Tuesday, May 3, 2016


At the risk of revealing even more of my inner nerd, I was staring at the word "innovate" this morning. Just staring, and letting my mind wander a bit. The middle of the word, nova, jumped out at me.  I knew it had something to do with a star (and also an award-winning PBS show), so I googled its meaning. Merriam-Webster defines it as:
a star that suddenly increases its light output tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity in a few months or years
How might that resonate with change in education? Are there times we start very suddenly and with great energy, only to sputter a few months down the road and perhaps wind up with no change at all? And if the answer is yes, why?

I wonder if it is the size and scope of the change. Individual classroom hacks are typically inexpensive, right at the core of teaching and learning, and sometimes even occur without anyone but the teacher and students knowing about them. On the other hand, a district-wide meaningful change usually needs more intentional planning, multiple stakeholders at the table, deep and sustained professional learning for administrators and teachers, and targeted coordination. Perhaps this is why Richard Elmore finds getting to scale so difficult (I've shared excerpts from him before; his research around meaningful changes to the instructional core lead the field): 
Much of what passes for “change” in U.S. schooling is not really about changing the core, as defined above. Innovations often embody vague intentions of changing the core through modifications that are weakly related, or not related at all, to the core. U.S. secondary schools, for example, are constantly changing the way they arrange the schedule that students are expected to follow — lengthening or shortening class periods, distributing content in different ways across periods and days, increasing and decreasing class size for certain periods of the day, etc. These changes are often justified as a way to provide space in the day for teachers to do a kind of teaching they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, or to develop a different kind of relationship with students around knowledge.
However, the changes are often not explicitly connected to fundamental changes in the way knowledge is constructed, nor to the division of responsibility between teacher and student, the way students and teachers interact with each other around knowledge, or any of a variety of other stable conditions in the core. Hence, changes in scheduling seldom translate into changes in the fundamental conditions o f teaching and learning for students and teachers. Schools, then, might be “changing” all the time — adopting this or that new structure or schedule or textbook series or tracking system — and never change in any fundamental way what teachers and students actually do when they are together in classrooms.
So, how might we take our instructional core work and move it from "nova" to novation?

"Novation" is a legal term, and if memory serves from Contracts class, it is where parties to an agreement voluntarily substitute a new arrangement for the old, because the old doesn't serve them any longer. Maybe that is how we make lasting change to the instructional core, by acknowledging (individually and as an organization) that we need a new arrangement as to how we will be constructing learning in the three-way relationship between teachers, students, and content. Not only us, but we have to bring students into the negotiations as well, as equal partners. After all, they are the sole reason our educational organization exists, and whom we seek to benefit with any new change.

As we draft this new agreement, let's make sure we have a plan. Not one set in stone, because we know we are going to need some flexibility along the way, but we all need to be moving toward a common goal or vision. In contract law, one of the critical elements to creating an enforceable agreement is a "meeting of the minds." This means that all parties have a common understanding of the goal and terms of the contract as it is entered into. I guess that is where I come down on educational innovations -- there has to be a meeting of the minds for ideas to come to scale. Without it, change is a nova, and likely to fade. 

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts around inNOVAte and inNOVATION? How might we achieve a meeting of the minds on a large scale?

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