You Say You Want a Revolution?

originally published in the Santa Fe Leadership Center Monthly Newsletter

You Say You Want A Revolution?

by Richard Kassissieh
Richard Kassissieh is the Director of Technology and Education Innovation at Catlin Gabel School in Portland Oregon. He is a member of Los Sabios, the SFLC advisory board, and will be a facilitator at the Innovative Leadership Seminar, Summer 2012.

I returned from last week’s NAIS Annual Conference abuzz with asense of potential and possibility for substantial educational change. If
you did not attend, innovation was the conference theme, and presenters from across the country shared many projects that featured student-centered instruction and 21st century learning. I felt more momentum for significant change in classroom instruction than ever before. Have independent schools begun a wholesale shift toward new models of teaching and learning?

In the same week, an article titled “Twilight of the Lecture” ran as the feature in Harvard Magazine (Lambert, 2012). In the article, a Harvard physics professor described his discovery that student independent and group work promotes learning better than lecture. For those interested in innovation and teaching and learning, this news may be discouraging. How can we be in the midst of a revolution in instruction if college instructors are just now considering an alternative to the lecture?

We have seen a parade of impressive, though small-scale, educational initiatives over the decades, such as global programs and Maker’s labs. However, over the same period of time, these changes have lived on the periphery of the instructional program at most institutions, while the core instructional model, informed by persistent educational beliefs, has remained unchanged. If a high school educator from 1950 were suddenly transported to the present, he would find today’s typical classroom very familiar. Can we do anything to give the latest wave of school program innovations more staying power, a greater chance to become part of the fabric of the school program?

Innovative practice necessarily starts small, as the most innovative teachers try out new ideas, take risks, and make mistakes. How does an institution scale the ideas generated by a small group of pioneers up to a whole school program? First, we must recognize that the exploratory spirit of the pioneers is either diminished or completely lost when others are asked to implement an idea they did not invent. The remainder of the faculty is unlikely to find the new ideas as inspirational and self-evident as do the pioneers who adopted them.

In one implementation strategy, the pioneers spread out to the departments and programs responsible for implementing the innovation (Carrigg, Honey, and Thorpe, 2005). These individuals may be able to sustain some of the pioneering spirit and original purposes of the innovation as widening circles of people implement the ideas.

Adopting a new form of teaching requires an experienced practitioner to feel like a beginner again. Some of the most critical thinkers in one’s faculty will be willing to become beginners if the new program is thoughtfully constructed, carefully explained, and critically evaluated. Providing substantial time for discussion and preparation will also help thoughtful practitioners feel ready for these new experiments. Teachers may also appreciate the flexibility to modify aspects of the new program to be responsive to their local context.

Second, we must organize other parts of the school to support the initiative. How many good ideas have we seen fail for lack of space, time, funds, professional development, parent communication, or teacher evaluation? The less-than-glamorous work of organizing support programs behind an innovation must be completed with careful attention. Support activities may include funding sources, classroom modifications, technology systems, and professional development days.

Third, attention to the innovative practice must be maintained to ensure a long life for the initiative. An official curriculum can lose much of its original design as it passes through the “multilayered curriculum” (Cuban, 2012). Teachers determine what is actually taught, students determine what is actually learned, and assessments determine how the effectiveness of the curriculum is measured. This requires the instructional leadership of the school, the pioneer group, and all of the teachers to continue to design, share, and assess their work on the initiative over the span of years.

Schools may make a strategic effort to sustain the most effective innovative projects. Teacher support, program alignment, and long-term attention can transform pilot projects into permanent programs.

Further reading:

Carrigg, Fred, Margaret Honey, and Ron Thorpe (2005). Moving From Successful Local Practice to Effective State Policy.

Scaling Up Success: Lessons From Technology-Based EducationalImprovement. 1-26.

Cuban, Larry (2012). The Multi-layered Curriculum: Why Change Is often Confused with Reform.

Kassissieh, Julia and Rhonda Barton (2009). The Top Priority: Teacher Learning.Principal Leadership.

Lambert, Craig (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Harvard Magazine



  1. Ben says:

    I think what confounds many educators, and maintains the “periphery” status of most innovative practice is the very nature of innovation itself.

    What is innovative today, will not be tomorrow, or at the very longest, next week. While I use a bit of hyperbole, the point is that when innovative practice is encouraged, and structures and models are put in place to implement and spread its influence, eventually the innovative practice becomes the norm, and thus in my mind loses that “innovative” feeling, making room for something else lurking ont he edge of the educational realm to become “the innovation”.

    I would prefer a model that encourages innovation, but not spreading a single innovative practice to a wider audience. In other words, find a way to sustain innovative partitioning in all of the classrooms and buildings within a district, and then herald the process through which the teachers and learners are partaking to make sure that they’re always pushing the boundaries of what they know they can achieve.

    Great thoughts, thanks Richard!

  2. […] Kassissieh You say you want a revolution? I returned from last week’s NAIS Annual Conference abuzz with asense of potential and possibility […]

  3. Richard says:

    Yes, Ben, distributing iterative, ongoing, innovation across an institution is a worthwhile goal for a school or district. The good ideas of entire faculty should outnumber the good ideas of a small group of instructional leaders. Teachers feel empowered when they are encouraged and supported to innovate within their contexts. It is more long-lasting to create an ongoing practice of innovation rather than repeatedly gearing up for new program work.

    Such innovation needs some amount of institutional prioritization and coordination to last. Lots of micro-innovation (my term) may lead innovative practitioners to feel isolated. They may master a new practice in their immediate context and want to encourage others to do it as well. This may be difficult to accomplish without support from school leadership. I suspect that larger institutions have more capacity to encourage micro-innovation, as the teacher’s immediate context may be a program or a school, rather than just one classroom.

    Imagine the sixth grade teacher who would like students to experience a new learning environment that he has developed across the entire sixth grade program, rather than just in his class. The individual innovator may become exhausted and discouraged if he is swimming upstream against the rest of the school program or even competing with other individual innovations.

    I am pleased when I look at schools that have made yesterday’s innovations part of the fabric of the place. They feel more vibrant than institutions in which the original innovation was only partially implemented and then faded as a new innovation came along and took people’s attention.