Friday, April 27, 2012

Is Disruptive Innovation Compatible with Education?

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to listen to Ray McNulty, the president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, commonly known as Daggett's organization.  We spent a lot of time discussing innovations in education, and especially how those innovations affect the work of organizations as they define and refine their #rti process.   This was our capstone meeting for the IRIS/RTI pilot project in Iowa.

McNulty spoke last year, and was the first person to introduce me to John Hattie's book, Visible Learning, which was a meta-analysis of research into education efforts with a large effect size.  Grant Wiggins also highlighted this research on  best practices in a recent post, and Hattie's latest book is Visible Learning for Teachers, which tries to highlight ways to implement these ideas in the classroom.   Ray reminded us that socio-economic status and home environment were not on the list, in spite of our assumptions and misconceptions to the contrary.  That gave me food for thought immediately on helping all students achieve.

Then, we discussed turnaround schools, including the successful literacy initiative at Brockton High school.   Not surprisingly, McNulty pointed out the need for a systemic change, which led to this insight:

If you could get teachers in your school to do only 3 things well and consistently, what would you ask of them? 

How simple is that?  Three things, done by all on a staff, perhaps proposed by different cohorts of stakeholders who came to consensus.  They need large effect sizes, and perhaps are the things that @jasonglassia referenced in a tweet earlier today.  That's the job of the system.  CHOOSE WISELY.

But then, Ray pulled a rabbit out of his hat.  I felt like he was channeling Steve Jobs as he described his 'one last thing'.  Here it is:   In order for us to move to the next level, we must value innovators, and realize that innovation is what we must accomplish, rather teachers who produce deliverables.

Deliverables are lessons, lectures, papers and tests.  They include presentations, discussions with the board, and newsletter posts. They are important.  They form the backbone of our system, but they do not encourage the types of questions that promote innovation.  In education, we have traditionally valued deliverables over innovation, so entrepreneurial ideas and educational outliers are often discouraged or pushed out.

Five points to consider (Ray's McNulty's statements in brown, followed by my questions):

  • Innovators practice associational thinking.  
    • When was the last time your staff members connected to other disciplines, businesses, and countries?  
    • Does your staff look for global change, or stay focused on their own buildings?
    • Do staff members have charge of their own networking and PD, or is the role of your administration to design and control such experiences?
  • Innovators have the ability to experiment. 
    • When was the last time your staff got to try something just to see IF it worked? 
    • Is there a  'fail-forward' reflection policy to innovation? 
    • Does your system adopt 'programs' or 'best-practices', and how is stakeholder input maximized?
    • How are experiments in the system communicated with your other stakeholders?
  • Innovators have the ability to observe from an outside vantage point.
    • Does your system look at other successful systems to see opportunities and potential pitfalls?
    • Have you encouraged your staff to visit other successful systems to see different points of view?
    • Do you value staff comments and questions, or squelch them?
  • Innovators have the ability to question.
    • Does your staff include questioners? 
    • Is there a systemic process to encourage questioning?
    • Do staff feel safe in asking questions or making observations?
    • Are questioners of value, or are they 'loose cannons' to be marginalized?
    • How does questioning move from the stakeholder to the administrative level?
  • Innovation doesn't occur in an entire system; it grows in unexpected pockets, with an administration that then builds capacity.
    • What innovation pockets exist in your system?
    • Does your system allow for disruptive innovations?
    • Are staff members who passionately and effectively pursue an unexpected innovation rewarded?
    • Are system structures formed to encourage innovations to be shared and mentor others?

I find myself, after working in quite a few systems, reflecting on how very hard it is for a CEO or system expert to welcome disruptive innovation.   After all, the expert has large amounts of training and theory in setting vision, developing budget, and setting goals for the management of their organization and employees.   They make reasonable statements like, "We should  consider that next year," or "We've always done that and it's worked alright," or "I didn't expect you to do that."   Such comments work well for loyalists who want to produce deliverables and work within the company framework.  Our industrial model is built on such leadership.

But that is EXACTLY the problem with innovators.  They are intrinsically self-motivated, and driven by passion rather than a company vision that operates on a 3-5 year time frame.  They will do things without being asked, and often succeed at possibilities that are remote.  They are frustrating because they want new challenges and challenge traditional structures of top-down leadership, and they offer advice that is unsolicited.

How do we balance the needs of the system, which places its focus on stability and deliverables, with that of transformative learning, which encourages the value of innovation?  It is tough.  Excellence is not mandated, it is coaxed, like a fragile flower, out of soil that has been well-prepared and watered.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Marcia! I always have endorsed embracing the "boat rockers" over the "company men". We need both, but the "company men" are usually the ones moving up the ladder as opposed to those who challenge the norm (boat rockers). Which is why the norm stays the norm.

    Great thought generator for ed leaders!