Building the plane while flying it

“We’re building the plane while flying it!”

How many of us have heard this phrase in presentations about the need for schools to move more quickly toward an uncertain and unknowable future? [yes, I’ve used it myself once or twice] How many of us have had someone show us this video from EDS?

Nearly always there is a skeptic in the audience with the reasonably sarcastic response, “Would you let your own children fly in an airplane that was still being built?” The intent, of course, is to deflate the presenter’s message and to try and put some reins on whatever change is being advocated.

But here’s the thing: What choice do we have?

Most of us don’t have the option of starting over from scratch. The old saw of ‘If we had the chance to start over, would we build the schools we have today?” is great in theory but extremely difficult in practice.

Most of us don’t get to work in the Big Picture or New Tech or Envision schools. We don’t have the option of starting new like a charter school does. We don’t get to work within district- or state-created innovation zones.* Instead, we’re stuck with legacy structures, policies, facilities, personnel, and mindsets, all of which make it much, much harder to change how we do “school.”

So what CAN we do? Well, Clayton Christensen’s work shows us that the best way for an established organization to handle disruptive innovation may be to plant and protect seedlings based on different models and then grow its own replacements. And that gives us lots of internal options if we choose to exercise them as school leaders, even when we work in small systems. A great place to start would be to better nurture the change-makers that we already have in our classrooms: the teachers and students who want to push various envelopes when it comes to learning and teaching. If we’ve got educators and kids who are ready to dive deep into hands-on, technology-infused learning experiences that emphasize cognitive complexity and student agency, we should be doing everything in our power to support them. I’m amazed at how poorly many schools do at adequately supporting existing innovators. As Gloria Ladson-Billings said long ago, “Make sure the change people win.

What else can we do as leaders? If we’ve got high-flying classrooms or schools, we can do a much better job of ‘infecting’ others with that positive work. We can carve out explicit structures and time and personnel that have the purposeful intention of fostering innovation AND connecting others to it. We can make it safe – and, indeed, expected – to take risks, to fail early and often, to engage in rapid iteration, to live in perpetual beta. We can give people permission to fail and fail again as long as they’re failing smarter each time. We can set up classroom observation rubrics and professional growth protocols and hiring criteria that focus on innovative work, not just traditional work. We can match action to rhetoric and identify concrete performances that let us know if innovative work is actually occurring. We can identify and remedy internal policies and decision-making that impede innovation. We can hold regular celebrations that highlight the innovative work that is happening. And so on…

As leaders, it is both our privilege and responsibility to create, nurture, and protect innovation within our school systems. And of course we need to engage in those efforts as thoughtfully and respectfully as we can. But we don’t get there with snarky resistance, nor do we get there by allowing such sentiments to dominate our internal conversations.

Lead bigger. Dream bigger.

* Be sure to check out Bob Pearlman’s list of innovation zones and the resources from Education Evolving.

2 Responses to “Building the plane while flying it”

  1. What if someone was looking for a way to start from scratch?

    Let’s say that I was looking to start a new school and that my model was a sort of teaching-hospital. I (would hypothetically) call it something like “Charter for Teachers” (hoping to use the charter model for a teacher-centered use). Recruit progressive teachers and spend discretionary money on them: salaries, technology, resources, whatever they want. These teachers would want to come and work at this school because they would get a chance to become the teacher they always wanted to be. Shared decision making, collaboration, freedom to try new things and make mistakes, massive impact on future teachers etc. etc. etc.

    The school could connect with local (or not) colleges and reshape the teacher training paradigm. Say . . . come to our school of education and commit to five years (or come for three years and apply for the last two?); you’d student teach for your last two years, and have a masters degree at the end (a master’s degree in 5 years might be a nice carrot). In this way, the school could function in a teaching hospital/apprenticeship model. Would-be teachers working under the guidance of, and in collaboration with, a “master teacher.” I think that two years of student teaching under a master teacher could impact teacher attrition and the rigors of the first year.

    Let’s say that someone had thought about this idea for a long time and was just starting to tell more people about it (because, you know, taking an idea out of your head and putting it to words makes it more real. And is slightly terrifying) . . . how would he start?

  2. Chris, I’m wondering the same thing. I keep getting the whole, “be patient.” “Go to your room and teach.” “Change is slow.” I’m having a super hard time finding anyone that will support this same type of innovation you are speaking of. We need help!

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