Tag Archive for innovation

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?

Experiential Programs in the Core

An earlier post examined experiential instruction that thrives within co-curricular programs. What about the core classroom program of the school, in which students spend most of each day? What potential exists for teachers to include aspects of experiential programs within discipline-based classes?

At Head-Royce School, some experiential programs have found willing partners within discipline-based classes. Robotics is a full credit class within the science department. Statistics classes examine social behaviors within the school. Sustainability is a common theme.

How did Head-Royce successfully integrate elements of experiential programs within discipline-based classes? Several factors work together to make this a friendly climate for experiential learning.

Structural integration
The technology integration specialist is also the history department chair. The network administrator also teaches gardening to elementary students. Most program specialists — club advisors, coaches, and program directors — are also discipline-based teachers. They integrate experiential activities into their own classes, and serve as role models for colleagues who wish to do the same. They do not need to act as an external lever for change because they are already on the inside.

A culture of innovation and reflective practice
The school has for years identified a specific innovation theme in teaching practice annually. These special initiatives build up over time, causing a gradual trend toward greater innovation throughout the program. Recently, the curriculum committee undertook to better understand 21st century learning — what it meant and what were the implications for their school. This led to the adoption of 10 principles of innovative teaching practice.

Teachers are expected to explore at least three of the 10 principles of innovative teaching practice. They report back to the curriculum committee via department chairs on the progress they have made.

Visionary Leadership
The head of school regularly encourages and expects teachers and staff to innovate in specific areas, such as teaching computer science throughout the instructional program. He took the administrative team to the Stanford Design School to empower them to adopt new teaching practices and structures.

Is this enough?
Despite these superb examples of experiential education in discipline-based classes, the Head-Royce program is still easily recognized as a traditional, discipline-based, content-centered instructional program. Other schools, especially in the public sector, have gone much further in including experiential learning in the core instructional program. A future post will examine public school change initiatives that could work effectively at independent schools.

Photo courtesy of Catlin Gabel School


Entrepreneurship and Schools

Should schools become more entrepreneurial? One person with whom I had a conversation the other day thinks so. Do you have special programs or events at your school? Spin them off so that they must be financially self-sufficient, forcing them to adapt to survive. Do you have untapped resources that you could leverage to raise revenue? Do you offer summer school or a summer teacher institute? How often do your buildings lay idle? What is your merchandise store like?

On the one hand, these ideas appeal to me for how they embrace the initiative of individuals. However, several distinguishing features of schools make me wonder how effective a business-style entrepreneurial approach would be in a school. For one, schools are culturally sensitive — they place greater value on relationships and humanity than your typical corporation. Second, schools serve students, so if an experiment within the school’s “core business” goes awry, students experience the drop in quality. Third, schools do not tend to hire for entrepreneurial wisdom. Whereas a business might cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit from top to bottom, how many individuals in a school are prepared to take strategic risks?

Maybe the answer is to start from the periphery of the school and proceed one step at a time. Perhaps the call is to ask schools to broaden their idea of how a school could operate. Let experiment — with sharing content, outsourcing our school merchandise, or starting a rich summer program — and then keep what works and discard what does not, but with an attitude that allows for failure rather than allowing it to retard innovation. If that goes well, then perhaps a day will come to shake up some of the assumptions that define the core program.