Curious about innovation in K12

innovation2For a few weeks, much of my curiosity has centered on this idea of innovation (whatever that is!) in schools and the leadership required to bring it about. An earlier post, Leading Innovation for Systemic Change, represents the early stages of my curiosity. Over the past few days I’ve generated some inquiry questions on innovation in K12. Here are the questions I plan to explore as I think about how to transfer what I learn to my practice. Questions:

  • What is innovation? How is it defined? Is there a common understanding or do multiple definitions/interpretations exist?
  • Why innovation? Why is this a shift we should care about as educational leaders?
  • What does it look like in schools?
  • What are we already doing that’s innovative?
  • How can we lead for innovation? What conditions are necessary to support innovation from teachers and leaders?
  • What kinds of learning environments and instructional practices best support innovation in learners?
  • What can parents do to support the development of innovation skills outside of school?
  • Does a person need any particular skills to innovate? If so, can they be learned?
  • If I wanted to connect with the main thought leaders in K12 innovation, who would they be? What other resources, including books, blogs and minds, would I want to access?



Have suggestions for additional inquiry questions, books or bloggers to add to the list? Add them in the comments or visit this Google Doc. Thanks for your help!

#edcampldr 2015 – Philadelphia

mcdpel_edcampIt was a great day at EdcampLDR yesterday in Philadelphia. Sessions at any conference/unconference can be hit or miss – either engaging, well-facilitated, edgy conversations that push attendees to think about ideas they wouldn’t consider in a normal day, or more traditional stand/deliver conference sessions where an “expert” seems to be pushing their brand. At the end of the day, the sessions I participated in were of the former and not the latter, making the day particularly worthwhile.

I had the opportunity to attend four sessions:

Thanks to the facilitators for guiding rich conversations that led to more takeaways for me than I have at most of the traditional conferences: the possibilities of Edcamp style PD in-district, becoming more conscious of student voice in all aspects of our educational system, how new technologies such as Periscope will disrupt our system (for good or bad), and how we might move higher ed to so that future educators – teachers and leaders – are well-prepared to enter and move forward a re-imagined system of education. All valuable ideas that came to the surface through engaging conversations.

In addition to new ideas, I left the day with two big questions:

  • Why weren’t more school leaders in attendance? The event had a healthy attendance of about 150 eager participants, many new to the Edcamp experience. (There were also other sites around the country and across the world talking about many of the same issues.). But where were those with the most influence? More superintendents, even school board members. What does it take to get leadership to these kinds of event to understand the urgency for change?
  • Why are leaders still throwing up blocks to change, even if so subtle? “We could never provide every students access to a device; but it’s not a priority of the state department of education; the tech department blocks that.” Aren’t these really just excuses to avoid more challenging conversations? Why can’t you provide a device for each learner or let them bring in their own? Start a conversation if you believe it’s that important. Not a priority for the state department? Make it your priority. Let’s stop waiting to be told what to do – blaze our own path if we think it’s right. We can practice this inside and outside our organizations. Tech department is lock and block? Push back hard and ask for what reason. Maybe there is more context I need to understand within the individual instances I was hearing, but my general takeaway is that as leaders we need to be more aggressive in creating urgency for change, on all levels.

How do we engage more school leaders in PD opportunities that prompt us to think about the urgency to change our system? How can we take a more aggressive approach in creating that urgency both inside and outside our organizations?

The crumbling status quo…

univeristyK12In K12 we have the staunch defenders of two symbols of the educational landscape status quo – “rigorous” final exams and lecture-hall style seating/teaching. Responding to progressive education models, we’ll often hear these defenders of the status quo shout, “But we need to prepare them for college!” A recent article indicates there may be cracks in (and momentum toward crumbling) the traditional university model/philosophy.

Anne Knock (@anneknock) writes about a move in universities toward collaborative learning spaces and away from traditional lecture spaces: Insights for schools: Trends in university learning space design, big shift from lectures to collaborative learning design. Knock highlights how the shifts at many major universities are representative of a change in philosophy from a tutor/lecturer focus to more engaging, collaborative learning environments.

I recall another article, from nearly 5 years ago, about final exams: Final exams are quietly vanishing from college. Originally appearing in the Boston Globe, the writer described how Harvard University had only 23% of undergraduate classes administering a traditional three-hour, sit-down, blue-book final exam. Another sign of cracks in the traditional university model?

Let’s stop preparing students for the narrow world of university and better prepare them to overcome the real-world complex challenges they will face in the future.

What are your experiences with shifting summative assessments and learning environments at the university level? If these are in fact trends, how should they inform K12 leadership practice?

The missing hat?

From the perspective of educational leadership, ideas in business books can often be applied to our own practice. In fact, the fun of reading books such as Good to Great, Leadership Vertigo and Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is finding nuggets of ideas to transfer to educational leadership. It’s almost always possible and not all that difficult.

One of the ideas shared in Michael E. Gerbers book The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do about It is the notion that every business owner (i.e. educational leader) wears three hats:

  • Entrepreneur – the visionary
  • Technician – technical expert
  • Manager – the pragmatic

Thinking about this idea of three hats, I began to ask myself questions about my own practice:

  • Which hat do I prefer?
  • Which hat do I give most of my time to?
  • Do I neglect any hat? What are the dangers of neglecting a hat?

I also thought about some questions in relation to education and leadership in general?

  • Where are most educational leaders comfortable? Why?
  • Where are they least comfortable? Why?
  • What if we focused more on one and less on another? Would anything change? Would we get closer to our vision for teaching and learning?
  • What is the preference of the policymaker? And if different from practitioners, why and what can we do to mitigate the disorientation of an overemphasis on one hat over another?
  • Do we have additional hats in the domain of educational leadership?

As I’ve been thinking a lot lately about innovation in education (so that is the lens through which I’m tinkering with these hats at the moment), I think most of us lack the entrepreneurial hat and overemphasize the technical and managerial hats. Those two hats keep us in our comfort zone. We establish structures (or they’ve long been established as status quo) and we just need to follow a set of steps to implement them. Black and white. Year in. Year out. There is very little messiness. And virtually no risk. And every outcome is quantifiable. The entrepreneurial hat can be a bit scary. We venture into unchartered territory (new teaching practices, new technologies, etc.). It’s messy. There is risk and sometimes failure. There is criticism.

What if we as educational leaders wore our entrepreneurial hat more often? How do we support current leaders to aim for more of balance between the three hats? How are we preparing future leaders (in credentialing programs) to be educational entrepreneurs?

Leading Innovation for Systemic Change

innovationSeveral days ago, I found this short video from Scott McLeod through Twitter.

In the video @mcleod posits the next “big thing” in educational technology will be learner agency – a technology-rich landscape marked by a shift in learner autonomy and empowerment. As leaders, many of us are seeing pockets of this kind of learning in our institutions. But it’s just that – pockets; not systemic. I agree that the next “big thing” is learner agency, and I also believe the next “big thing” in educational leadership will be to lead systemic change to support learner agency – beyond simply pockets of innovation. Pockets are a necessary start, but we can’t stop there. System-wide implementation is the end we should have in mind.

I find the ideas of learner autonomy and empowerment very exciting, I suppose because it is these elements that make learning so much fun for me and many others. If we are to lead a systemic transformation, where do we begin? Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to frame some answers to this question in terms of three texts I’ve been reading:

The Pocket Perspective Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick (@DonWettrick) – In his book @DonWettrick describes personal experiences developing an innovation course, essentially inquiry in a networked world. Wettrick proposes a basic blueprint for such a model:

  • Students research a personal topic of interest.
  • Students work individually or in small groups.
  • Students connect with at least one outside expert to develop their knowledge and understanding of the topic.
  • Students submit a project proposal including academic standards and timeline along with assessment.
  • Students reflect regularly and share progress and learning on a weekly basis using social media,  typically a blog.
  • Students present their project to key stakeholders, reflect on the learning process and negotiate a grade based on the process of implementing the project plan.

This excellent book includes a variety of impressive examples from the classroom perspective – examples of what is occurring in a pocket of innovation.

The System Perspective Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Ritchhart (@RonRitchhart) – @RonRitchhart posits that while schools and classrooms that value thinking – cultures of thinking – are not the norm, there is a framework for transformation to, what I would suggest, is the kind of culture of thinking and innovation that Wettrick describes in his book. How do we get there and what is the framework? There are 8 forces that create, sustain and enhance the learning culture:

  • Expectations – Recognizing how our beliefs shape our behavior
  • Language – Appreciating the subtle yet profound power
  • Time – Learning to be its master rather than its victim
  • Modeling – Seeing ourselves through out students’ eyes
  • Opportunities – Crafting the vehicles for learning
  • Routines – Supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking
  • Interactions – Forging relationships that empower learners
  • Environment – Using space to support learning and thinking

After reading Pure Genius and the many quality embedded examples, it is clear to see the learning culture reflecting the forces proposed by Ritchhart. If we want to move toward systemic change, building a culture of thinking and innovation, the 8 forces will play a critical role and cannot be overlooked.

The Leadership Perspective Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull (@EdCatmull) – Catmull shares the story of Pixar as a creative and innovative organization from his perspective as leader. Few would argue that Pixar isn’t one of the most innovative and creative companies around, so it’s worth school leaders interested in innovation taking pause to think about the leadership lessons embedded throughout the book. In the final chapter, Catmull summarizes many of his key points – 31 in all – for leading a culture of creativity and innovation. Here are just a few:

  • Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
  • If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
  • It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.

This is a mere sampling, but if you are serious about leadership and innovation, check out the full list.

These three texts, along with other resources on innovation in schools such as George Couros’ blog and Don Wettrick’s blog, provide an abundance of ideas for leaders to think about creating a culture of system-wide innovation – from the pocket, systemic and leadership perspectives.

Back to the question: If we are to lead a systemic transformation, where do we begin? I’m still working on developing an answer to this question, but here are four points I’d like to share at this moment in time for how leaders can begin to bring about a transformation to an innovative culture that reflects a shift in learner autonomy and empowerment.

  • Start with the end in mind. Arrive at consensus on what innovation is and looks like in your particular context. Discuss why it’s important. How does innovation move us toward what we want to see in our classrooms?
  • Leaders model the way. Principals, district leaders and department leaders adopt innovative practices. We have started  doing this with our leadership team through goal setting for 2015-16, using Couros’s 8 characteristics of the innovative leader.
  • Identify the pockets of innovation. Find the innovative teachers and provide support through professional development. We are considering redefining our TLC group, a district-wide team of teacher leaders who have done a fantastic job of moving us to where we are at this time. Do we redefine this group with new faces and a new focus? How will the TLC support fellow teachers to create cultures of thinking, learning and innovation? How will the TLC group interface with the school leaders? When should we expect a tipping point in the shift to a new culture?
  • Share the successes and failures. Keep an open mind through the venture. Not all the work will be a success; there will be failures. How do we gather formative and summative data along the way to improve the implementation and move toward systemic change? How do we share successes and failures inside and outside the organization?

For us, these steps seem like the next logical path in our transformation. We have made much progress in our teaching and learning initiative over the past 4 years. We have pockets of innovation and uses of technology that are considered transformative and innovative. It’s now time to move the organization even further, and the resources shared here have helped develop the beginnings of a plan to lead innovation for systemic change.

How do you lead innovation?