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?

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