Tom Kelley got me thinking at the Hong Kong Summit: Where’s the innovation in our schools? Where’s the risk taking? Where’s the abundance of ideas? Who’s seeing things with fresh eyes? How are we taking the best ideas from other industries and applying them to education?

Generally speaking, schools are excruciatingly slow to change. Even when schools are making a concerned effort to be innovative and re-think traditional modes of learning, it often ends up being a variation of what’s already in place. I’ve been on countless curriculum review committees where one pre-packaged program was chosen over another in an effort to “modernize” the learning experience, but in the end all we ever seem to get is a new coat of paint on what we’re already doing. Sure, we’re moving forward, but it’s at a snail’s pace.

So how fast should schools be adapting and changing? What should the pace of innovation be?

Unfortunately, as Tom eloquently described, if we have any hope of staying ahead of the curve, we need to be moving even faster than the other innovators in our field. It’s not enough simply to be an innovator,  you need to stay ahead of everyone else who’s innovating – even if they appear to be outside your field.

Tom refers to this as the “Red Queen Effect” after a scene in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, where Alice is shocked to be standing in the same place after running quite fast for an extended period of time and the Red Queen explains, “if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

Tom Kelly Presents

This isn’t a question of schools choosing to stand still or not innovating at all, because I do believe we’re all trying to move forward in one way or another. This is about the dangers of slowing your pace of innovation just enough for others to out-pace you – not necessarily other schools, but rather other modes of learning. Interestingly, Tom also mentioned that resting on your laurels is usually the time when others outpace you innovatively (something I think many good schools are very much in danger of doing all too often).

Another Hong Kong presenter, Stephen Heppell, was also careful to emphasize that the biggest challenge today is the pace of change: exponential. With this rapid pace of change there is no time for the “staircase mentality” (pilot, review etc). He reminded us that we didn’t value tech in the 80s – what are we mistakenly not valuing now?

Marco Torres Presents

Marco Torres Presents

Why does this happen?

Tom explained that innovation falls squarely in quadrant 2 of Steven Covey’s matrix: it’s “Important”, but “Not Urgent”. For example, we absolutely have to have a new math/science/reading/social studies program. The teachers can’t teach without one, so picking a new one is going to fall in quadrant 1, and ultimately, innovation gets put off until tomorrow. However, innovation has an urgency all its own and those that don’t place innovation as a priority will find themselves displaced.

Tom Kelly Presents

As innovators, Stephen mentioned that we need to be critical about what’s convenient for us versus what’s good for learning, for example, our assumption that ringing a lunch bell means that a thousand students will suddenly be hungry at the same time, or that students are at the same stage in their learning (in same grade) because they happened to born between two Septembers, etc.

Another problem is that radical change is often thought of as expensive. On the contrary, as Stephen, observed: “It’s more expensive to make or maintain schools and add bits of exciting 21st century around than to just skip to a much cheaper 21st century model model of community learning.” This is a good example of the difficulty people face in conceptually realizing the advantages of bold innovation: we naturally assume that slow steady progress will be best (as we are taught from an early age, when the tortoise wins the race).

How do we make innovation a priority in our educational institutions?

Tom discussed the 10 Faces of Innovation from his recent book of the same name, explaining that we need 10 different types of people to bring all the facets of innovation to the forefront of our organization:

  • The Hurdler: this is the person who says, “of course there will be obstacles – that’s my job, overcoming obstacles.”
  • The Storyteller: data is not that powerful. Stories carry messages farther.
  • The Anthropologist: this is the person who focuses on seeing with fresh eyes (or “vuja de”). People get immersed in their own environment and simply stop seeing it for what it is, it becomes “just the way things are,” for example the turnstiles at CDG airport, which are impossible to carry luggage through, despite the fact that they’re between the airport and the subway. Yet airport employees see them day in and day out and they haven’t been changed. We need to observe objects in use in their natural environment so that we can design with empathy
  • The Experimenter: this person gives permission for failure, knowing that innovation involves risk. To innovate, we must to be able to fail in a safe environment by creating an idea-friendly organization where we have the ability to “squint” and see the “shape” of an idea.
  • The Cross Pollinator: the ability to share ideas, to take inspiration from other cultures and enhance, thereby gaining in translation. Examine other ideas cross continents, cross countries, cross industry, cross age (“reverse mentors”) to be able to build upon other ideas and transform and improve them.
  • The Experience Architect : The Experience Economy – book (commodity, product, service, experience)
  • The Collaborator: brings people together to get things done.
  • The Director: enabler of great creativity around them
  • The Set Designer: approaches from people standpoint then looks at business & technology elements to create effective designs. Building engaging, seductive, delightful learning is also a design task.
  • The Care Giver: have empathy and work to extend the relationship.

How do you structure for innovation?

John Couch Presents

Tom shared several criteria for successful innovation:

  • A flat leadership model to enable anyone to have their idea heard by the “boss” no matter where you are in the organization. He also pointed out, however, that after many years of experimentation at IDEO, the company found that 100 people is the limit for a flat leadership model, and any larger organization will unfortunately need to have a “boss’s boss” and so on.
  • Must have an abundance mentality, the goal is to share as many ideas as possible, knowing that only a very small percentage will work. He cites an example of a game-design company which had 1000 ideas but only 6 patents in one year.
  • The need for good humor, an environment where it is OK to make fun of the boss.
  • Workspace design must focus on building collaboration, for example, the stereotypical office design of cubicles actually look a lot like voting booths, which are specifically designed to prevent collaboration. What about our set-up of each teacher in their own classroom? I’m not sure you could design anything so physically non-collaborative if you tried!

What does this mean for education?

The time for innovation is now, as Stephen described (and Marco Torres’ slide below emphasizes), “learning is at a crossroads:” we’re looking at a choice between productivity and new approaches, those new approaches being:

  • student portfolios;
  • making huge leaps in our model of education, not tiny steps forward;
  • working to produce ingenious, engaged, inspired, surprising, collegiate students;
  • and developing learning experiences that are open-ended, project-focused, multidisciplinary.

Marco Torres Presents

By innovation, I don’t mean just adding more technology to the classroom, I mean thinking differently about learning in its entirety. For example, I still find it hard to believe that many schools have not fully implemented a project-based learning approach. This was all the rage when I was in teacher’s college 10 – 12 years ago, but even now it’s still marketed as something “new” (maybe that’s why I like the MYP so much). How is it possible that, 12 years after learning about a model of education being the best thing since sliced bread, only a few schools really excel at this approach?

It’s not technology alone that makes us innovative, it’s looking at learning with fresh eyes. It’s asking ourselves: if we could start from scratch, what would our schools look like today? I can’t remember who said this first but, “technology is just an amplifier” – technology doesn’t change the quality of teaching or learning, it will only amplify it, either in a positive or negative way. What we need to be looking at is changing our approaches to learning, not modifying our curriculum to a “newer” version of what we’ve already had for the past 20 years.

John Couch Presents

We could start by taking a step back and looking at the whole experience of teaching and learning, as if we  were aliens from another planet or anthropologists studying a remote tribe, as Tom described the role of the Anthropologist in his 10 Faces of Innovation. It’s only through observing learning in its natural environment today, wherever it’s taking place, that we can understand how to build schools that meet the needs of today’s learners. As Tom quipped, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t a fish!”

What do you think? Is your school innovative? What are you doing to encourage innovation? What can schools do to focus on innovation despite the daily urgencies of our profession?

If you were an alien who knew nothing about our education system and you arrived on our planet today, how would you design a learning community for today’s students?

Miguel Guhlin quote from Clarence Fisher, Literacy as Battleground, image source
Chris Lehmann quote image source: Flickr user Ali K.

13 thoughts on “Where's the Innovation?

  1. Sure the pace of change is astounding. I know that each generation for at least the last 100 years has felt that way.

    I believe that standardized testing is a major culprit for the mad rush to assess/report and add to the curriculum. We are so focused on it at our school that even those that advocate for the students that are at risk take for granted the process that ensures some ‘have’ and some ‘have not’.

    I found the photos comparisons from Stephen Heppell’s presentation of students from 1973 and our current 14-16 year old students misleading. It is quaint to look back and see a time in the past as simpler and it is generational. Do you really think that life was less complicated for teens in the early 70’s? different, yes; less complicated, no way.
    I know this was only part of your post, but am discouraged to see presenters using these sort of comparisons.

    An interesting post!

  2. It’s an exciting time to be an educator, isn’t it? I love the Eric Hoffer quote you show. I’m working hard to convince staff at my school that we need to make some changes and that quote sums up the message I’m trying to get across.

    Have you heard of Wooranna Park Primary School in Australia? Will Richardson wrote about it in a recent post. A very innovative school for many reasons, one example being the students and teachers were put in charge of a recent redesigning and renovation of their learning environment. If you haven’t heard of it, you might want to check it out!

  3. I am so thrilled to have read this post! I think you have hit the nail on the head! I think you have put into words exactly how I have been feeling about how educating our children is going. It seems that there is a lot of talk but no action. The Government has tried but not successfully. Great blog! Thank you for posting this. I can’t wait to share it!

  4. Absolutely fabulous. This is great stuff. I just wrote a post on Thursday arguing that the “learning management system” paradigm prevents innovation and change. If we don’t break out of it, we’re destined to get out-innovated, as you suggest.

    I think you’re right on the money–dramatic change and innovation will not (cannot) occur by incrementally improving our existing practices. We need to see differently and invent the future instead of constantly reinventing the past. For my part, I think this has to be driven by a focus on authentic learning and learner competency. What can our students do? What should they be able to do? How do we help them become capable of doing the things that really matter? You point out a couple of good starting points–project-based learning and portfolios.

    I came across a great quote from Frank Tibolt this morning: “We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.”

    I guess it’s time to get to work!

  5. If I was an alien paying a visit to the third planet of a rather ordinary main sequence star what would I do to create a learning community for our students?

    Well, just before establishing the proposed learning communities I would take advantage of the technologies that brought me here to quietly eliminate governments, borders, religion, weapons, money and profit. The internal combustion engine would disappear as well as a dependence on fossil fuels.

    Everyone on this planet would become members of a learning community called Earth. Their first lesson would be… “Start over”.

    What would I do? Education would be universally free and a right. Communities would support education anywhere for any student. Walls would not be an issue. Neither would distance whether virtual or actual. Age and ability not an issue. The learning would cater to the abilities of an individual and not to the prescriptions of an authority. There would not be infant, primary, secondary and tertiary education. There would simply be education.

    Totally idealistic and, given the sort of society that the human race has managed to conjure up for itself since we sprawled out of the mud, totally unrealistic. Sadly. *Sigh*

    PS. Great post Kim.

  6. @Tim,

    I agree that standardized testing and NCLB has had a huge impact – even on those of us working in international schools that are strongly influenced by trends in US policy.

    The two images are actually from Marco Torres (I need a caption) and if you look at them closer they are ways that student can access and distribute media. It’s not meant to show a “simpler” time, just meant to emphasize that it could be difficult for adults who haven’t grown up in a participatory culture to understand how different it is. I don’t think there was any mention of complexity, it was more focused on availability of media.


    Yes! I did read Will’s post about Wooranna Park – definitely a great example of involving the entire community in decision making.


    I’m so glad the post resonated with you. I realize that this is a big challenge that’s certainly easier to talk about than it is to implement, but I think we have to try!


    Great points! You reminded me to include another one of the great quotes from the HK Summit:

    “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay


    Thanks for the link! I will bookmark and read today :)


    So many good points here John! I really wish we could stop and start over sometimes – on many more levels than just education. I know we’re talking “pie in the sky” here, but I really wonder how we can do this. Is it starting a smaller school and modeling how it can work? Is it a school-within-a-school? Somehow we have to figure out a way to move forward.

  7. Hi Kim,
    Thanks for setting me straight on the photos. Lots of great conversation started, well done on a great post.

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