking particularly offers new potential in an information age. Active participation in electronic networks increases one’s connectedness to professionals in other institutions, leading to more powerful professional development opportunities, school visits, and personal connections.

Interestingly, the authors find immersion in a foreign culture to be a common trait about innovative CEOs. Living in another country increased leaders’ abilities to connect disparate ideas and imagine new possibilities.

Associating—or the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies—is an often-taken-for-granted skill among the innovators we studied. … Conceptually, as innovators increase the number of building-block ideas, they substantially increase the number of ways they might combine ideas to create something surprisingly new.

Christensen et al find that creativity is not a fixed trait. Rather, one can develop it through practice. In addition, behaviors precede changes in attitude. Frequently engaging in discovery skills leads to conceptual change. This is one model for how a leader can develop a culture of innovation in one’s school.

In independent school discussions, creativity and innovation are sometimes mentioned in the same breath. This may lead to a focus on the arts as the principal source of instruction for creativity in the school. The authors find that creativity alone does not necessarily lead to innovation. Innovative leaders desire to change the status quo and take strategic risks put creative ideas into practice. Schools should therefore see innovation as a school-wide initiative, perhaps led by an interdisciplinary team but certainly not based in just one discipline.

Why do institutions resist change? The authors fault the “status quo bias, the tendency to prefer an existing state of affairs to alternative ones.” Innovative leaders shun the status quo, whereas delivery-oriented leaders focus on execution and risk aversion. Certainly this is true in most schools, where administrators, teachers, parents, and students find comfort in long-held models of what education should look like.

In schools, aversion to failure may also have to do with the costs of mistakes. Failed classroom experiments affects kids’ learning. However, I would personally rather model bold experimentation and occasionally hit the jackpot with a transformative learning activity than consistently organize good but uninspiring lessons.

Though most of the book’s analysis applies equally well to education as to business, the book’s treatment of education itself leaves much to be desired. One paragraph alone describes The Met’s internship-based program, one of my favorite examples of reimagining school. Sir Ken Robinson earns a mention.

Reassessing Educational Purpose

School change starts with a reassessment of educational purpose. Why do we teach children, and what ultimate goals should we have for their education? Jakarta International School has taken that step.

With knowledge expanding exponentially and technological access to that knowledge morphing daily, schools are reassessing their essential structures and roles. Recent brain research has converted some hunches into certainties, while throwing some challenging questions to educators the world over. In short, we are learning about how students learn best. Some forms of learning are almost universally effective, and some need to be tailored to individuals’ unique styles. We must therefore convert our schools, perhaps fundamentally, to allow for new and appropriate methodologies of learning.  

“Convert our schools.” That’s pretty strong stuff, embracing change to ensure the continued relevance of an educational program. I would love to learn more about how the school reached this point, how pervasive is the commitment to this vision, and what it looks like in practice.

Co-curricular Innovation Council

We have launched a “Co-curricular Innovation Council” so that co-curricular program leaders can more easily consult with each other, work together on common projects, and build stronger partnerships with classroom teachers. The committee includes directors of the global education, urban studies, outdoor education, teaching and learning, athletics, robotics, community service, Knight Scholars, and instructional technology programs. These program directors have historically directed their programs mostly by themselves or in partnership with one or two other people. This committee creates a systematic way for program leaders to request feedback from each other and launch projects together.

As co-curricular programs have evolved from mere “activities” to fully-fledged experiential learning environments, it has become more important to coordinate these programs and build stronger connections between co-curricular programs and classroom teaching. Students often refer to outdoor trips, robotics projects, or urban planning presentations as their most memorable learning experiences. Why should they experience dramatically different teaching styles between classrooms with and without four walls?

Organizing program directors together allows us to strengthen what we have in common: a focus on 21st century content domains (global citizenship, environmental stewardship, technology, etc.) and skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.). Facilitating ways from program directors to work more closely with classroom teachers creates potential for more experiential learning opportunities within classroom instruction. Our classroom teachers have been creating terrific experiential learning opportunities for years. Now they get more potential partners and conceptual support for their project work.

Director of Technology and Learning Innovation

I have changed my title to “director of technology and learning innovation.” Tech staff members are sometimes seen as just working with computers. My new title is intended to make it apparent to the school community that I also work on projects that involve technology tangentially or not at all. These have included leading global trips, revising curriculum mapping standards, and modeling collaboration fourth and fifth grade, among others.

What is in a title? An accurate job title helps clarify one’s role in the institution, especially to new employees, parents, and people outside of the school. While I generally abhor long titles, I felt that I had expanded sufficiently beyond a traditional technology director role to warrant the change.

I particularly want to emphasize learning innovation when presenting myself in order to strengthen partnerships with my many colleagues at school who are currently working hard to investigate and adopt new models of teaching and learning. I hope that this will lead to greater collaboration with colleagues on learning innovation projects throughout the school.

The God Complex

Tim Harford, economics writer, explores the hubris of experts and the role of experimentation in innovation and problem solving (by way of Gary Gruber). How might one work to encourage experimentation and open-mindedness in a school?