Friday, October 27, 2017

Some more thoughts on innovation and leadership

My Grade 6 class in 1996
I'm now in Part II of The Innovator's Mindset and am thinking about innovation and leadership based on the following quote:
As leaders in education, our job is not to control those whom we serve but to unleash their talent.
As I read this it reminded me of  the reasons why I moved to my school 6 years ago.  Before moving to India I was not in a school that was much interested in innovation, and so the thing that really attracted me to ASB was its "can do" attitude.  I'd never been in a school before that had an R&D department, and I was amazed by the culture of yes.  To this end, George Couros writes:
The problem is that when you say "no" to innovation for any reason - people feel reluctant to attempt trying new things in the future.  Their thinking is, "If I am not allowed to do something that could impact learning in my classroom or other classrooms, what purpose do I have in serving the needs of the school as a whole?"  In other words they think, "My ideas don't matter."
My 5th Grade students and their families
at our first student-led conference in 1999
When teachers feel like this they really have just 2 options - not to bother to try anything new, or to go ahead and try it and then ask for forgiveness.  Many, many years ago, when I was a 5th Grade teacher, my teaching partner and I decided it would be really useful to have students at the parent-teacher conferences.  We felt that it would be good for students to be part of the discussions (after all it was their learning) and we felt that they could best demonstrate and articulate their own progress and goals they would like to set for the future.  We knew we were on shaky ground - nobody had ever had students at the parent-teacher conferences before - but we ploughed ahead anyway.  Now having 3-way or student led conferences is commonplace, but it was sad that we had to do it in the way we did, as we feared we would not get the permission to go ahead if we asked for it upfront.  George Couros writes about this in the following way:
If we've established a culture in which educators feel their only option is to ask forgiveness for trying new things, this is not an educator issue, it's a leadership issue ... squashing the ambitions of those who want to go above and beyond to try something new will ensure schools have only "pockets of innovation" at best, and, at worse, no innovation.
Looking back now, I'm aware that my colleague and I did some really wild things.  For example we went and dug up the paving stones in the school playground and then gave students the task of trying to use simple machines to bring the stones up to the 2nd floor of the school through the windows in order to try to demonstrate the technology that the ancient Egyptians used in building the pyramids.  Another time we dug up the school playground and each class buried a set of artefacts, which the other class then dug up, taking on the roles of archaeologists and trying to work out what culture we represented.  I remember this was the first time we had students video and document the whole process and then we posted this on a class website - and this was at a time when our school didn't even have an internet connection back in 1996!  And yet I'm aware that we were just one of those "pockets of innovation" that George referred to.  Personally I think we did really great things in Grade 6 - and over 20 years later I'm still friends on Facebook with some of those 6th Grade students - as well as with my teaching colleague - but I'm also aware that Grade 6 was seen as being a bit "out there" and that although we had a class website we didn't really have a way of interacting with other educators around the world.  I know that change can happen one person at a time - but it could have happened much quicker and had more impact if we had been more connected.  I have to say though that I very much appreciated that school for tolerating the "crazy" ideas of two 6th Grade teachers!

(By the way I just checked to see if that old 6th Grade website is still there - it is!  Amazing!  The photo above is this 6th Grade class in 1996 - my first class who ever published their work on the internet.  Were we innovators?  Yes, I think we were!)


  1. Maggie, thanks for sharing. I also feel that making mistakes in innovation is part and parcel with moving forward. Life in this sense is like a soccer game, sometimes you have to move sideways, backwards and pass the ball to a teammate to make a goal. It's not linear like a calendar, schedule or clock might mislead us to believe. It's definitely a leadership issue, in my opinion best described by John Kottor and his work with "change leadership". Management being about minimizing of distractions, and ultimately impact. Which as you point out leads to a culture of discouragement. Whereas change leadership seeks to take a 1000HP engine, motivation
    to improve, etc. and maximise the driving forces, vision and processes to their full potential. As someone who has been told no and to slow down a lot in my career I can tell you the greatest success comes from those times we take chances but it also requires timely and good decisions, collaboration, planning and other real skills why educators and leaders alike have failed at implementing change in the past. The goal is not to fail, especially when innovation can make things better. That is why it is a leadership issue, innovation requires skill, in particular a skillful change leader at the helm. A concept that is very much new to education but is dependent on a leader to be knowledgeable in the areas of technology, relationships, curriculum and pedagogy. It takes leaders being able to tie action to a school's vision and values. And as much as we don't want to hear it, it often takes resources. Anyways, I loved your post and just wanted to validate your assumption that it is a leadership issue not only an educator issue.

    1. Hi Martin, thanks so much for leaving this comment - I always love getting feedback, and it's especially exciting to me to get feedback from an educator at another school in India!

      I agree that the goal is not to fail - actually I'm not really a fan of "fail early, fail often".
      This is one of the reasons that I have appreciated being on the R&D team at ASB - because what we do is to prototype and a prototype can never fail because we learn a lesson from it - we learn how to move forward. I really like what Gary Stager writes about the way that an iterative design cycle does not emphasise learning from failure, but instead on continuing to improve by keeping the things that work and changing the things that don't.

      Also, I definitely agree with your statement that innovation requires a skillful change leader at the helm. I'm especially alarmed at the way that some tech director jobs are now having the word "innovation" tacked onto them, because my hunch is that many of the people doing these jobs are more implementors than innovators. I'm thinking a lot about this right now as I contemplate my next move - finding the right school, with the right vision and values is everything!