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Create a Culture of Innovation: Book Study Part 2

In part 2 of The Innovator’s Mindset George Couros eloquently lays out of what we need in our schools to allow for the innovator’s mindset to be nurtured.  But none of these needs are physical things.  They are not new furniture, devices, or costly remodels of physical learning spaces.  These are alterations to the cultural spaces of our schools. They represent a change from a culture of schooling to a culture of learning.  Where schooling is something we as educators do to students and learning is something that students have the freedom to do for themselves.  

The innovator’s mindset encourages our students not to get schooled but to get their learn on.
Yes I just time traveled from the 90’s

As schools, we need to start with trust as a given.  George argues that if learners are forced to earn our trust, they already start in a place without the freedom to take ownership of their learning.  I will always remember being told that I should start the school year being strict and then ease the reigns over time.  This assumes the worst in our students before we even know them.  It starts from a place of fear rather than a place of opportunity.  Students come into your classroom already apprehensive, why confirm their fears.

Teachers are leaders of their classrooms, but principals are responsible for the culture of their school, and superintendents are responsible for the culture of their district.  George sees this ability to trust as key for all educational leaders.  Great leaders don’t fear risk but provide opportunities to take risks and fail.  In fact, Couros goes even further.  He states that great leaders should expect risk to be taken by their educators.  This is a powerful statement.  They create a “culture of yes” rather than responding “no” when looking at informed risk taking.

I am lucky to be in a building and district where my administrators allow me to take these informed risks.  I am always looking for new opportunities to learn. Whenever I approach my building principal about a possible opportunity, even if it may take me away from my classroom for a day, he is quick to reply with an enthusiastic “YES!”, usually with an emoji to that effect.  They key though is that these asks are not impulsive risks.  They are connected to a reasoned argument for the opportunity.  Specifically, what is the potential benefit for learners in my classroom (or the school).  One of the best experiences I had was a site visit to one of our elementary classrooms.  It has lead to a great cross building partnership where our students have collaborated on many science learning opportunities. These experiences touched hundreds of students and the cost was a sub for half a day for my exploration.

Even though I’ve been given these great opportunities, I feel like as a staff we aren’t doing more of this.  For all I know, we could be.  That is where the other aspect of great educational leadership as outlined by Couros comes in: Celebrating Success (and failure).  More specifically, finding ways to recognize risk taking as the norm. I’m always apprehensive about sharing out my experiences on Twitter or our district’s Google+ Community because it can feel like boasting or bragging about “me”.  “Look how innovative I am.”  George is clear to point out that sharing is required to move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation.  This culture will help celebrate innovation but recognize the risks we take and support us when we fail.  So, I love seeing other educators in my district on Twitter or our Google+ Community sharing out what they are doing.  Honestly, we need a lot more participants.  We have almost 300 members of the community and less than 20 who share on a regular basis.

The culture of innovation speaks to the power of personal connection.  As an educator there are only a handful of educators I am truly open and vulnerable with on a daily basis.  It’s interesting that these individuals are not even from my content area.  These connections started with relationships and connections that were personal.  One of my best relationships is with an at-risk teacher whose room is across the hall.  We stand together in between class and just talk as we greet students.  Sometimes these conversations are professional and sometimes not. But, we trust each other and have created a safe place to share and celebrate each other. It’s these connections we need for ourselves, but also for our learners.

Although we are looking to affect a larger school culture, George is clear to point out that the most important learning happens at the individual level. As we look to PD models, large group is key to create that sense of community through communication, celebration, and support.  But, it is not a great place to learn.  Individuals all have different entry point, interests, and personal goals.  So, one PD doesn’t fit all.  This books study was a choice I was given. In fact, there were two levels of choice.  The first was to choose to be a part of a digital leadership group (I said “yes”).  The second was to choose this book from a handful of offerings.  This past year in our school, educators have been given the opportunity to choose PD options from a menu that aligned with district goals and were led by teacher experts.  I feel that this movement is a big leap forward from traditional large group PD to one that is more individualized.  In addition, in our PLCs were are given freedom to choose our own topic of study for the year.  What’s the next step?  I love the EdCamp model where topics for PD are crowdsourced and discussed in groups with low stakes.  I think a balance between PD aligned to district goals and personal interests is the future.  

Another radical thought is that the innovator’s mindset is not simply engagement but empowerment.  So long we’ve been pushed to move our students from compliance to engagement.  Couros make it clear we shouldn’t stop there. Learners need to be engaged and empowered.  I think about these levels this way from the student perspective
Compliant “I understand what you want.  How much longer do I have to do this?”
Engaged “ This is cool! Can I keep doing this?”
Empowered - “Here’s what I will do and this is how long I need”
This continuum illustrates the movement away from participants to designers. From asking for permission to offering ideas.

This difference also speaks to the difference between school and learning that is a change of culture at the classroom level. George points to 8 things to look for in a learning environment.  Each element implemented helps move from school being a place where students are acted upon to an environment where students are active learners with agency.  Many of these elements do not live in isolation they link together as processes.  

The goal of the innovator’s mindset is innovation. This is the development of new ideas and the pursuit of them.   The process of this pursuit requires us to know what problem we are solving.  Making students problem finders is one key to making them learners.  Letting them discover the problems or topics they want to address. In my classroom, I am guilty of being the one who gives them the problem to solve far too often.  I do give my students choice in how they present their findings, but I am usually the one handing down the problem to be solved.  I often do consider the class interests, but more often I need to let students determine their own problems to solve.

In order to find these problems, students need to be able to look at the world and at themselves.  Critical thinking asks them to question their world.  One key to this is not to just question cynically, but critically. I see this cynical thinking very often when we are introduced to a new school initiative.  Frequently, staff see it as one more thing rather than investigating below the surface to question the substance.  In order to question ideas, students need to be given voice in the classroom.  Giving students space to be heard in the classroom and taking that feedback seriously is key to letting them create a learning environment.  I have used a feedback board to help drive the opportunities students have in the classroom and it has been a great help.  One thing I haven’t done well is allowing student voice to carry outside of my classroom.  As a connected educator, I need to find more ways to let my students be heard in the world.  

The process of innovation is messy so their needs to be processes to assist in this process. Innovation is not linear.  With each iteration, there needs to be time for self assessment.  I have built the idea of self assessment into my courses as it relates to learning outcomes.  I have been able to do this by breaking down outcomes that may not be written in the most student friendly language so that we have a common understanding of what the end point looks like.  I haven’t done a great job of creating tools for self assessment as it relates to evaluating steps in a larger problem solving project, though. I’d love to hear ideas on how others do this.  Another component tied to the non-linear process of innovation is reflection.  The power of good reflection is that it is not the end.  Reflection can be seen as a starting point for the next iteration.  Reflection informs us where we were, where we need to go, and how we can get there.  Reflection is the bridge between successive iterations on the road to innovation.

A final element in a learning environment is connected learning. The innovator's mindset looks to help learners connect their goals and passions with the world they live in.   It could be bringing in guest lectures into the classroom.  I recently was informed of the power a guest lecturer has vs a guest speaker. A guest lecturer is an expert who is not viewed as a footnote to course content. A guest lectures uses their expertise to present course content and makes connections that the classroom teacher would not be able to.  To often a guest speaker’s information falls into the area of nice to know but not essential at least in the minds of students.   It is a key difference that I think we need to be aware of.  These connections need to flow two ways, though. It is just as important for learners to reach outside of the classroom to connect with experts.  George highlights a number of tools available.  In a personal learning project we did this past school year, students were required to reach out to professionals as a part of the research process.  It was valuable for many of the students including this one in particular:

"My favorite part about this project was when we had to contact someone in the field of our topic. I gained some wonderful insight on my topic from a woman who is the director of a female intervention program in Oklahoma. The information I gained from her was more helpful than any of the research I did on my own."

As I continue reading, I am doing more self assessment and reflection.  I discover that I have a long road to go as I try to move away from schooling my students to letting them become learners.  I look forward to what the last section of the book holds for me to discover about myself.

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