Because he’s right. Standards are a strategy. Bell schedules are a strategy. Bubble-sheet testing of low-level recall is a strategy. School calendars, grade levels, siloed content areas, instructional methods, grading systems, discipline policies, and sit-and-get, one-and-done professional development sessions are all strategies. All of them. None of them are given. None of them are essential, handed-down-on-a-stone-tablet components of schooling. They are all voluntarily-employed strategies that can be modified. Or deleted.
I have seen innovative, project-based learning environments killed – by OTHER TEACHERS IN THE SCHOOL!!!! – because kids liked those learning spaces better than what their more traditional teachers were offering. Rather than shifting their instruction, they snuffed out the promising new directions instead.
I saw a wonderful video long ago from Gloria Ladson-Billings that reminded us as school leaders that we have to make sure the change people win. We must fight these crab bucket cultures with everything we’ve got…
Nobody likes to be told that they’re not there yet.
Nobody likes the unrelenting messages that we need to do things differently.
And therein lies the challenge. Because we DO need to change, we DO need to do things differently, and we are NOT there yet.
But folks get defensive. And angry. Or they withdraw. Or they just get tired. Tired of hearing again and again that what’s occurring isn’t sufficient for either today or tomorrow. Even when maybe, just maybe, they also know it’s true.
It’s tough to be change advocates. Or change agents. Or pains in the butt, as some call us. It would be so much easier to temper the rhetoric, to roll back the expectations, to ramp back the pace. But we know that we need to stay the course. Because our students – and our educators – and our society – need and deserve something different.
So we try to capture hearts and minds and articulate visions of what can be. We try to show models and exemplars of places that are further along and doing some of this. We try to put in support structures to help folks get there. We ask really tough questions. We enlist allies. We help in any way that we can. We encourage and we plead. We push and we pull. Is it arrogance? Is it passion? Maybe it depends on your perspective.
We don’t always do it well. We don’t always succeed. Sometimes people hate us. But sometimes people are ready to get moving.
Two decades ago, before the great push for higher standards and more accountability, there was a tacit agreement in most factory-model schools: “Just close my door,” said Ms. X, “and let me teach, and don’t bother me because I’m busy.” “Just keep them busy and quiet,” responded her Powers That Be, “and show up for the Special Training and the Scheduled Meeting, and make sure the Relevant Paperwork is in the file.” Within that tacit agreement lay a great deal of freedom and opportunity … for innovation or for more of the Same Old Same Old. As the Relevant Paperwork was complete and the busy, quiet students weren’t roaming the hallways, teachers and students could be as innovative and creative as they wanted.
But then came higher standards and more accountability … and in themselves, those aren’t bad things. But if you operate from a hierarchical individual point of view about leadership and learning, the only logical pathway to higher standards is to command and control them into existence … and the only way to achieve accountability is to ramp up the inspection and testing. I was intrigued to see an article from EdSurge about how and why Rocketship Education moved away from an experiment they’d tried this year … an experiment that seemed to produce positive results of various kinds. The problem? “The lack of a formal structure made it difficult for Rocketship to replicate and control quality,” especially with younger teachers who “rely on pre-determined schedules and procedures, with clearly defined expectations about their work, in order to focus on building basic teaching skills.”
In other words, the promising innovation didn’t fit the existing institutional structure. If you’ve ever worked in a hierarchical structure, you know how important it is to preserve the structure. It takes a great deal of work by Relevant Powers to make anything else as important as preserving the structure.
The organizations that most need change agents probably are the least likely to hire them because change agents typically make people with non-change orientations scared or nervous. If the people within were already oriented toward change and innovation, their organizations wouldn’t be the ones in the most need of change agents.
So a change- and innovation-oriented job candidate has a steep uphill battle to get considered and hired. The challenge is how to get people on hiring committees in non-change-oriented institutions to recognize the value of hiring for innovation, not replication…
If you’re eager for change, every bit of information and every event represents an opportunity to learn, to grow and to change for the better. You hear some advice and you listen to it, consider it (possibly reject it), iterate on it and actually do something different in response.
On the other hand, if you’re afraid of change or in love with the path you’re on or focused obsessively on your GTD list, then incoming represents a distraction and a risk. So you process it with the narrative, “how can this input be used to further what I’ve already decided to do?” At worst, you ignore it. At best, you use a tiny percentage of it to your advantage.
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?
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.
effective implementation cannot be done by making microadjustments to the current system. We cannot, for instance, install project-based learning as a new layer on top of the standard instructional approaches we have. We cannot squeeze real teacher development into three annual inservice days and a monthly faculty meeting. Each of the strategies requires us to rethink and redesign the whole system from the ground up and build it collaboratively.
And all of this has to take place while we continue to teach kids and continue to feel the relentless pressure from outside our walls for unfaltering and ever-increasing improvement. The risk associated with those foundational changes increases every year, and most schools have not been able (or willing) to risk the possibility of the unknown. When given the choice between something that has been at least moderately successful (the status quo) and something with no guarantees for improvement, we choose the safe route.