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?

“Everybody blogs, nobody reads.”

sharingThe quote in the title of this post from this blog post got me thinking… How do we approach our consumption of information from blogs and Twitter? Is it more like “everyone shares, nobody reads”? How many people actually read – in a thoughtful way – the blogs they subscribe to and the tweets they retweet? Why are there so many more hits on a blog post than there are comments? Why don’t readers take the time to comment? Too much work? Too much time? Or they didn’t really read the post or follow the tweeted link?

Do we need to be more thoughtful consumers of information and use consumption as the entry way into deeper conversations? Or is “deeper” not even possible? Are we doomed to superficiality? 

Connect with Randy on Twitter.


Is learning the priority?

learning3As a wrap-up to the 2014-15 school year, our full complement of leaders met recently to reflect on the past year and plan for the future. These full day meetings can be challenging – the school  year has just concluded with everyone keeping pace with the frenzy that inevitably develops over the last month of school. Sometimes we just lack the energy and enthusiasm to make these days very productive. This day was different and the feedback from the team was very positive.

Our focus for the day was the exploration of innovative leadership (using this blog post from George Couros) and applying our new learning about ourselves and our colleagues to the development of personal goals for 2015-16. It may not sound terribly exciting, but the team found the day worthwhile as reflected in this comment from the concluding feedback survey: “It was a huge help to be able to brainstorm with others about our goals and bounce ideas off of each other. It not only made goal creation easier, but it was also enjoyable. How often do you ever hear about goal creation being enjoyable?”

For our discussion of innovation leadership, our leaders read the blog post, 8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader, and then completed the rubric linked at the bottom of the post. Following this individual activity, we discussed and debriefed as a group while Assistant Superintendent, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, walked us through a line activity where each leader rated himself/herself on a continuum from 1-10 for each characteristic. We had a great discussion! And it was eye-opening to see where we are as a team when it comes to thinking and acting innovatively in our varying contexts.

When we discussed the characteristic of models learning, one of our leaders shared that regardless of our leadership role we all needed to be learners, all the time. I was thrilled this idea was added to the conversation. I reinforced the idea that we as leaders needed to be modeling this for our teachers and students as nearly all careers will require workers to be, first and foremost, learners. Learning must be our priority – for us as leaders, for our teachers and for our students.  This is non-negotiable.

Harold Jarche reinforced this for me in an excellent post, the literacy of the 21st century. I bet you can guess what it is. But is learning truly the priority in our organizations? Jarche suggests not, but it needs to be. Why?

…as standardized work keeps getting automated, the only work left for people will be complex and creative. This type of work requires a culture of continuous learning. 

The good news is that everyone can learn. The bad news is that many have forgotten how. Learning is the key requirement in dealing with complexity, because you first have to try something new, and then learn from the experiment.

As Lynn and I planned the day, we consciously focused on learning – each leader uncovering his/her own mindset toward innovation and applying that shifting mindset to developing goals that reflect innovative practices, pushing each of us to the edge of our comfort zone. That’s where the learning occurs. Each leader developed (many in collaboration with one another) three goals focused on communication, parent/community engagement, and acknowledging successes and failures. With each leader’s focus on these areas over the next year, in innovative ways, I look forward to seeing how we make progress toward a greater vision, model innovation, but most importantly model learning. Not only will we as leaders need to master this “literacy of the 21st century” as we enter an era of unprecedented rapid change (some may argue we are already there), but we will need to model it for our teachers and students so they are well-prepared to navigate this world of rapid change as well.

I am looking forward to continuing this good work through the summer and into the new school year with our leaders.

How do you keep LEARNING as your organization’s priority? 

ADE Application Video

Earlier this year, I created a video as part of the Apple Distinguished Educator application process. While it wasn’t accepted – you can’t apply as a superintendent – it was a good learning experience and I like the final product. So I thought I’d share it here.


Graduation Talk 2015

graduationAs Superintendent, I had the opportunity to speak at graduation and share some thoughts with the Salisbury High School Class of 2015.

Board President Mr.  Giordano; Board members; Ms. Morningstar, Mr. Muschlitz; A stellar staff – teachers, administrators and support staff; Dedicated and supportive family and friends;  and to each of the graduates of the Salisbury High School Class of 2015 – Congratulations!

Here are some of your accomplishments:

156 graduates

1 National Merit Scholarship Commended Student

6 graduating from the Virtual Academy of Salisbury Township

19 graduating with a trade from LCTI

123 planning to pursue higher education

5 entering the armed services

16 entering the workforce

A Freddy Award nominee

Members of the Debate Team, winning league championship for the 7th year

1 state championship in track & field

1 senior who won 3 state medals in their cross country career @ SHS

Members of the twirling team who won the Atlantic Coast World Class Championship

All totaled, the Class of 2015 has been offered 2.7 million dollars in scholarship monies

Congratulations on this long-awaited day. You’ve been through 13 grades, at least 3-4 times as many teachers, teacher lectures, quizzes, projects, grades, a technology transformation, quite a bit of standardized testing, friendships come, friendships gone, school dances, school lunches, athletic events, theatre productions, music performances, talent shows, and the list could go on and on. I hope that you are leaving us today with a portfolio of memories and habits of mind that will prepare you to pursue your passions and take on the world in whatever path you choose – the world of work, military service or college. I join your teachers, administrators and school board members in knowing that you and your families feel you are well prepared for the myriad of successes and challenges that await you.

This evening I want to share with you a couple of thoughts I hope you’ll find worth pondering as you leave Salisbury (and for many of you LCTI as well) and begin to create your own future. But before I get to that, I wanted to share with you that we both celebrate a life milestone today – your graduation and the day I turn 50.

A lot has changed in the world over the past 50 years. (Your parents will relate to this.)  In 1965 Johnson was President, family income was$6,900, a postage stamp was 5 cents, the Vietnam War was dragging on, the Voting Rights Act was passed, Americans were obsessed with television including shows such as Get Smart, Hogans Heroes and I Dream of Jeannie. Digital technology and personal computing were only a dream we were exposed to in the futuristic utopia of the Jetsons (which actually started running in 1963).

Today, 50 years later, our country continues to experience much progress but also many challenges. (Challenges which we need you to help solve…but more on that shortly.) Barack Obama is the nation’s first African American President, family income is $54,000, a postage stamp is 49 cents, the fight against global terrorism has consumed much of our time, energy and financial resources. TV is no longer king – the Internet and technology have disrupted most industries including news, music, travel, books, commerce, libraries, television and video…and yes, even education. In 2015, with a computing device, each of us now has access to, for all intents and purposes, the sum of human knowledge on the other end of our devices, many as small as the phone in our pocket. With the skills to seek out and evaluate information and make connections with experts, we can learn virtually anything that we want to. There’s no way this could have happened 50 years ago.  It’s a very exciting time, this world you are about to enter. It’s full of possibilities for you to make it whatever you want to make it. It’s certainly a more exciting time than 1965. So I challenge you to think about this…How will you use the digital devices and connections available to you and what will you do with them to make your world, your community, your family (including your future children) better? In 2048 (or so) when you are 50, what will your life, your world, look like? And how will you have gotten there? I’d like to share two thoughts I think you might find useful as you create your future world: First,commit to the journey, not the destination. And second, learn from life’s disappointments and failures.

One never knows where the journey will lead.  Graduating from HS, I had no idea that I’d end up doing this work as an educator in a school district I had never even heard of. Having lost my father when I was in 9th grade, I turned to music in high school. It was most definitely my passion. Looking back, it was probably music, along with the support and encouragement of my family, that kept me on the right path. My ideal at the time was to become a high school band director and continue making music the rest of my life. Simple enough. Well, things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Somewhere along the journey, technology caught my interest and I started to merge the two – technology and music. Then this thing called the internet and the idea that I could learn anything caught hold. That eventually led me to where I am now, working with a terrific team of educators to provide you and all of our students with the best learning opportunities, including digital ones.

As you walk out of graduation this evening into your world of possibilities, commit to the journey, not the destination. Be of an open mind to modify your path along the way if your gut tells you it’s the right thing.  Let your heart and intuition be your guide. Like Steve Jobs once said, “They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

My second thought: disappointments and failures. Throughout life’s journey, I’m certain you’ll encounter success but I’m also certain you’ll experience failure – many times. Our society and even our schools tend to look down on failure. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, failure due to laziness or lack of work ethic is well deserved, but failure as a result of calculated risk taking isn’t so bad. In fact, it is through failure and the associated feedback that we often learn the most. Take for instance famed basketball player, Michael Jordan, inducted into the NBA hall of fame in 2009. He didn’t make the varsity team his sophomore year of high school. In his induction speech Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Your journey through life will be interrupted with disappointments and failures. It will be hard – the grade on that college exam, the team you got cut from, the job you didn’t get, the relationship that didn’t work out, the deal that fell through. Whatever it is, embrace it. And stay open to learning from your failures throughout life. Like Michael Jordan, use those inevitable disappointments as motivation to do better the next time and try again and again. It’s the only way you’ll grow and move on to even greater heights. It’s the only way you’ll succeed.

And we need you to do great things. The world needs you. The world may not realize that yet, but it does need you. Nobody here is invisible, unless you make yourself invisible. We need you. In 2015, we live in a world filled with many complex challenges – economic, political, climatological, social, ethical, medical and technological.  These challenges need solutions in order to make this a better world for ourselves and future generations, and there are many more new challenges on the horizon that will need solutions well into your lifetime. Remember, 2048. We need you to take your Salisbury education, your LCTI education, and keep learning in whatever way that looks like for you, and go forth to make a difference — following your passions, celebrating your successes and learning from your failures.

Congratulations Salisbury High School Class of 2015! On behalf of the board, administration and your teachers, I wish you all the best.