The Principal of Change George Couros

Stories of learning and leading
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“Empower” is Not a Bad Word

24 April, 2017 - 09:15

Brady Venables shared this post, “Don’t ’empower’ Anybody”, and in it, the author (Claire Lew) refers to her own company and her disdain for the word. Here is what she states:

I never think I should “empower” anyone — especially our employees.

Why? The definition of the word “empower” is:

to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident.

The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.

I have also heard pushback to this word in many education circles. Here is the thing that might not be acknowledged in this company and in education; there is a power dynamic.  Teachers have power over students, principals and superintendents over teachers, and boards over superintendents.  Pretending that this doesn’t exist is not accurate.  The opposite of “giving” is “taking”. Is it possible for a teacher to take away from a student? An employer to take from an employee?  You may not like it, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

For example, here are some of the questions that the author shares (that are all great) that lead her practice (my responses in bold):

How can I better understand what our employees really want?

What will be done when that is figured out? Will there be something “given” to make it happen?

How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?

You would have to “give” people the opportunity to share their voice and “make” time to share it for this to happen.  

How can I create opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging at our company?

Could you replace the word “create” with “make” in the above sentence”

The article is great and asks questions that I believe are essential for people to thrive, and actually, become “empowered” in their role in the organisation.  In fact, I am sure the author would appreciate this challenge that I am writing as one of the questions she shared was, “How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?”  

One element of the word “empowerment” is that it denotes “servant” leadership.  “Giving” and “making” are ways that we can honour those people that we serve.

No matter the word you use, the practice is important.  “Empowering” someone is the focus on giving those you serve opportunities that may not exist without this focus.  It is better than the opposite.

The author ends the article with this comment:

You don’t need to empower anybody. Focus on creating an environment for people to be their best selves.

“Creating” could be replaced with making, and helping someone to become their “best selves”, could also be taken as helping them become “stronger and more confident.”  People could argue over the word “empowerment” all they want, but the focus of the author and myself is the same. Do what you can to push and support people to bring out something in them that unleashes more than what they would even expect of themselves.

“Empowering” is ultimately about serving people. In my books, I am pretty comfortable with the notion and the word.



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Focus on the “Learner”

22 April, 2017 - 07:28

I saw a link for an interesting video on “accelerating learning” for students and was intrigued simply by the title.  As I was listening to the content, the conversation was a lot of “we” (as in educators) figuring out what “they” (as in students) need.  A lot of deciding for them and “fixing” their deficits, and trying to figure out why they are “weak” in a specific target area.

I couldn’t watch it.  The intent was extremely positive, but I felt that it started with the wrong point.

I know they are kids, and kids need adult guidance, but I just struggle with any person, at any age, flourishing in an environment of being “fixed”, especially when the students aren’t necessarily in on the conversation.

Michael Fullan, researcher and former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, made the statement, “Learning is the driver; technology is the accelerator.”

In my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“, I created an iteration of the phrase:

Learners are the driver; technology is the accelerator.

It is subtle shift, yet significant.

When we talk about our “smartest” kids, do we talk about our students who do the best academically?  If we focus on the “learner”, we realise is that some of our “smartest” students are not the best at school.  If you are an educator and you are reading this, you might not have done well academically but you could be an amazing teacher.  Grades are not an indicator of intelligence; they are an indicator of ability in certain areas, that someone else deems important.

Look for the strengths in your students, no matter their abilities in school.  When people, of all ages, feel valued, they are more likely to move forward.

Categories: Planet

People Are Always Your Best Resource

19 April, 2017 - 21:31

You can have a shiny new vision and mission statement, school or district goals, and a myriad of things that say what your district does.  But none of this happens without people.  If you do not value the people that you serve, and more importantly, if they do not feel valued, all of those things were a waste of money, time, and resources.

People are your school.

People are the system.

People make things happen.

Not programs. Not initiatives. Not mission statements.

I have seen amazing schools with terrible mission statements, but I have seen incredibly forward-thinking mission statements that don’t make a difference.  Valuing our people doesn’t mean we don’t push them; it actually means that we do.  We help them become the best version of themselves, but we start with their strengths, not their weaknesses.

To do work that matters, people need to know that they are the best resource your organisation will have, and they have to be utilised according to this belief.  If you do not bring out the best in them, nothing you write on any document will matter.  Those visions and mission statements can become important, but only people can bring them to life.

No mission or vision statement will ever make your school better in isolation. People do that. Focus on people.

Simple idea, yet often overlooked.

Categories: Planet

What is the experience our students tell others about their time in school?

18 April, 2017 - 07:41

The following is an excerpt from Jeff Bezos (CEO and founder of Amazon) and the annual letter to his shareholders:

“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”

That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?

Such a question can’t have a simple answer. There will be many elements, multiple paths, and many traps. I don’t know the whole answer, but I may know bits of it. Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

True Customer Obsession

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

What does this mindset have to do with education?

Some people will shun ANYTHING that comes from business because they will say “schools are not a business”.  I agree to some point. Profit is not the bottom line of education, but if you can’t apply and learn from the lessons of success from others, and make your own connections, ultimately our students lose out.

The “obsessive customer focus” that Bezos speaks of, is the same reason I have been challenging people for years to start from the question, “Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?”  This is not a one-off question, but something that we should ask ourselves daily. It should be something posted in our schools and classrooms.  Even moving further, “What is the experience our students tell others about their time in school?”  This ties into the first question, but it also helps others understand that the experience of school is something that every person in our organisations helps to create.

This is not asking what would work best for you (the adult). It is asking you to try your best to understand your students, their realities, their viewpoints, and take that learning and create something meaningful for them.

This is why I wrote about “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom”.  The term “today” focuses on what the students in front of you need.  We talk about preparing our students for the future, but that often comes at the cost of ignoring who is in your room today.  They need you to be your best, and at your “Day 1” right now.  You only have one opportunity to work with the students you have this year.  Today’s classroom is understanding to serve the future, you focus on serving your students in the present. They are the future.

I will continue to look at this image and think about how I can iterate it to move forward while digging deeper in each area:

What is irrelevant? What do we need to add or subtract?  If I am focusing on “Today’s Classroom”, I have to be open to my learning changing as well.

Some people will take this as I am saying that schools are not good enough. I take this notion of “Day 1” as always growing.  Remember, Jeff Bezos started Amazon out of his garage, by only selling books. They are continually evolving to become better, even piloting “brick and mortar” stores.  This also doesn’t mean we need to revamp what schools do every single day. Remember, Amazon still sells books, but much of the company looks different from its original inception.  We need to figure out when to go deep, when to iterate, invent, and/or reinvent.  Focusing on who we serve first and moving backwards from there will always help you to figure those things out.

Innovate or die.

This isn’t about “are we good enough?”; the focus is on continuously getting better and understanding who you serve, and what you do to serve them.  If you move backwards from there, you will always be at “Day 1”.

Categories: Planet

What could go right?

15 April, 2017 - 23:19

I was blessed and honoured to be the keynote for #CUE17. It was one of the best experiences of my professional career.

Here is a short snippet from my talk, and one of my favourite stories to share:

My favourite part of sharing this story is that it was students who taught me the power of the positive because I gave them the power to do so.

One of my favourite quotes is from educator Shelley Wright:

“But kids often defy expectations if we give them the opportunity.”

Yet do our fears, and sometimes lack of knowledge, hold our students back from their aspirations?

How often do we shut things down based on “what could go wrong?” How often do we focus on what is possible and what could go right?

How often do we change our pathways because of negative people? I am not talking about those that are critical thinkers, but are simply critics.

I recently tweeted this:

Thinking critically and being critical are not always the same thing. It is necessary to challenge ideas, while honouring people.

— George Couros (@gcouros) April 9, 2017

We will need to challenge one another in education if we want to get better, but we also need to create a culture where we need to know we have each other’s backs. I appreciate that students taught me this lesson, and it is one that I remind myself of daily.

Categories: Planet

New Systems, Old Thinking

13 April, 2017 - 21:01

I often separate people that save their files into two categories; desktop people and super-sub folder people.

Desktop people save everything on their desktop.  They have a picture in the background, but no one has seen it this decade.

Super-sub folder people have what they believe the greatest system of folders in the world. They have a folder, within a folder, within a folder, within a folder. There is also another folder in there somewhere, buried deep, but it’s there.

Although I use both methods to some extent, I would no longer fit into either category exclusively (although I had a pretty awesome folder system back in my XP days).  Doing the majority of my work in the cloud and on google drive, I rarely save anything in a folder or desktop. Simply using a naming structure that involves hashtags, (ie. #blogposts, #innovatorsmindset #chapter1), I can find my documents much faster than I ever could through the folder system.

The reason I bring this up is that often with new systems, we often bring old thinking. Even with technologies relatively new such as Facebook and Twitter, people cringe at the notion of following people they don’t know on Twitter.  Their “Facebook mentality” is that they connect with only people they know, and they bring that over to Twitter. I separate the two platforms to help people see the value in both; Facebook is who I know, Twitter is who I want to learn from.  The relationships do not need to be reciprocated on Twitter in the way a Facebook friend request is a mutual agreement.

With the ideas that I have shared above, there are no absolutes or wrong ways to use them, but it is to point out that we often bring old ideas to new spaces. This is not exclusive to technology.

I have witnessed some of the most amazing new media centres; amazing technologies, flexible seating, spaces that look more like “Google” than they do the remnants of the traditional school libraries.  Yet, the “shushing” persists in many of these spaces, and the student working in isolation. Again, not all cases, but it is important to note that if the space changes, there are some amazing opportunities in front of us, but we still have to grab them and rethink what is possible.

Gary Stager states the importance of our thinking moving us forward:

When school leaders tell me, “Our school is building a $25 million Makerspace,” I am concerned that Makerspaces may exacerbate educational inequity. While there are expensive pieces of hardware that may need to be secured, I want the bulk of making to permeate every corner of a school building and every minute of the school day. Teachers whose Makerspace is in a few cardboard boxes are doing brilliant work. Making across the curriculum means students as novelists, mathematicians, historians, composers, artists, engineers— rather than being the recipient of instruction. We bring experience with us, but thinking differently moves us forward.

There are so many “new things” in education and our world, but if we bring along the same thinking, what will really change?

Categories: Planet

Output or compliance?

12 April, 2017 - 09:02

This article from the New York Times, “I’m Not Texting, I’m Taking Notes“, is pretty interesting.  The basic premise (I suggest you read the whole article) is that a 17 year old working at BlackBoard (a technology company),  is ridiculed for using their phone during a meeting by some older adults, because it looks like he is texting, while he is actually taking notes.  He refers to himself as a “digital native”, and acknowledges this is a norm for him and his friends, while not perhaps the norm for others in the company.

The ending (spoiler alert!):

What really upset me at the meeting was the assumption that by pulling out my phone, I wasn’t paying attention. I’m a digital native. My friends and I have only known a world where phones are smart. My iPhone is a computer, and it’s natural to take notes on it.

I thought I was being diligent, yet they thought I was being rude. I even thought I was being efficient by quickly looking up something online and not missing a beat, and they thought I was playing video games. Clearly, my generation cannot assume the older generations know how we use technology.

Rather than allow others to see our phones as a distraction, we have work to do to prove that our phones are vital tools that we need to get the job done.

Just as I was feeling better about what had happened, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Craig that said: “Hurry up. We are starting again soon.” And so I walked back to the conference room.

As much as I hated the feeling of being reprimanded, I was glad that Craig had pulled me aside and had given me a heads-up. So before we resumed the meeting, I told him that I had been taking notes on my phone, and not using it to text or check Twitter or any other social media.

Craig (vice president) seemed to appreciate that. And he was nice enough to announce after the break that if anyone needed notes from the earlier presentations, I could text them from my phone. I knew what he was doing and why. My generation will need mentors like Craig who will listen to us and look out for us.

A few things.

  1. This is something that many people are struggling with in education and has nothing to do with age.  I have seen many younger educators bring pen and paper to a meeting while the veterans have access to technology. Whatever the case, we shouldn’t make assumptions about how other people learn because it looks different from us. Even if a person is doodling, that could be how some people process information.
  2. I appreciate the young person writing this article is being an advocate for their own learning, but I also appreciate a leader stepping up for them to shift how we see what is going on in a room to others.  Is the measure productivity or compliance? I would rather have someone on Facebook in a meeting that does amazing work, than a person who is writing notes that does a crappy job.  Output should be the measure, not compliance. (I believe this applies to classrooms and in employment)
  3. Acknowledging that people grew up in different times with different norms of technology is important, but we also shouldn’t separate people by age. I have been told several times that I am more comfortable with technology because I grew up with it, by people that are younger than me (Thanks Maybelline!). This has nothing to do with age, but mindset and how we embrace opportunities.
  4. Thinking less of someone at work because they use a phone or computer, is as bad as thinking less of someone for using pen and paper.  If someone is upset because I am on a computer during a meeting, I consider that a “YP”; Your Problem.  Same goes if I look down on someone for using pen and paper.  Start from the learner, and move backward from there.

I have been surprised how many leaders in education still ban devices from their staff during meetings or personal learning days, because they are worried what they might do or they are not paying attention.  One of my favourite images on the topic from Scott McLeod.


Don’t expect much to change in classrooms if our time together looks the same. People create what they experience, not what they hear about.

Categories: Planet
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