We talk often about the importance of “collaboration”, but talking about the impact of an individual is often taboo. Effective collaboration is made up of bringing unique talents of individuals to move a group ahead. It is not about all thinking the same thing, but the strengths of individuals coming together. Collaboration is talked about all of the time, but we forget the importance of the strengths of individuals.
In a conversation I was having with an administrator, they talked about (and not in a condescending way), that many of the positions in education can be replaced. For example, when a second grade teacher leaves, we will need someone to take their place. That being said, I want to try be someone that when I leave a place, there is a void. This doesn’t mean the next person can’t do my job, but they will bring their own unique talents and strengths to the table as well.
There are so many ways this can be done. It does not always mean being the “best teacher”; it can be in how your bring a smile to the faces of people in your organization. It can be some of the conversations that you have with students, that will be sorely missed. True collaboration in organizations brings out and fosters our uniqueness, as well as our similarities. These individual strengths make a stronger whole.
I have been thinking about what being “irreplaceable” means. When you leave, be a void that is felt, not simply filled.
Tony Sinanis, a friend that I consider a brother, is one of the most thoughtful educators and leaders I know. He recently wrote this as a Facebook status:
Maybe in our schools our focus should be on helping educators & educational leaders develop a growth mindset instead of just focusing on the kids. #edchat
Although I agree with this statement to some degree, I think it is not going far enough. This was my reply:
This is going to sound like a promotion, but obviously I am passionate about the topic. Why not an “innovator’s mindset“? Growth mindset says a lot to me about being open to new learning, but innovator’s mindset approach is meant to actually have people think about what they have created with their learning. Do we want kids to be good at math, or have the ability to do something with the math they have learned? Should teachers just be open to learning, or be able to create better experience because of the learning that has happened.
As Thomas Friedman said, “The world doesn’t care about what you know. The world only cares about what you can do with what you know, and doesn’t care how you learned it.” This quote is a reminder that the notion of the “growth mindset” is maybe not enough in the world today for our students and ourselves.
The notion of “engagement and empowerment” has been one that I have been very passionate about. Do we want teachers to take their learning and create something with it, or is a “growth mindset” enough. These ideas are not in opposition of one another, but the idea of the “innovator’s mindset” is meant to go a step further. Without a “growth mindset”, the “innovator’s mindset” would not exist. But if we truly take Friedman’s quote to heart, we have to recognize that doing something with our learning, is a necessary step with both teachers and students, to ensure that they succeed in a world that asking much more than just “knowing”.
I laughed hysterically at this when I first saw it, and then thought about how hard it is to be a teacher. The emotional roller coaster that a teacher can go on in a single day, hour, minute, is exemplified in this post.
All things teachers can feel in a matter of seconds.
Thank you teachers for all that you do. I know that this is insanely tough job, but I appreciate all that you do to not only get your kids better, but to become better yourselves. The hardest part of being a teacher is knowing that you will never truly know the full impact of what you do. Just know that the best teachers make a difference.
Continue to be the positive moment that kids will remember years from now.
In my consulting work with Winnipeg School Division (#WinnipegSD), we have developed a program in which we develop “Innovative Teaching and Learning Leads” (ITLLs). The purpose of this program is to focus not only what innovative teaching and learning looks like, but also to develop teachers as leaders to support the process within their schools.
When we asked schools to designate a person for this opportunity, there was only two things that we shared as criteria:
They have influence with staff.
They are open to new learning.
Unfortunately when many organizations hear the word “innovation”, they see it as synonymous with technology. Now technology can be crucial to innovation, but it is not innovation in itself. Innovation is about creating new and better opportunities. Simple.
In our last session, we started by asking the following three questions:
What is one thing that has challenged you in this program?
What has been reaffirmed?
What are you doing moving forward?
Using these questions as a basis of conversation, sparked some great learning with small groups and the larger group as a whole. Because of this, the original plan for the day was shifted to meet the needs of the group. I threw out plans and we redirected to dig deeper into portfolios, what they could look like, and how they can make an impact on learning. Here are some things that we did to change the shape of the day.
We started off with an extended lunch break to blog. Instead of giving an hour for lunch, we gave two hours, with the expectation that a blog post for their portfolio was done at the end of the time. We also told the group that they could leave the premises and go to a space that would be most conducive to them writing a blog post. Accountability was built into this process because they had to be effective with time management as we were all going to look at each other’s blogs when we reconvened.
When they came back, they added their blog to a google document, that put their name, twitter handle, title with a link to their blog, and the topic, along with any other comments that they had. Now everyone in the group could see what the other wrote.
After they added their blog to the google document, I added a column at the end that said “commented on”. They were now tasked with commenting to three other participant blogs, but after they were done, they added their name to show where they commented. The rule was to NOT comment on a blog if you already saw three other comments. This way, we did our best to ensure that everyone had a comment. We also clarified that comments like “great job!”, were not enough. The comment should encourage discussion and have the author write more.
We then took time to discuss the process with each other in our groups. Both the good and the bad. And although it was mostly good, there were some negatives as well. This is also important to understand through the process as you can further understand this process with students.
To end the day, I gave the group a few minutes to pick a blog post that resonated with them, and to talk for 15-20 seconds about them in the group. The first name would be called out randomly, they would acknowledge another person’s blog, and then that person, would acknowledge another person in the room. This meant that people were not expected to only read each other’s blogs, but try to understand them.
This process (developed on the fly because of the group), was a beautiful thing. It was also a reminder that some of the best learning can happen in a session if you are flexible and open to the organic process of learning.
Two things that are really important to understand through this process that was connected to the ITLL program. First of all, they understand the power of portfolios by using and learning in their own process. I have long contended that education is not using digital portfolios to anywhere near their potential because you have a lot of people trying to teach something they have never learned! Talking to some of the teachers, they were deathly afraid of putting their thinking out into the world, and then they were so excited to get a comment on their blogs. It was fascinating to see their change in the process just by giving them embedded time in the day.
This leads into the second point. I wanted to make the explicit connection to how the day probably looked a lot different from your usual “staff day”, as we wanted to not only engage, but empower learners, and by giving them control of how they used their own time, that was embedded into the day, how did this help them in designing learning time with their own staff? I have long believed that one of the best ways to change learning in the classrooms, is to change learning in our professional learning days. This is something that I have written about extensively in “The Innovator’s Mindset“, but my friend Katie Martin also articulates so beautifully.
When teachers have ownership over their learning, and experience what powerful learning can look like, it changes things in their classrooms. The amazing thing is that changing this learning changes me as a facilitator as well, because I see the power of embedding this time, which to some can seem “non-structured”, but is very deliberately planned and thought out. Telling will never be as effective as experiencing. If we believe this, we have to change what professional learning can look like in our staff days, not just the conferences we attend.
I saw this following math problem for a grade 1 admissions test to a school in Hong Kong on the site, 22Words, and I struggled to get it right away (I may have looked at the answer ahead of time). Take 20 seconds to figure it out below.
How did it go? If you are like the majority of people that I had in my session today, you didn’t get it right away. But once you see the answer, it seems so obvious.
The numbers go 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91— but from right to left because it’s upside down.
Maybe as adults we’re just so used to things being straightforward whereas kids get more creative with their thought process, or maybe we’re all just dumber than a first grader — at least one from Hong Kong.
The one line in bold resonated with me. Sometimes we say things like, “How do we get people to move forward?”, yet our approach is really along the lines of “tell them harder”. The hope is if we keep looking and approaching a problem the same way, that eventually we will fix it, instead of trying to look at things differently.
What is often holding others back is not them, but us. Our approach is usually the thing that people are struggling with, so we need to step back and see things in a different light.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. ” Albert Einstein
This puzzle was a nice little reminder that if we look at things in a different manner, the answer can sometimes be a lot simpler than we make it to be.
P.S. My wife figured it out in about 3 seconds because she said as a teacher, she is so used to the learning of her students upside-down. I am sure there are several lessons in that in itself.
With countless initiatives, either new or outdated curriculums, higher public scrutiny, the job can be overwhelming. That being said, there are some things that we always need to remember that can help us navigate the complexities of the work that we do as educators.
Education is a servant profession. This is something that I try to focus on daily in my work, as this can be easily forgotten, and even sometimes, we turn it around and act like students serve us. Questions such as, “What is best for students?”, and, “Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?”, are ones that we need to answer daily, not with a simple yes or no. Yet servant leadership goes up the chain. Simplifying, teachers serve students, principals serve teachers and students, superintendents serve principals, teachers, and students. Yet we often act the opposite way. More and more is piled upon the plates of principals and teachers, that make it harder for them to serve students and the community. We want teachers to be “researchers”, but give them such little time to do so. I learned that the higher you go up in any profession, the more people you serve, not the other way around. Really understanding and focusing on serving those in front of us, will make a major difference on what the experience looks like for our communities.
Learning is the goal. Curriculums are shifting away from content only in many spaces, and developing skills, but the bottom line is that we develop learners. As the world becomes more complex, change is thrust upon all of us, our students will not always have the access to a wise teacher. They will need to figure it out themselves. If kids walk out of school only being good at “school”, we might look good in the short term, but the damage long term is something that will have a negative impact for a time to come. Ask yourself, do our students learn stuff when they walk out of your class, or do they know how to learn with or without you? Someone once said that “we cannot learn in the absence of a teacher”, yet if we believe that, we are creating too much of a dependence on others, and not learning to figure it out themselves.
We are developing people. I remember one time I was talking to a teacher and a student came up to us with an emergency, and the teacher turned to them and said, “Can’t you see that we are talking? Wait until we are done.” It was said in a harsh manner and I was really uncomfortable with the moment. Now we don’t want students to be rude and interrupt conversations, but every moment in schools, is a moment that can last with a student forever. Will you be the positive or negative memory that they have ten years from now? Treating our students with respect, modelling it in how we interact with other adults, is something that is (in my opinion) much more important long term for our students. This does not mean we shouldn’t have conflict with one another, but it does mean we have to learn how to challenge one another in a way that is respectful, students and colleagues. Kids are very observant; what do they see and what do they eventually become because of what we model?
“Never let an 8 year old ruin your day.” This one is harder to articulate so I will do my best. One year on opening day, there was a speaker who made the comment, “never let an 8 year old ruin your day.” It stuck with me, and it is something that I have thought about often. I remember in one case, a student was swearing and yelling at me, saying some of the most horrible things to me, and I stayed calm the entire time, and continued to stay with them until they calmed down, and we had a conversation, eventually talking in a rational manner about how the things that I just heard were not acceptable. Earlier in my career, I would have been destroyed by these names, and probably would have affected me in a negative way the next day, and moving forward that year. But now, I have learned to let that go. There are kids who deal with things as young people, that I do not know if I could handle as an adult. These moments are often not about you, but about something else going on in their lives. That being said, I know and understand why many teachers (including myself), can take some of this pain that our students go through onto themselves, and it can be hard. Ultimately though, do your best to not take things personally. Easier said than done, but just remember, growing up is not easy, especially with some of the adversity that our students are dealing with. Sometimes kids feel like the world has given up on them, just make sure you do your best to let them know that you are not willing to do that.
As said earlier, education is a tough job, and every year we move forward, there is seemingly more thrust upon educators. As these endless initiatives and things that are thrust upon you, just try to remember why you do what you do. Starting with this end in mind, helps us remember what truly is the important work that we do.
I am an innovative educator and I will continue to ask: “What is best for learners?” With this empathetic approach, I will create and design learning experiences with that question as a starting point.
I believe that my abilities, intelligence, and talents can be developed, leading to the creation of new and better ideas.
I recognize that there are obstacles in education, but as an innovator, I will focus on what is possible today and where I can push to lead towards tomorrow.
I will utilize the tools that are available to me today and I will continue to search for new and better ways to continuously grow, develop and share my thinking, while creating and connecting my learning.
I focus not only on where I can improve, but where I am already strong, and I look to develop those strengths in myself and in others.
I build upon what I already know, but I do not limit myself. I’m open to and willing to embrace new learning, while continuously asking questions that help me move forward.
I question thinking, challenge ideas, and do not accept “this is the way we have always done it” as an acceptable answer for our students or myself.
I model the learning and leadership I seek in others. I take risks and try new things to develop and explore new opportunities. I ask others to take risks in their learning, and I openly model that I’m willing to do the same.
I believe that isolation is the enemy of innovation, and I will learn from others to create better learning opportunities for others and myself.
I connect with others both locally and globally to tap into ideas from all people and spaces. I will use those ideas along with my professional judgement, to adapt the ideas to meet the needs of the learners in my community.
I believe in my voice and experiences, as well as the voice and experiences of others, as they are important for moving education forward.
I share because the learning I create and the experiences I have help others. I share to push my own thinking, and to make an impact on learners, both young and old, all over the world.
I listen and learn from different perspectives, because I know we are much better together than we could ever be alone. I can learn from anyone and any situation.
I actively reflect on my learning, as I know looking back is crucial to moving forward.
Recently, Medford School District in Oregon, shared their take on the “mantra”, by having students and staff, share their own creation. Check it out below:
As I wrote in the book, “If we all embrace this mindset, imagine what education could become.” Although I believe it will take time, as long as we are willing to move forward, and focusing not only embracing change, but creating it, the opportunities are endless.
Thank you Medford School District for putting this video together. It was powerful to see your students and staff sharing together.
John Spencer, a great friend and amazing thinker, has a course on “Design Thinking for Teachers”, that is happening now. I know John is very thoughtful about his work, and has helped many educators embrace “Design Thinking” in their classrooms, in a way that is easy to connect with, yet powerful for students. If you are interested in signing up for the course, please click the following link:
To get a discount for this course, please use the discount code “spencer“, when purchasing.
To learn more about John and his thoughts on innovation in education, empowering students, and how Design Thinking can unleash these things in your students and your classrooms, check out his post below, that was originally posted on his blog.
In a recent post, I wrote about why I want to see students become innovators:
Unfortunately, the system isn’t designed for innovation. For years, schools have been stuck in a one-size-fits-all factory model, where students passively consume content. Some people will point out that this model is outdated. However, I would argue that factory education was a bad idea from the start. Because here’s the thing: kids aren’t widgets.
While one-size-fits-all works great for socks, it’s not ideal for minds. Kids need to dream and wonder and imagine. They need to design and build and tinker. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that guides students through specific phases in the creative process.
What happens when kids become design thinkers?
The following are some of the benefits I have noticed when kids engage in design thinking.
They move from engaged to empowered. Design thinking honors student agency, because they are the ones asking the questions, doing the research, generating ideas, and creating the final product. When they own the creative process, they own their learning.
They become problem-solvers. Real problem-solvers. The kind of problem-solvers who actually create the solutions. It’s not always easy. It can take time. Sometimes they get frustrated by all the mistakes. But by the end, they view themselves as problem-solvers — and this is the kind of self-concept that continues outside of school.
They grow more empathetic. Design thinking begins with a place of humility. You aren’t just making something. You are making something that serves an audience. This requires deep empathy. It might be a service project or a product or something you are publishing. Each approach requires a different kind of empathy. If this happens in a culturally responsive way, students can also learn cultural humility.
They remain curious. Design thinking begins with this sense of wonder and curiosity. It honors this natural desire to explore and to ask tons of questions. Too often, students internalize the idea that learning is all about answering questions. However, design thinking reminds us that learning begins with inquiry.
They learn how to work collaboratively. Traditional school work requires students to be dependent on their teacher as the source of all information. Individualized learning shifts to independence. But design thinking teaches students to work interdependently, balancing the needs of the group with the need for personal expression.
They view themselves as makers. By sharing their product with the world, they participate in a global community of creativity. They can also share their creative journey in what Austin Kleon describes as “showing your work.” In the process, they are more likely to appreciate the creativity around them.
They value the diversity of creative mindsets. Here students experience a bigger definition of creativity.In design thinking, students might be hacking a system, solving a problem, engineering a solution, tinkering, tweaking a process, testing ideas, gathering data or dreaming up new ideas. In the process, they learn to value the creative mindsets of everyone around them.
They learn the power of creative constraint. For all the talk of “thinking outside the box,” this is a chance for students to learn how to “think inside the box,” working with specific limitations as they prototype. Here, they learn that limitations are often the very design features for their finished work.
They see the value of iterations. Too often, students are punished for getting the wrong answer. They are stuck in grading systems where they get an average on their scores. With design thinking, they have an entire phase devoted to refining their work. This doesn’t mean they don’t need to have any deadlines, but it does mean they have the time and the permission to keep working on a product until they are ready to send it to an authentic audience.
They become creative risk-takers. Design thinking encourages students to engage in creative risk-taking at every stage. In the research phase, students can engage in divergent thinking, learning that every question matters. In the ideation phase, they get over the fear that their ideas might be “dumb” as they generate and combine ideas. In the creating and revising phases, they realize that the only true failure is giving in to fear of failure.
In other words, when students embrace design thinking, they develop a maker mindset. They define themselves as problem-solvers.
My Journey with Design Thinking
When I first began teaching, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. I wanted them to embrace the maker mindset. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn’t have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn’t translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).
That’s why I needed a framework. This is ultimately why I embraced design thinking. My students needed a different way to think about creative work. They needed something that would provide structure but also respect student agency and choice.
It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. My work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford d.school and IDEO).
But ultimately, I found that there were tweaks and iterations I needed to make to the existing design thinking frameworks. This is ultimately why I worked with AJ Juliani on the LAUNCH Cycle, a student-friendly design thinking framework for K-12 classrooms. We added a few key elements, including a broader starting point, an explicit stage of inquiry, a media literacy component and a final phase where they launch their work to an authentic audience.
Design thinking prepares students for a creative life — whether that is in business, in the social or civic spaces, in the arts, or in engineering. But it does this by allowing them create things that matter to them right now. It’s not some far off “grown up” thing. It’s something they can engage in right now as they create things that matter to them.
So, while it’s easy to complain about standardized education, we can offer strategies like design thinking and project-based learning as alternatives that empower students to be the creative thinkers we know they can be.
If you are truly effective in a leadership position, here is what your answer should be…
Even in the four items I listed, I am thinking that both sides of those skills are needed. For example, I think it is great when schools come up with their own ideas (Leaders are unique), while also adopting amazing ideas from other schools (managers copy). Is it not important to “create a vision”, while you also “create goals” to see where you are along the way?
The narrative of “Leader vs. Manager”, is not one that is helpful. The best way I have heard the two defined (attributed to Grace Hopper but I have also heard Stephen Covey use the same idea), was the idea that we “Manage things, lead people.” Simple yet powerful.
You might have the greatest “vision” in the world, but the management is often how you bring it to fruition. It is important to get people on the “bus”, but if the bus doesn’t have gas or a working steering wheel, good luck going where you need to be.
Management and leadership is not an “either/or” idea. For schools to be successful navigating all the change coming their way, the most effective leaders will have to be both. Otherwise, any vision we have will never come to fruition.
Leadership can happen from any position. We know this. But what is the impact when we focus on viewing leadership this way and ensuring that every member of the school community has ownership on the direction moving forward?
This is why this question is crucial; how do we move from “pockets” of innovation, to a “culture” of innovation? We all believe there are forward thinking classrooms really pushing the boundaries of what learning can look like in schools, but are they the norm or the exception?
There have been many educators, from whatever position they are in, that have a profound impact on the learning that happens in their schools, outside of their own classrooms. I would feel uncomfortable hiring someone to their first “administration” position, if they have never been a “leader”. Influence to help people move forward, can happen from anywhere and anyone.
But for this type of leadership to happen (and flourish) from any position, we have to think differently about what we do, and how we do it.
Here are a few things that can help move schools forward to a “culture” of innovation, no matter what position you are in.
We need to be accountable to each other, not just administrators. There is expertise in all buildings, and the notion of “you can’t be a prophet in your own land”, is one that we need to retire. Think about this truly; would you be excited to learn in some of the classrooms in your school? If not, what are you doing about it? Are you having conversations with your colleagues? Are we sharing ideas that can help all of us get better? If we expect everyone to be accountable to the principal or superintendent only, change will take forever. We need to push and support each other to become better. This leads into the next point.
We have to promote and model challenging conversations. Challenging ideas in education is crucial, but we have to be thoughtful of doing it in a respectful manner. In my workshops, I encourage people to challenge my ideas, understanding that the focus is on, “What is best for kids?” How we ask questions is crucial though. Are our questions statements in disguise, or are they genuinely focused on asking questions to move forward, not simply to hold on. Many educators embrace the notion that the best learning can happen when we are uncomfortable, and this should be no different in the conversations we have with our colleagues. Just be sure that people feel valued before you challenge them, or this could backfire.
We need to constantly look at our own environments, with fresh eyes. You may have been in your school for several years, and the concern about this is that we become numb to our environment. As someone who speaks in schools quite often, I look at everything that is on the walls when I walk in, and observe the feeling of welcoming when I enter classrooms. One school I walked into had extremely old artwork that was deteriorating in the hallway, and then later talked to me about how some kids are disrespectful in school. I saw a connection between the environment in the school and how the kids felt when they were there. If we become numb to what we do, what we see, and what we hear, we have a hard time moving forward. Observe, look, challenge, and wonder about the things on the walls and the learning in the school like it was your first day, every day. For some people that walk into your schools, it will be their first day. What observations do you hope they make?
Focus on being a “school” teacher, not simply a “classroom teacher”. Simply put a “classroom” teacher, is focused mostly on the success of the students that teach this year; a “school” teacher is focused on the success of all kids within the school (or even district). They see things like supervision as an opportunity to connect with students they don’t usually teach, but also they are more willing to open their classroom to colleagues because they know that what they are doing, can have an impact on other kids. Would there not be a significant increase in the environment of schools if each individual took ownership over the success of the community as a whole? Impact one other teacher in your school, and you impact probably a minimum of twenty students (that year only). When it is “our school”, the influence we have on one another, is more powerful than the influence of one administrator.