Tag Archives: innovation

Monkeys, flea jars, crab buckets, and educational risk-taking

Part 1. Monkeys

There’s an apocryphal story about monkeys – based loosely on a real experiment – that goes something like this:

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.


Part 2. Flea jars

Yesterday Mark Schneider, a superintendent in Iowa, shared this video about a flea jar. He asked, “Are our classrooms like a flea jar?”

 

Part 3. Crab buckets

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?

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Want students to be more creative and innovative? Give them the gift of time. [VIDEO]

I love this 2-minute video. Watch it and you will too!

If we want students and graduates who are more creative, innovative thinkers, we must find better ways to free them from the constraint of time. 

At the end, the video states Creativity is not inspired by the pressure of time but by the freedom, the playfulness, and the fun. Does that describe most secondary classrooms you know? I know many that fit that description, but not anywhere near enough. Too many pressures regarding content coverage and/or accountability…

Hat tip: George Couros

Teach students higher order or critical thinking skills? Not if the Texas Republicans have their way.

Republican Party of Texas Logo

The Republican Party of Texas states in its official 2012 political platform:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based  Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

This is astounding since most everyone else in America seems to understand that our educational graduates and our employees need greater, not less, development of critical and higher-order thinking skills in order to be effective citizens, learners, and workers in our hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global information society. This political platform item is an absolutely stunning example of educational and economic cluelessness and is a surefire recipe for complete irrelevance in the 21st century.

In recent years, I don’t believe I’ve heard of any other groups officially opposed to teaching students critical thinking or higher-order thinking. Have you? Other thoughts?

Hat tip: Slate

Our inability to change our ‘business models’ may be the death of us

Saul Kaplan emphasizes in his new book, The Business Model Innovation Factory, that every day more organizations are finding that their ‘business models’ have run dry. This is challenging and stressful for leaders and employees since, as the book trailer below notes, most have been immersed in only one type of business model for their entire careers.

As is true for CEOs, so also for school superintendents and principals. Our inability to change our ‘business models’ may be the death of many schools (and universities) because new educational models are being created that are designed from inception for our new information, technology, learning, and economic landscapes.

Resistance to change

Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who is perhaps our nation’s leading expert on organizational change, outlines ten reasons that drive resistance to educational change initiatives:

  1. Surprise, Surprise! Decisions or requests that are sprung on administrators and teachers without notice.
  2. Excess Uncertainty. Not knowing enough about the change will result in the “Walking off a Cliff Blindfolded” syndrome.
  3. Loss of Control. Feeling that changes are being done to, rather than done by, those affected.
  4. Loss of Routine. Concerns that change will require administrators and teachers to question familiar (and comfortable) routines and habits.
  5. We’ve Seen This Before. Expectation that the initiative is temporary and it will stay incomplete, meaning the best strategy is to lay low and not contribute to success.
  6. Loss of Face. Change implies that the former way of doing things was wrong. Some administrators and teachers may feel embarrassed in front of their peers or staff.
  7. Concerns About Future Competence. Educators can question their ability to be effective after a change: Can I do it? How will I do it? Will I make it in the new situation?
  8. Ripple Effects. Change in one area can disrupt other projects or activities, even ones outside of work.
  9. More Work. Organizational change often increases workloads.
  10. Sometimes the Threat Is Real. Change often creates real winners and losers, and people worry about where they will end up when the project is complete.

[this list is from www.reinventingeducation.org]

What strikes me about this list is that these are quite rational concerns for most school change initiatives. As leaders and change agents, we have to acknowledge the validity of these concerns and address them appropriately if we are to achieve the desired changes.

Kanter also notes that people are motivated by three key factors:

  • Dissatisfaction. This can be either positive (e.g., “We could be so much better”) or negative (e.g., “Things are really terrible”), but people are rarely motivated to make things different when they are perfectly satisfied with things as they are. However, recognize that it is often more difficult to persuade people to act because of a brighter future than because of a current crisis. This fact may  be the result of the concreteness and visibility of a crisis. Use this knowledge to your advantage, by making the picture of the possible better future as visible and explicit as possible.
  • High probability of success. When people perceive that change is unlikely to be successful, they are rarely motivated to act on their dissatisfaction. This is why small successes in the early stages of a project can be very important in shifting people’s views. Remember, the probability of success is really a question of perception, which is why [change leaders] spend time persuading people to see things differently. Moreover, an innovative idea can transform someone’s view immediately, by making plausible what had previously been almost unthinkable.
  • High value of the change. If the end result is not worth the expected effort, no amount of dissatisfaction or belief in the probability of success will motivate people to action. Furthermore, the result has to be worth the effort to each individual person. If the change will result in a loss of authority for someone or in a pay cut, that person will certainly not be motivated to make the change happen. As a leader, you have to be able to see the change from the point of view of those affected by it. People who see a brighter future – for themselves and for the organization – that is worth working for will be most likely to join the team.

These key motivating factors are interrelated, and their effect is multiplicative, not additive. Leaders of change must keep all three motivating factors at the forefront of their minds as they work to shift people’s views.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Kanter:

Even if there is some motivation to change, there is also always some inertia in the present. This can be both psychological (comfort, familiarity, routines and rhythms, etc) and operational (more work, uncertainty about end results, etc). So it’s useful to think in terms of a “hurdle rate” that has to be exceeded before someone will be inclined to act on his or her own (intrinsic) motivation. Often it is effective to couple these intrinsic motivations with extrinsic factors – carrots and sticks. These extrinsic factors can be used to help overcome resistance. Just remember that reliance on these alone, when intrinsic motivation is not present, is notoriously dangerous: as soon as the carrot has been eaten, or the stick removed, that’s the end of the motivation.

Sidenote: IBM has invested millions of dollars in the creation of the Change Toolkit, a free online resource for K-12 educators. The Toolkit is based on Kanter’s work and is intended to help education professionals be more effective at leading and implementing change. The Toolkit contains a variety of resources to help leaders implement a thoughtful, systemic approach to school change efforts and successfully address common challenges and barriers. I use the Toolkit quite a bit in my own teaching and encourage you to check it out (did I mention it’s free?).