Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An Ecosystem for Innovation

In a district of over 10,000 students, more than 600 teachers, approximately 1,000 non-instructional staff, seventeen different schools, and a variety of other office/facility buildings, I have been pondering what must be in place for innovation to continue to take root and thrive. On the other side of that coin, what barriers or obstacles need to be removed, or impacts at least lessened? What boundaries exist that we must abide, but possibly can get creative with?

Based upon a chart I viewed in Daniel Isenberg's article "The Right Way to Plan an Innovation Tour," I began to sketch a Forest Hills ecosystem for innovation:

Depending on the scale of the innovation, the amount of complexity in play varies. Also, while my sketch shows separate bubbles that touch, the ecosystem is actually comprised of living and moving parts. The bubbles actually bleed into each other at many different points.

Human Capital
We are a talent-dependent organization, rich in human capital. We have many experienced teachers, the majority of which have been with us for most of their careers. Even though new hires make up a small percentage of our teaching corps, an innovative ecosystem needs those being hired to be "game-changers." So, one of our opportunities is to look at our hiring process to ensure it aligns with our goals and objectives. This work has begun, and a new structure for district-wide instructional interviews is in its trial run this summer. We are also committed to job-embedded, continuous professional learning for our teachers and principals, and a long-term mentoring/retention system for new hires is also being developed. Through these experiences, innovative changes to the instructional core may be implemented.

In addition, we have a multitude of non-instructional staff who support student learning: administrators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, therapists, media specialists, department directors, custodians, bus drivers, aides, interventionists, food service workers, office staff, computer technicians, analysts, coaches, and so on. How might we leverage the talent of all our human capital?

Networks are critical for innovation expansion. Our schools began or continued their PLC journeys last year. In addition, many of our teachers and principals belong to outside educational communities, through professional organizations or informal networking. It is not wholly impossible to innovate on one's own, but the odds of success are dramatically increased when collaboration is present. Another opportunity for us is to continue to find creative ways to use the time allotted to us in different ways. The collaborative opportunities through networking connect directly to the "Human Capital" bubble as well.

The policy "organism" in the innovation ecosystem has both boundaries and flexibility. For example, state law dictates what courses a high school student must pass in order to receive a diploma. However, there are options to accommodate certain situations. I would also argue that we have a duty to advocate for legislative change in areas we feel do not support the best interests of kids. Another example is that federal and state law requirements result in each school submitting an improvement plan with goals and strategies, but it is capable of being amended as needed. Finally, at the local level, the Instructional Framework provides scientific, research-based instructional strategies, but the "art" of teaching still belongs to each individual teacher.

Funding is sometimes the 800-pound gorilla in the ecosystem. While federal and state funding continues to challenge us, we are fortunate that we live in a generous community, with members who share time, talent, and treasure. Certainly, our Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation has the goal of funding exploration and experimentation in our classrooms beyond the budget provided by government entities. More specifically, Destination: Innovation sits within the FHPSF and raises funds for the "exploration of new learning methods, structures, and ideas. These funds will enrich teachers with essential resources -- such as time, training and technology -- so that they can deliver a new type of learning in a new way." Through an application process, teachers seek funding to change the relationship between teaching practices, content, and students to improve student learning and prepare our students for life beyond our schools. We must continue to seek funding opportunities every step of the way, and this certainly "oozes" into the community and educational partnerships in the "Support" bubble.

Some might suggest that the culture in each school, and across our district, is the critical component of the innovation ecosystem. Without leadership support, communication, transparency, and visible success stories, we will have fewer innovation attempts, and both sustainability and scalability are likely impossible. With those important cultural pieces in place, we have the opportunity to move from sporadic, little-known pockets of innovation to multiple, well-planned small bets, and ultimately to scaled-up and sustainable models that improve learning environments and experiences for more and more students.

At a district level, I welcome and embrace my leadership responsibility to be a strong steward of people and ideas. Across different levels and departments, we are collaborating to communicate often and with clear messages, and to be transparent in our work. We must commit to showcasing those teachers who are experimenting with new learning experiences and environments, not to set up competition among teachers but to show possibilities and support for creativity. Leadership support also happens within schools, from principals and teachers alike. We must capitalize on that "Human Capital" component.

Finally, there are those items that I have creatively labeled "Supports." The physical infrastructure (classrooms, media centers, office space, hallways, gyms, cafeterias, utilities, furniture, grounds, etc.) has the possibility to both support or inhibit innovation, depending on how we view it. We need to bring the experts at Building & Grounds (and our external consultants) into the discussion at the front end to see what is possible. In an organization as large as ours, those face-to-face dialogues are crucial. Similarly, the technical infrastructure presents the same capacities.  With collaborative intentional planning, technology can be a great supporter of innovation and innovators.

Looking outside of our organization, we also need to partner wth community businesses and groups, as well as other educational institutions or groups, to grow our innovation capacity. Our FHPSF is working with the Business Advisory Council to facilitate connections with teachers and content. We also have ongoing and budding relationships with post-secondary institutions such as GVSU and MSU. Central Woodlands has created a relationship with Bemis Elementary School in Troy around visible thinking, and I would push that we need to continue to expand our relationships with other K-12 schools.

In whatever we do, we also need to have well-structured monitoring and measuring systems to assess the impact of changes to the status quo, whether they are a result of internal moves or external partnerships. When we or others invest time, talent, and treasure in exploration and experimentation, we have a responsibility to be transparent about the processes and outcomes. In addition, if we want to reduce risk, it is imperative for scalability and sustainability.

Join the conversation...
What's missing from my sketch? What needs more elaboration? How else might we picture the ecosystem? Is an ecosystem even the right thinking structure?

Friday, July 17, 2015

"But I know it when I see it..."

Justice Potter Stewart wrote that famous line in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184, 197 (1964). He was good-naturedly musing about the Court's attempt to "define what may be indefinable," in that case, a legal definition of pornography that rises to a criminal level.

In a somewhat similar vein, I find it difficult to define "innovation" in a clear-cut manner. Like Justice Stewart, many of us may feel like we know it when we see it, but is it definable?

In thinking about this, I looked for where the word "innovation" originated. Much to my surprise, it is also grounded in the law:
"According to [Canadian historian Benoit] Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When 'novation' first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeeeth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating againt church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: 'My Sonne, feare though the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change' (cotation Godin's emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true 'innovator' and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears." -- Emma Green, Innovation: The History of a Buzzword, in The Atlantic (June 20, 2013) 
Thankfully, innovation is no longer punished. But read any contemporary book or article on innovation, and the authors will  provide their own unique definition, varying from the simplistic to the sophisticated:
"The academic literature on innovation and creativity is rich with subtle distinctions between innovations and inventions, between different modes of creativity: artistic, scientific, technological. I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing -- good ideas -- to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy." -- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 21 (2010)
"Incremental innovation is about significantly improving existing products, processes, or services. Disruptive or transformative innovation, on the other hand, is about creating a new or fundamentally different product or service that disrupts existing markets and displaces formerly dominant technologies." -- Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, p. 10 (2012)
One definition that has resonated with me lately, that builds upon Johnson's "good ideas," is as follows:
"Innovation is defined as something new that can be applied in a useful way. Unlike inventions that refer more directly to the creation of an idea or method, innovation refers to the use of the better idea or method. It builds on the notion of doing something different rather than just doing the same things better as we might consider in improvement planning." -- Lyn Sharratt & Gale Harild, Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route to Career Readiness, K-12+, p. xvi (2015)
In reflecting on whether innovation is capable of being defined, I now wonder if the quest is deeper: if it should be definable. Do we undermine its purpose by trying to define it? Is it better to just "know it when I see it"?

Join the conversation...
What do you think or wonder?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Am I talking about innovation, or something else? Yes.

Here in Forest Hills Public Schools, we are embarking on our third year of integration with Dr. Robert Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (2007). Those familiar with the framework will recognize Domains 2 through 4 in the title of this blog post, but what you may not realize is that they are the building blocks for successful innovation as well.

To facilitate this conversation, I have "invited" thoughts from a variety of innovators/educators.

"There are, of course, innovations that spring from a flash of genius. Most innovations, however, especially the successful ones, result from a conscious, purposeful search for innovation opportunities...." Peter Drucker

So, how good are we as educators in conscious, purposeful searches? Turns out, not so good. As Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack note in their book, Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice (2013, pp. 54-55), "[h]uman beings tend not to be particularly good at thinking through all possible angles when considering a problem. We tend to jump to action very quickly, and educators are no exception. Most people don't spend enough time trying to unpack their "problems of practice" and really understanding them prior to committing to a course of action."  Part of this may be due to a sense of having so little time, but when we look at the time we have, it is an effective use of it. Domain 2 (Planning and Preparing) is what makes or breaks Domain 1(Classroom Strategies and Behaviors).

One great example of this is the work that about 20 of our secondary ELA teachers did this past year. They spent the school year slowing down to learn a new innovative process for developing units and lessons and evaluating resources, The planning and preparation could then be leveraged as they looked at the content under the new Michigan State Standards and integrated it into their work.

"The future will likely be won by those who don't wait for light-bulb moments from a single genius, but rather develop highly collaborative win-win relationships that leverage the collective power of many." Kate Vitasek

The hard work of teachers in professional learning communities, focused on adult learning around curriculum, instruction, and assessment, is capable of leveraging this collective power. The devil is always in the details -- holding PLC time absolutely sacred, even when pushed by a principal to "just take a few minutes to discuss the new lunch schedule and let me know," or by a colleague who wants to vent about the new lunch schedule. This isn't to say the impact of the new lunch schedule may not be important, but the discussion does not belong in the PLC because it is not focused on collaborative adult learning. The interaction, sharing, and mentorship expected in Domain 4 (Collegiality and Professionalism) is the foundation of a highly-performing PLC.

Through this laser-like, collaborative focus, I am convinced teachers can transform their professional practice, and be innovators along the way. The power of a group of dedicated teacher-learners. working from the PLC platform, is certain to launch a group of teacher-innovators who help their students reach new heights.

"Innovation is something that comes when you're not under the gun. So it's important that, even if you don't have balance in your life, you have some time for reflection. So that you could say, 'Well, maybe I'm not working on the right thing.' Or, 'maybe I should have this new idea.'  The creative parts of one's mind are not on schedule." Eric Schmidt

If collaboration is good for the PLC soul, then reflection is good for the individual teacher soul. Domain 3 (Reflecting on Teaching) asks each teacher to evaluate their own effectiveness and develop a professional growth plan. Schmidt is right that many parts of our brain are not on the school schedule, and we need to make and take time for reflectionSome of the greatest "a-ha!" moments for teachers come after the school day, as they finally relax on a walk or write in a reflective journal. Heck, some even come the next morning, standing in the shower!

Now, take that reflection, and think about moving into the PLC for discussion, research, and learning. Who else might be wondering about how to implement the workshop model for reading and writing. or utilizing design thinking to teach students how to discover and frame problems? How might your principal support the learning? Through this reflective process, new ideas will be born.

Join the conversation...
What are some of your thoughts as you read this post? How else might innovation and the instructional framework be linked?