more businesses are moving away from improving old models to responding to the changing needs of consumers (and employees) within the context of a rapidly changing world. In addition, real time data has helped to create a whole new paradigm for doing things differently, thinking creatively and responding immediately.
On the flip side, education is still wedded to the improvement model; looking for enhanced solutions to old problems. We operate on the assumption that we can control the variables, link performance to accountability measures and tighten up processes. Where are the innovative solutions?
Improvement is no longer the challenge so let’s use educational conferences and colloquiums to focus on how we change the system not how we fix it. As Sir Ken Robinson says the challenge is not to reform but to transform.
[Baseball] franchises that remain static will eventually regress and deteriorate. People, too. So the antidote is to be proactive. Change before you’re forced to. Keep putting yourself in the best positions to succeed. When things break the wrong way, break new ground.
“The mindset in everything we do is to be the casino,” Friedman said. “We want to be the house. We’re going to make a lot of decisions. It’s a high-volume business. We can’t be afraid of making mistakes. The key is to be right more than we’re wrong and … trust that it will work out well.”
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.
Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.
in every dialectic, there is a search for creative synthesis. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”
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 are building things that are familiar, how are they going to substantially change education?
If our problems are mere inefficiencies – if we need students doing basically exactly what they’ve been doing before but faster – then the gambit of building apps that mirror typical classroom practices will work out great.
If you think that the problems in classrooms are not just about kids doing things a little faster, but doing different things than is current practice, then you need to build things that will be unfamiliar. If your technology is unfamiliar, you need to patiently build a network of educators experimenting with your ideas, reshaping systems – bells, exams, furniture, devices – to accomodate your new technology into a new vision. Initially, these people won’t buy your weirdness; you will practically have to pay them to implement your new ideas.
You, hungry entrepreneur, … you are going to take some familiar feature of classroom experience – the textbook, the flashcard, the lecture, the worksheet, the sticker, the behavior chart – and you will digitize that feature.
Wrapped in a language of transformation and disruption, the ed-tech start-up scene is profoundly conservative.
Our problems in schools go far beyond mere inefficiencies. Are inefficiencies rampant? Absolutely. Can various learning and management technologies help address these inefficiencies? Absolutely. Does merely addressing inefficiencies result in educational ‘transformation?’ Of course not. The rhetoric of most educational technology ‘solutions’ is vastly overblown…
Dear Prairie Lakes principals and superintendents,
Over the past six weeks, you’ve been getting to know our new tech integration team. We’ve made it a top priority to try and get into your buildings, meet you and your teachers on your turf, and start to build meaningful connections and relationships.
By now you’re probably starting to realize that… well, we’re a little bit different! 🙂 Not different just to be different, but different to be better. We’re passionate about what we do, we’re willing to think as far outside the box as necessary, and, yes, when it comes to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ we confess that sometimes we’re a bit irreverent.
We are deeply committed to the idea that professional work and professional learning both should be fun. And meaningful. And challenging. And so should our classrooms.
We are deeply committed to service. It’s about you and your needs, not ours. We’ve got lots of ideas – and beliefs about powerful learning – but ultimately we’re here to serve you. No dictates. No mandates. Wherever you are, wherever you want to go, we’ll do our best to be of help.
We’re on a mission. A mission to #dreambigger, #designforit, and #makeitbetter. We hope that you’ll join us.
Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to be of service to your amazing educators and students. Please stay in touch, and be sure to connect with us online. We are looking forward to our continued work together.
FedEx Day: a 24-hour hackathon in which individuals or teams work on new ideas and new projects. Participants must work on something that’s not part of their daily work and, most importantly, they have to deliver something in 24 hours (in the words of Seth Godin, “they need to ship“).
Here are some resources on FedEx Days generally and for schools specifically. Happy innovating!
Stage 1. Monkeys 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 live in a cage. A researcher hangs a banana down from the top and places a ladder underneath the banana. However, every time a monkey tries to climb the ladder to get to the banana, the researcher sprays the monkey with freezing cold water, causing him to retreat. The researcher ALSO sprays the other four monkeys. Pretty soon, all of the monkeys learn that none of them should go anywhere near the banana because they will all be sprayed with ice water. If an individual stubbornly tries to get the banana anyway, the other monkeys will vigorously intervene (i.e., beat him up). The monkeys not only have been conditioned into a state of learned helplessness but now actively engage in behaviors that reinforce that state.
Stage 2. Take Monkey 1 out and introduce a new monkey, Monkey A, instead. Monkey A, of course, never has been sprayed with cold water and just sees a tasty banana within reasonable reach. Every time he moves toward the banana, however, the other four monkeys start beating him up. Monkey A has no idea why this happens, but pretty soon he too internalizes the idea that no one should try and get the banana.
Stage 3. Take Monkey 2 out and introduce a new monkey, Monkey B, instead. Monkey B experiences the same thing that Monkey A did: move toward the banana and the other four monkeys start beating you up. Monkey A joins in the enforcement even though he doesn’t know about and never experienced the original reason that led to the behavior.
Stage 4. Keep taking the original monkeys out until you have all new monkeys, Monkeys A through E, in the cage. By this time, the original reason for staying away from the banana has long been relegated to the dustbin of history and none of the current monkeys have experienced an icy spraying. Yet, all of the new monkeys vigorously enforce the prohibition against trying to get the banana because, hey, that’s how we do things around here.
My former colleague at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Jennifer York-Barr, used to note that some schools had what she called ‘crab bucket cultures.’ In these schools, whenever an enterprising teacher did something new and excellent that also was perceived to be too far beyond the norm, the other teachers would engage in behaviors that were intended to hold her back and instead re-align her to what everyone else was doing (or not doing). Stated differently, they would pull her back down, just like crabs in a bucket do if one tries to escape.
Part 4. Educational risk-taking
The point of these three examples is this: organizational norms are powerful shaping mechanisms on individual and group behavior. In schools, this idea manifests itself in a number of limiting ways. For example, after years of being told to ‘just give us the right answer,’ students internalize the idea that there already is one, that someone else already has it, and that to be successful all they have to do is find it and regurgitate it back to those in power. Students quickly understand that for nearly every situation, the better they learn to just sit down, shut up, listen to the adult, and do what they’re told, the better off they’ll be. Similarly, teachers learn from policymakers, administrators, and, yes, their peers that they shouldn’t be too innovative or else: significant experimentation and creativity may be allowed elsewhere but not here!
The challenge for us, however, is that we live in a time of significant disruption. As new information environments, economic realities, and learning landscapes form themselves before our very eyes, transitioning our school systems so that they are relevant for today and tomorrow, not just yesterday, is going to require gobs of innovation and experimentation. Yet we have schooling, policy, and leadership cultures that are extremely intolerant of risk-taking and, indeed, will vigorously intervene to reinforce static processes, mindsets, and behaviors.
As school leaders, how do we foster environments of risk-taking and innovation (rather than compliance) for both students and employees? And what can we do to help teachers and students stop actively reinforcing learned helplessness and self- or peer-limiting behaviors?