I wanted to try my hand at writing a series of blog posts on “Leading Innovative Change.” As I am looking at writing a book on the same topic, I thought I would put some ideas out there and hopefully learn from others on these topics. I also want to give these ideas away for free. These posts are for anyone in education, but are mostly focused on school administrators. In all of these, the idea that administrators openly model their learning will only accelerate a culture of innovation and risk-taking. You can read the first three posts in the series:
My first year as a principal, I was pretty excited about all of the opportunities that technology provided my staff. There were so many awesome websites and tools that were out there, that we would be crazy not to take full advantage of all of the FREE stuff that was provided. Anything that I could get my hands on, I would share with my staff. Twitter had so many great links being shared on not only how to make education better, but ideas that could be implemented into your classroom right away. There were so many great ideas that I felt it was imperative to light a fire under my staff by sharing them.
As I continued to share with my staff, I saw them feeling extremely overwhelmed and what I noticed was that the more choice I provided them, the less they did with it. It was overwhelming. What I also noticed was that with the staff that did embrace everything that was being shared, they were only scratching the surface of what could actually be accomplished. Our practice was becoming of the “garden variety” nature; knowledgeable in all, but masters of none. This was no one’s fault, but my own. There were way too many options and I pushed them all.
The Paradox of Choice
One of my favourite Ted Talks is by Barry Schwartz on the “Paradox of Choice,” which basically talks about how we live in a world with so much choice that it can make us miserable. From his book of the same name, he talks of the peril that choice leads us towards:
“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.” Barry Schwartz
Working with my own staff and many others, I have asked this question many times: “If I could simply pick a few technologies that you could use in your practice, would you prefer that?” Over and over again, there is a strong consensus towards, “YES! Please!!!” Many educators know that technology is important, they just don’t know where to begin. This is not only relevant to technology, but with to many other facets of education. Think about it…how many school teams could easily name 10 things that they have worked on in the last three years? I know that I have seen this far too often in my travels. Too many initiatives that we only scratch the surface on. Our learning often focuses on width, not depth. We have to change that mindset.
Reading Bernajean Porter’s work from a few years ago, she shared the simple idea of moving from literate, to adaptive, to transformative. Here is how those three areas break down in the area of technology, specifically using an iPad as an example.
If I am literate, I am able to manipulate a device. I know how to turn it on, work with it, and turn apps on.
If I am using the device in an adaptive way, I am doing something that I used to do with this new technology. For example, taking notes on the iPad or reading a textbook on the device.
If I am using the device in a transformative way, I am doing something with the device that I could not do before. I am creating video, connecting with people around the world through a blog, sharing items with other students in the classroom at any time, from any place. This is where we move this device from consumption to creation.
Go to the workshop that does “50 Free Tools” in an hour and you are probably hitting the literate stage in many areas. You will hardly ever push the edge of learning.
Focus on Creation
“They have to be interactive producers, not isolated consumers.” John Seely Brown
As we started to look at what was “innovative,” we wanted our students to really see themselves as “creators.” To me, creativity is where we start to think differently, but innovation is where creativity comes to life. To have this focus on our students “creating” is where you see the real learning happen. How many of us have ever been inspired by a teacher that simply writes notes on the board? You are basically regurgitating information. The learning happens when we take what we know and make something out of it.
“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey
So with this extreme focus on creation, where did we move next?
A Common Purpose
With technology now, it is much easier to connect our classrooms to one another. So, we start to see that learning does not happen in “chunks,” but that it is ongoing and continuous. Learning does not stop for two months at the end of grade 2, and then start on a new path at the beginning of grade 3. This has always been true, but with the thoughtful use of technology, we can create a visibility of the learning our students do that was never able to happen before.
With that in mind, two of the initiatives that we decided to focus on were Google Apps and using blogs as a Digital Portfolio. This was not something that we would only focus on for one year, but we are now currently in our third year of implementation and I assume that it will continue to move on long after this year. The reason why we focused on using blogs to create portfolios was that it was something that could be used by every teacher in every single class. There was a commonality to making learning visible. If I am an English teacher, it is simple to write posts and share writing in this space, but you could also take video evidence of skill development in physical education, or do a podcast for learning a second language, or take pictures of art work to post. If you could see it, it could fit into this space.
What you will notice with each of the previous examples is that every teacher has a shared purpose where they are connected, but also an autonomy in the way that they add to this space. Daniel Pink talks about how these are crucial elements in our development as people:
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” Daniel Pink
With paper, a portfolio that would move from kindergarten to grade 12 (and actually after any student was done school) would be impossible. With technology, it is simple. We just have to start seeing that we are all a part of a child’s development and this connection through a “blog” makes it simple. The thing is, it is not going to be able to be done in a month or a year. It is going to take patience, perseverance and focus. Change needs all three of these characteristics.
Drawing Outside of the Lines
Although too much choice is something that can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, it is imperative that you do not ask people to only work inside of a “box.” The consistent use of tools can create innovation within the use of those tools, but if you do not encourage constant exploration outside of those parameters, you can become stagnant in your practice once again. We have always encouraged our innovators to be innovative. If people believe that they can go above and beyond what they are already doing, we want them to do exactly this. The one thing I do ask is that they share their expertise with others, as well as their new learning. Organizations need to model learning and growth as a whole, not only educators.
Too many times initiatives die too soon because they are simply an additive to what we already do, as opposed to enhancing or replacing. If you believe that something is imperative to add on to an already full plate of educators, you don’t simply ask for a bigger plate–you look at what can be removed.
As this narrow focus is important to really push the edges of learning, we have to be willing to share with others in the process. Hoarding ideas does not allow for innovation and ideas simply come to us in isolation. Open networks of learning are crucial in creating innovative environments and will be discussed in the final part of this series.