Innovation in Schools
Good high schools, in this writer's opinion, are schools where there is regular, ongoing, innovation in teaching and the educational program more broadly. Recently I posted on the implications of Estrin's Innovation Gap for what and how our students should be learning; today I want to write on what it means for our schools, faculties and administrators.
When I reflect on my own ten years teaching, I know that I was far, far more alive as a teacher, and more effective at meeting my students learning needs, when I was innovating. A favorite memory comes from the year, 1992 perhaps, when our school hosted a diversity program. Students thereafter pressed for a more multi-cultural curriculum, and the faculty concurred, setting a strategic priority on developing the curriculum that way. What did I do? I was already slated for an English elective offering for the following semester, and instead of repeating a course I had taught previously on the Modern Novel, I chose to develop a new course, in Black Women Writers. The course was a great success, and it clearly advanced the school's strategic priorities.
I think we need to do it this way: boards and faculties, with good inclusion of input from other constituencies, need to identify strategic priorities and directions for the development of their educational programs, and then teachers need to be empowered and supported (and perhaps rewarded) for innovating their curricula in that direction. Note, I am not saying school boards or admnistrators should decide what the new curriculum should be itself, and then hand it down: "here is your reading for all curriculum, or your open court, or your facing history-- now implement it while I take credit for the school's curricular innovation." No.
In my leadership role at Maybeck High School, 1996-99, I sought to promote greater innovation in the curriculum by reorienting the social studies curriculum. Its structure was simple: Government and Economy, each for a semester, in 11th grade, and then Modern History, year long, in 12th. In the revamp, we swapped those classes out for semester electives, offering two options each semester-- and the result was a flowering of new classes: origins of the holocaust, the powers of the presidence, the Civil Rights Movement, international relations.
Promoting curriculum innovation by teachers was the subject of my Klingenstein fellowship research-- and I was able to find a few, (only a few!) research based articles on methods for this. My complete article reviewing the research is available here.
What are Estrin's suggestions for an innovative corporate culture? First, establish the core values: she recommends, as we have seen, questioning, risk, patience, openness, trust. Let's work with boards and faculties to determine our own core values for the promotion of innovation, referring to these, and then hold them up high.
Then there are these additional points, for what she calls green-thumb leadership, because "nurturing innovation is more like gardening than karate."
1. "there is no one set of rules to facilitate leading for innovation. It requires intuition, imagination, and judgement, with decisions often needing to be made with little or no hard data. Leaders need to be supportive of experimentation and to have the natural curiosity and courage to try something new."
2. "innovation requires flexible, open, less hierarchical processes, with leaders who see their primary role as being supportive rather than directive. This tends to be more chaotic than traditional hierarchical organizations." For illustration, she offers this, deliberately provocative statement from Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who says Google is "poorly managed by design."
3. Management must be willing to be "open about and tolerant of failure." Quoting Meg Whitman: "mistakes are such a part of being better as a company. you learn a lot from products that aren't as successful as you thought they would be."
4. "In companies large and small, questions should flow at every level starting from the top... innovation friendly companies encourage challenging questions while discouraging combativeness and defensive attitudes." Use wikis, list-serves, and blog for information sharing.
5. "If you force operational metrics too early, few people with the disruptive potential to create future growth will ever pass the tests."
6. "Barriers to exploring new initiatives should be set low, and new initiatives should be protected."
7. "One of the most effective ways to focus on the future is to create small, dedicated teams or strategy groups, granting them the freedom to develop their own rules, structure, and culture, but enable them to leverage the resources of the company as a whole." What if at our schools we had a joint faculty-board strategy or innovation committee, which met monthly, determining what our innovative priorities should be, what summer reading we should have, what speakers we should bring in, what experiments we should fund.
8. "A commitment to innovation starts with the CEP and is every employee's responsibility."
9. "At Google, thoughts about new features and products are discussed broadly via email on an "ideas" list and at informal brainstorming meetings. Experts are brought in daily to give talks at the company on a wide range of topics to provoke thinking about problems in new ways."
10. "There is no substitute for leaders spending time talking and listening to their employees. Demonstrating that new ideas are being considered and discussed is the best way to encourge people to speak up."
11. Innovators need to be "critically optimistic-- enthusiastic about their projects, but also open to spotting potential problems and making necessary course corrections."
12. "In a world of revolving door executives, swapping out the CEO seems to be many boards' knee-jerk response. Senior managers can no longer assume they'll be at the helm for long, which encourages even more shortsighted thinking. Why should they make bold decisions for the long-term health of the company if they'll be history in three years? Our society as a whole is growing risk-averse. But by trying to predict and prevent every failure, we end up quashing innovation."