Innovation and Change

In education, when the words ‘innovation’ and ‘change’ are mentioned, many teachers roll their eyes. These words are almost seen as ‘bad words.’  There are several reasons for this:

1) The words are over used (the way the word ‘epic’ is used these days to describe every summer blockbuster coming…even worse is ‘most epic’).

2) In education, it isn’t easy to change or innovate.

3) The words don’t mean the same thing to different people.

I recently read Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner.

Near the beginning of the book, Wagner writes about a group of leaders at Olin College who were asked to discuss how to create environments that support innovators. A senior executive from IBM said, “It’s a lot easier to name the things that stifle innovation like rigid bureaucratic structures, isolation, and a high-stress work environment.”

Well, that could describe most work environments, especially schools.

Wagner describes innovation as the place where motivation, expertise, and creative thinking skills come together. With motivation being far more important than skill or expertise. In his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner lists essential skills that students are going to need to be successful in the world. While these aren’t new things, and the seem like common sense, they are definitely things that schools do not emphasize enough, if at all. In that book, the 7 survival skills listed were:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

Collaboration by Networks and Leading by Influence

Agility and Adaptability

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Curiosity and Imagination

Anyone looking at this list would say those are great things. They make perfect sense. But sadly, most students across the country are not getting opportunities to engage in learning that require them to use those skills. There’s still a lot of emphasis on getting the one right answer. As Wagner further explored innovation, he found that his list needed a few more skills:

perseverance

a willingness to experiment

take calculated risks and tolerate failure

have the capacity for ‘design thinking’

According to Wagner, these can all be learned. He makes a strong case about letting kids make mistakes so they can learn from them and develop resilience. He criticizes the “tiger mom” method that doesn’t allow play or have any room for failure, and he criticizes ‘helicopter’ parents that indulge and insulate their children from failure. “Neither kind is likely to produce innovators.”

So how can teachers create environments for innovation when their own working environment doesn’t promote that kind of independence? School change seems to happen at a glacial rate. Most don’t have the capacity for “design thinking.” That’s where you identify a problem, and you set about trying to solve it. First, you experiment. Consider this first experiment a prototype. It may fail at first, but the idea is to keep refining that solution, getting feedback, experimenting further with more trial and error, and eventually end up with something better, more efficient, and often more beautiful. Schools work on yearly calendars. Once the wheels on the bus get going in the fall, heaven forbid that one look at a problem during the school year and try to make it better. The time schools usually take to decide something new is at the end of each year. Why? Because changes during the school year can be too disruptive. But disruption is often the outcome of good innovation.

Innovation, in this sense isn’t simply about trying something new. It’s not about whimsy. Innovation should be purposeful. Being an Innovator requires one to challenge the status quo and constantly ask questions. Innovation is about looking at ways to simplify, make things more efficient, and make them more affordable.

Creating Innovators is a great book, with excellent stories and suggestions for parents and educators. There are many books about innovation, but this one appealed to me as it focused on how to foster these skills in our youth. Hopefully, I’ll write a little more about this book in the near future as Wagner provides ways to help foster innovation, and he also explores school change. Again, ‘change’ isn’t a bad word, if it is done with meaningful intent.

Speaking of change, I’ll leave with this quote:

“To know about change is to know about inertia, which is to say that sometimes the status quo needs a wakeup call. You can’t wait for success, you have to kick start it.”

(Fullan, 2009)

Should Educators in the Lower Grades Consider Eliminating Homework?

Challenge Success is a project out of Stanford University’s School of Education. Its mission is to “work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.”

Recently, they announced that they are working on a series of white papers that evaluate and summarize the body of research in a given topic in order to make the research more accessible and to offer suggestions for educators and parents. Their first paper is on homework and rather than take one side of the argument or the other, they try to answer both viewpoints using the available research. Part of their conclusion included the following:

“Much of the research supporting and refuting the benefits of homework seems to be contradictory, and some of the arguments actually have no research to support their claims. Given that much of the research points to little or no benefits of homework, we urge educators to take a hard look at their current practices and policies. Some educators in the lower grades might consider eliminating homework altogether, and just asking students to spend time reading for pleasure (which is positively connected to achievement), or allow them extra time for play and time with family….”

The research on homework is indeed ambiguous, so it’s nice to have a group that has the time to look at the research more closely. Over the past three years I have looked at my current practices (the policies are outside of my control) and considered eliminating homework (short of reading for pleasure), but the reception of this has been mixed. I’m glad that there is more support for what I’ve been advocating.

The suggestions they offer to teachers and parents to make homework more engaging and meaningful are also good.

An example of a recommendation for parents: “Parents can help organize [students’] time or prioritize assignments, but when parents deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For many adults, finding work/life balance can be tricky. Especially if one is truly engaged and finds meaning in their work. An article published in today’s NYTimes about a course at Google to help their employees achieve that balance comes as no surprise. It would be nice to ensure that our students begin to develop a healthy balance?

Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.

What is a Tweet-Up?

I just got back from a ‘tweet-up’ tonight at the Pike Pub & Brewery. It was an interesting concept of gathering folks who use twitter to share and learn from each other. Many thanks to Greg Bamford for organizing this event tonight. I still consider myself a neophyte when it comes to twitter, but in the year that I started, I’ve met incredible people, had new opportunities, and learned a lot.


When I say that I’ve met people – I mean physically. And tonight was another opportunity to turn my virtual learning network into a more personal one. Using twitter, you often see a small thumbnail of someone’s face, but meeting them in person is so much better.

The only downside is that they live in Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states.

Where is the school with educators that are this engaged in leading the change efforts? I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great to have a school with all these educators working in the same place? I’m not ready to start my own school, but I’m ready to dream.

And if you think twitter is for the young, you are completely wrong. Twitter is for all ages and is simply a mindset. Sign up and try it for 21 days. I promise you, you will learn something.

How Can Like-Minded Teachers Network? Organize an EdCamp

Being a teacher means that, for the most part you spend most of your day in a classroom with students. The rest of the time, you’re planning, preparing, assessing, reflecting, writing student evaluations, communicating with parents, and so on. The only real time you have to collaborate with others are the few times you meet with certain teachers at your school that happen to be on the same committee or task force, same grade-level or subject area team, or meetings that involve the entire faculty. On the rare occasion, teachers may happen to have lunch together, but it’s usually for a mere 15 minutes. If teacher’s schedules are so convoluted that they can’t meet to collaborate as often as they want in their own schools, then how can teachers network with teachers outside their own school and share some of the things they are doing?

Conferences are one way. They are designed to gather like-minded professionals together in one place. Conferences, however, are expensive. Unlike some other professional conferences that may include a golf junket in the Caribbean, teacher conferences are usually held in large US cities that are easy to get to. In these lean times, though, the opportunities to attend conferences have diminished.

Even at conferences, you have to work hard at meeting teachers who are passionate about the same things. For an introvert like me, meeting others is very difficult. Over the past couple of years, though, networking has become easier. First, I have to thank my school for sending me to a number of conferences these past few years. I don’t get to attend everything. My school has to say no sometimes. Perhaps it’s because I ask to go to a lot. What can I say? I love to learn.

As a teacher, networking is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and it’s not easy. For good or bad, we now live in a connected world. That has made networking easier. You can interact asynchronously with others, and they don’t even have to be in the same city. Eventually you will be at a similar conference and exchange ideas face to face. I wasn’t sure what twitter was all about and decided to give it a whirl a little less than a year ago. After all, what could one learn in 140 characters. But it’s not about that. When I hit the publish button for this post, I will have also sent out a tweet. That tweet will only have the headline, but it will also include a url to this post. If you have the right twitter reader, you will automatically see a preview of this post as well.

Twitter has led to a great deal of things, and I’ve managed to meet a few teachers. One of them, Kim Sivick was listed as one of 2011’s National Association of Independent School’s “Teacher of the Future.” I’m not a teacher of the future but Kim was kind enough to ask to put my blog on her blogroll at Teachers of the Future. The current post on there, titled “Conferences of the Future,” is written by Liz Davis, someone else I met (first through twitter) who is one of the organizers of the ‘unconferenceedcampIS. It’s FREE! It’s also something that I’m really excited about helping to organize.

So even if your school budgets don’t allow you to attend everything you want to go to, there are teachers who recognize the need to network beyond tweets and blogs. If you’re going to be in Seattle for the NAISAC12 conference, you can spend around $500 to hear Bill Gates speak (actually I’d do it if I could afford it), or you can come to The Northwest School a couple of days after and listen to your passionate colleagues speak for free! Already registered are Teachers, Heads of Schools, Deans, Parents, Consultants, Educational non-profits, and more. We have 11 states, D.C., and one Canadian province represented. What are you waiting for? Register now at http://www.edcampis.org – It will be a great networking opportunity!

 

What is the Value of a Good Teacher?

A “study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities, finds that if a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year.”

This is taken from an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in today’s nytimes titled, “The Value of Teachers.” Of course that’s never going to happen – at least not in the foreseeable future. But why not? Teachers are still mostly rewarded simply by how long they’ve been teaching. There’s some incentive for those with a higher degree, but it’s minimal in most cases.

In many industries, there are many options for growth opportunities. Not for teachers, though. I am very fortunate that I work with many who are always looking to improve the way they teach, however the opportunity for career advancement is limited. I should clarify. There are a myriad of different opportunities in education for advancement. All of them, however, are far removed from the classroom. One could become an administrator, consultant, researcher, academic, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, none of that list includes remaining in the classroom. At this point in time, good teachers are truly undervalued.

Are Your Meetings Productive or Are They “Weapons of Mass Interruption”?

I had a really good meeting on Monday with three of my colleagues. Our school had an open house last night, and teachers in small clusters were asked to speak about their program for about 5 minutes as prospective families toured through the school. The purpose of our meeting was to collectively decide on what we thought would be the most meaningful way to convey what we do and why we’re passionate about it.

Why was this a good meeting?

1) No time was wasted disseminating information. One person in our group is new to our school this year and he was able to get that information ahead of time. We knew our purpose/agenda, and were prepared. We had our agenda well in advance and it did not consist of bullet points, but rather meaningful thought and decisions to be made. We came to the meeting ready to make those decisions.

2) Only those who needed to be at the meeting were there. We each needed to share ideas and agree on and make decisions. Everyone contributed.

3) We all left with an action plan with trust that each would execute his or her part.

4) We did not begin our meeting by reading memos or reiterating what was already communicated in emails.

5) We did not come to the meeting with solutions, but brainstormed ideas. It didn’t take long for each person to adopt an idea and then have us figure out how to link those ideas.

6) Everyone felt safe to share their ideas as we entertained them all before narrowing down our list.

7) We wrote it down, photographed it, recorded those ideas in some format (in fact, our four slides were completed before our meeting was over).

8) It wasn’t a get together of the passive.

9) The meeting took less than 20 minutes. No time seemed wasted.

10) Our meeting earlier in the week wasn’t a social visit. In fact we had a great dinner together last night before returning to school for our open house. We didn’t talk about what and how we were  going to present. Our meal was social and we kept it that way. Our meeting earlier in the week was to get work done.

I recently read a book called Read This Before Your Next Meeting by Al PittamPalli. That’s where I got the quote in the title of this post. There’s another passage I like that states, “The most talented among us know that they best serve the organization by making things. We add value only by producing work that contributes directly toward our goals and by initiating amazing work that wasn’t even asked of us.”

The positive psychology of ‘flow’ (the state in which we do our best work) has been referenced in many recent books including this one. We need to focus sometimes for long periods to do our best work, to get that flow. Meetings are interruptions that require us to start over again. Pittampalli states, “We’d have more time in the day to spend innovating and initiating new projects, instead of drowning in old ones that never seem to die…In a world with fewer meetings, we’d have more time for our real work, the work we do that actually propels our organization forward.”

In a school that has a mission, one that we strive to achieve and calls for change, meetings are essential. But those meetings have to be productive.

Here are some ideas on how to improve meetings:

1) Have an agenda with a clear purpose and have it available well-ahead of time so all who needed to contribute to the decision making  could come to the meeting prepared. Post the agenda on a google doc, so one could get feedback and questions ahead of time. A one-sentence blurb is not an agenda.

2) Don’t rehash the information. It’s time to say, if you haven’t read the information and you’re not prepared, you don’t need to be at this meeting.

3) Only invite those who need to be there. If I don’t have a part in making a decision or in contributing to that decision, don’t make me observe a meeting (there are more entertaining things to watch).

4) Record the meeting in some format. There are often those who are passionate and should be part of a meeting but can’t make it. They should be able to get the minutes (whatever the format) somewhere when they return.

5) Model the protocols you’d like to see teachers use with their students. Differentiate the meetings, use technology, make the problem we’re trying to solve clear.

6) Use the time in the meetings for people to make decisions and get important work done.

I think face-to-face social time is important too. I really appreciate it when colleagues check in on me, and I get a chance to find out about them, but those aren’t meetings. They’re conversations.

The author also states that group work sessions and brainstorms aren’t really meetings either. They’re important and purposeful.

What he says should change are those weekly meetings where everyone stops what they’re doing individually to gather as a large group. That large group should be working collectively to make decisions on complex problems that help the organization (in my case a school) get a little closer to its mission. We need to use that meeting time to decide and act. One can plan forever, but if you don’t act, nothing changes.

Another alternative for schools that have a weekly faculty meeting time set aside would be to use that time for continuous, sustained, professional development.

My school’s getting much better at using our weekly meeting time, but there’s always room for growth.