Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Innovation, Culture, and Self

“Human societies vary in lots of independent factors affecting their openness to innovation.”  --Jared Diamond

                A few years ago, creativity was the hot topic in education. Now it seems to be innovation. A logical progression—creativity should lead to innovation, yes? And we need both if we are going to continue to evolve. Nothing new in that notion. After all, whoever first used a rock or stick as some sort of tool clearly intuited this.
                Wherever educators look, innovation is there, the latest manifestation of the Holy Grail.  A current must-read is Tony Wagner Creating innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. (Confession: No, I haven’t read it…but it’s on my Amazon wish list.) This year the theme of the National Association of Independent Schools’ Annual Conference was “Innovation: imagine invent inspire dream.” Next year’s is “Revolutionary Traditions: Think Big, Think Great.” In the summer 2012 edition of Independent School magazine, NAIS president Pat Bassett’s column is entitled “The Innovation Imperative.” Pat concludes:

Bill Gates, our 2012 Annual Conference kick-off speaker, tells us that “innovation is the means, and equity is the end goal.” One powerful way we can meet our objectives of “the public purpose of private education” is to model the best 21st-century education in the world. (p. 12)

I certainly agree with the sentiment and the charge. But I have to wonder how ready the audience is for the message. Consider the following in light of the Jared Diamond quote at the start of this post.
In “Dangerous Things School Teaches” on his Blue Skunk Blog, Doug Johnson begins by citing Jessica’s Hagey’s list of Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught in School:

·      The people in charge have all the answers
  • Learning ends when you leave the classroom
  • The best and brightest follow the rules
  • What the books say is always true
  • There is a very clear, single path to success
  • Behaving yourself is as important as getting good marks
  • Standardized tests measure your value
  • Days off are always more fun than sitting in the classroom
  • The purpose of your education is your future career
Johnson agrees and adds:
·       There is one right answer to every question.
  • The purpose of your education is to make sure you can get a good job.
  • The more money you make, the happier you will be.
  • Heredity is fate.
  • Popularity = success.
  • You have to be smart at everything.
  • Classwork is more valuable than extracurricular activities or a part-time job.
  • You should like every teacher you have.
  • Objectivity trumps passion.

For many of us, I’m sure, these lists contained several pricks of remembrance. Each author elaborates briefly on every point.  It would be easy, and a big mistake, to think of them as isolated incidents. Instead, we need to consider the notion of school culture.
Kevin Ruth writes the wonderful, often provocative blog Introit.  A recent post was Caveat on Establishing Innovative Cultures.”  Some key passages:
Culture is a big deal in schools. We might be talking a lot about innovation right now, but a question schools should be asking is this: "Is our culture ready for innovation?" There are consequences to innovation within your school's culture. Why? Schools have always thrived on rules, predictability, and systems (hierarchies would qualify as a 'system', for example). This triumvirate of "how we do school" makes it difficult to deal with change, generally speaking, let alone the kinds of change that go hand-in-hand with innovation.
Schools should not tread lightly into the territory of "innovation." This is not how we "do school" or "do business," if you like. As Luke Johnson wrote in his Financial Times column, "The Entrepreneur" the other day (May 9, 2012), "The essence [...] is a willingness to do what it takes to get things moving. That means foregoing the joys of clarity for the messy truth that comprises any new venture -- imperfect products, clients who don't pay, the wrong staff, insufficient capital and so on. Such projects prosper thanks to many incremental wins and plenty of errors, rather than a few clean victories."
Schools would do well to heed his cautionary note. Foregoing the joys of clarity? Good luck. Plenty of errors? Not something with which we've been comfortable We need to think about how to realign school culture in order to allow for messiness, to embrace it.
Are we, as schools, prepared to "muddle through" in such circumstances? Are we prepared to realign cultures? Are we prepared for the time and effort it will take in order to make that happen?
I like to imagine a scene in which Kevin is yelling these questions at some sort of edu-vangelical rally, with hundreds of cheering acolytes screaming, “Amen!” It is very easy to respond yes to these questions; it is quite another to actually act on it. I recall how after the NAIS annual conference, numerous attendees tweeted their questions about how the zeal would lead to action post-event.
                As much of the literature on leadership stresses, bringing about cultural change is incredibly difficult. That is true in most areas, not just school. It’s not that people are totally averse to change. Otherwise, many of us would never have children. Instead, the imagined benefits must provide enough motivation to circumvent our comfort with the known. Some of the realities of school add to this. Just the management of children lends itself to a preoccupation with rules; and their developmental stages necessitate a high degree of concrete, rote learning along with some drilling of the basics. Then it is difficult for them to break out of that way of doing things, especially when they experience success. Meanwhile, teachers find it much easier to assess progress when the objectives fit into distinct boxes.
                So, if innovation is indeed an imperative, how do we proceed? In his column Pat Bassett provides many inspiring examples from businesses and schools. Leaders can, of course, keep the vision in front of people and create a fertile atmosphere. Ultimately, though, no matter what sort of systems and policies and rewards exist, everyone—educators, families, students—has to accept some fundamental understandings that may grate against school-as-usual.

·         Education is long-term and non-linear.
·         School could become messier than usual. Curricula may not align perfectly, and assessment criteria may be much more abstract.
·         We can no longer think of subjects and time in discrete units.
·         Continue to use data, but discerningly and with a clear sense of its limitations.
·         The quality of the experience matters much more than the quantity of the work and coverage.
·         Educators will have to move from being congenial and collegial to being truly collaborative.
·         Education is not a means to a particular end.
·         Individual experiences may vary greatly.
·         We have to become more accepting, even admiring, of the glorious failure.

These are just some of the major themes. I’m certain you could add to this list.
               What makes the whole issue particularly tricky is that most people grasp them in theory. But then reality intrudes. That’s why the conversations will have to be ongoing, widely inclusive, and profoundly honest. That’s really the only approach which will allow us to, as Kevin Ruth puts it, “muddle through.” Because if we’re going to heed the call and help our children become more innovative, we need to begin by re-inventing some things about ourselves.

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