The Principal of Change George Couros

Stories of learning and leading
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4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation

22 October, 2017 - 22:45

I have had the pleasure of working with so many educators around North America and hearing about their individual journeys, as well as organizational success and struggles toward the building of a “culture of innovation.” This is not meaning that every single thing in a school or classroom is “innovative” and that there is nothing you wouldn’t see from ten years ago.  It is about creating a culture where people are willing to take risks in their learning and create better learning opportunities for their students when they see a need or opportunity. It is about serving the students first, and not about what is easy for the adults.

Many places talk about the importance of innovation more than actually taking steps to create a culture where this is the norm.  If administrators want this to happen, it has to be more than a statement, but an ongoing process.

So what are the things that can support educators in their pursuit of finding new and better ways to serve all of the students in front of them? Here are some questions to help inspire further action and remove barriers from the people you are trying to serve.

1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?

Often we ask teachers to do something different in the classroom, while we continue to do the same thing in professional learning. The best way for teaching practice to change in the classroom is for professional learning to look different as well. We create what we experience. If teachers are not excited about the learning opportunities that are offered, why would we expect them to create engaging and empowering environments for students?

Model what you seek.

2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?

I have noticed something about the organizations that I have worked with…The more paperwork that I have to go through to join them is often a sure sign that the district is less innovative. Here is why I believe this to be true. Those procedures and hoops that I have to jump through are usually a norm for the culture, not an exception. I am probably not the only person having to jump through these hoops. Many jobs at central office create more issues than solve, not because of the position, but the mindset. The best thing someone can do in these positions is find ways to remove barriers, not create them.

What are some things that you can remove from the plate of the people you serve to make innovation easier?  There are already so many barriers in front of educators; creating superfluous ones when they are not needed will only discourage teachers, and sometimes principals, from trying new things to serve the students in front of them.

3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning? 

I often ask administrators these two questions…”Have you learned anything in the last three months?” Which the answer is always “yes!” This question is followed with, “Could the people you serve tell me what you have learned in the last three months?”

It is not just about showing what you know, but showing what you are struggling with and what ideas you are wrestling with in your mind, and the people you are serving have a view of this process. This vulnerability is crucial to the learning of an administrator when we ask educators to take risks in their learning continuously. Don’t ask people to try new things if they do not see you doing the same thing.

4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?

Have you ever seen the district that has a technology and curriculum department that work against each other, not with each other? This happens more than we like to admit and it often leads to initiatives and acronyms (so many acronyms) to implement from both departments being pushed down to teachers. It is the equivalent of every teacher assigning homework to students on the same night to justify what they teach individually, with no concern how much time that has just downloaded onto their students as a whole. Working together and finding common ground not only brings initiatives together, but it lessens the workload on teachers and gives the opportunity for depth of learning.

Focusing on working together versus working in silos is also essential for teachers.  Common planning isn’t about every teacher doing the same thing, but taking advantage of learning from one another.  No two classrooms should ever look the same because the students in each class are different, but there should be commonalities in practice.  What is important is that we focus on bringing the best opportunities for all of our students, not just the same practices.  Too often, we create equity at the lowest level for our students, where equity should be at the highest level.  Learn from each other and never let ego get in the way of serving students. This is why believe competitive-collaboration is crucial in education. We need to both push and support. The balance of both in our practice as educators is crucial for growth.

We are all teachers and learners (including students), and when we work in isolation from one another, we are limited to our ideas, not the best ideas. Working in silos might lead to less work, but it doesn’t lead to better opportunities for the people we serve.

Let’s summarize the above into four areas…

  1. Model Learning.
  2. Remove barriers.
  3. Build a culture of competitive-collaboration.
  4. Inspire greatness.

These are things that are not separate from one another, but actually, fuel each other.  With this focus, we move from saying we want to be innovative, to becoming so.  Innovation only becomes a “buzzword” when we use the term without actually bringing it to life in education.

Categories: Planet

Find a Way or Find Someone Who Has Found a Way

20 October, 2017 - 09:50

In an awesome conversation last night with Patrick Larkin and Katie Martin, Patrick was sharing some of the things that they have done in their district in the previous several years.  One of the stories that resonated with me was how when they moved forward with going one-to-one, they asked students for feedback on what they were going to use.  Too often, the adults make those decisions for students and sometimes, with vendors.  But in Patrick’s case, the district got feedback from their students, which also saved them thousands of dollars from purchasing cases for iPads because, during the feedback phase, the students said they would just get the cases they were interested in and that they should save their money.

Love it!

As I also listened to Patrick’s journey, I was reminded how other school districts in his state have said that they weren’t able to do certain things that they were doing in Burlington.  So why could they do it in their school district, but other people say they couldn’t?

Two things…

  1. They found a way.  If you are serious about making something happen, you will make it happen.  It might be hard, but you will figure it out.

  2. With so many districts sharing openly on social media, why not just ask who is doing it and how they are making it happen?  I did this when I ran up against “barriers” (perceived) in both the state of California and New York.  When I was told they couldn’t do something, I tweeted out and asked if people in those specific states were doing what the groups I was with were saying they couldn’t.  Within minutes, I found districts that were more than willing to connect with them and help.  What I was told that the group I was saying could not do, others were doing. They weren’t hiding their process either, and they weren’t breaking any policies or laws.  They figured it out.  That’s it.

There are lots of barriers in education, and they can cause issues for what we are able to do.  But when we create obstacles with our own way of thinking, those become unacceptable when serving students.  To be honest, more restrictions are created by our thinking than we are willing to give credit.

Find a way, and if you can’t, find someone who has.  They are out there, and it is easier than ever to find them.

Categories: Planet

Curiosity Leads to Growth

18 October, 2017 - 10:15

I received a lovely tweet the other day regarding something I shared in my last post.  The interesting thing was that it was not actually about the content of the post, but the disclaimer, where I shared the following:

Just trying to work my way through some thoughts here…This post is more focused on writing to learn, not writing to share my learning.

Here is what the tweet stated:

Honestly every 1 of your posts pushes my thinking but ironically it’s this disclaimer that’s really resonating #InnovatorsMindset #g2great

— Kim McCarty (@KMreaders) October 16, 2017

It was a humbling message, yet one that was enormously appreciated. I don’t want to be seen as an expert, but a learner.  I am still trying to figure things out and will continue to do so.

Using this space to learn and reflect is something that has helped me tremendously over the years.  One thing that I am proud of in my development since blogging is that I believe less in “absolutes.”  Some things don’t change for me. Relationships are crucial to education while being a continuous learner is something that all educators need to continue to develop.  Other than that, everything else has some shades of grey, and I am asking more questions than ever.

Here is what I know…

Some facts stay the same. Two plus two equals four.

Some information changes. Pluto was once considered a planet.

But if schools are going to be considered, “Learning Organizations,” we have to understand that knowledge is not finite.  Curiosity leads to growth, and if we think that we know it all, we are already falling behind.

Teaching is part science, part art, but all human endeavor.  I know all of the science behind losing weight, but if I am not motivated to do so, does it matter what I know?  Some of our students are unmotivated in education, and although it would be easy to blame them for all of this, is there a way we can help them move forward.  I believe in personal responsibility, but I also think that a great teacher can be a spark for many students.  I know that a great leader and teacher made all of the difference for me in a profession that I was about to quit.  Great teachers do that for students all of the time.

I remember having a conversation with a teacher early on in their career. She was frustrated because the class prior was exemplary, but the group she was teaching that year was “difficult.”  I asked her if she was a great teacher (she is/was), and she said, “Yes.” I then told her that exemplary teachers could get to the kids that are tough to reach. That is what makes them great.  She needed nothing more than a reminder of that, and she then went on and had a great year, because of her willingness to see that challenge as an opportunity.  She made a tremendous difference to that class.

If an educator believes they have nothing to learn, I would love to see the results of perfection in their classroom or school and would want to see them replicate that in different contexts. Until I have proof of that, we still have learning to do.

Keep learning, stay curious, and be happy with your own growth.  Just be careful with becoming content in your practice.

“Curiosity is a worthwhile virtue than certainty. While the former leads to grow, the latter muzzles your growth and results in stagnation…”  Assegid Habtewold

Categories: Planet

Thinking About Research, Innovation, Test-Scores, and Creativity

16 October, 2017 - 07:50

Just trying to work my way through some thoughts here…This post is more focused on writing to learn, not writing to share my learning.  

There has been a lot of pushback on the topic of innovation and how it fits into the idea of research in education.  Personally, I think that education needs to find the variance of having schools and educators use evidence-based practice (with the ability to iterate, but I will get to that in a bit) and innovative methods.  Knowing your stuff inside out is often what leads to the ability to innovate in the first place.

From “The Innovator’s Mindset“:

I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative. That means that change for the sake of change is never good enough.

The “one or the other” mentality in education is doing more harm than good in my opinion, and it is often having educators more focused on the adults than it is the students.  We should continuously ask questions on how we can best serve our students now and in the future, while still trying to figure out how to work within the constraints of a school system.

So as I have been thinking about the importance of research in education (which is very important to helping schools move forward), I have been thinking about some questions.

  1. What is the context of the evidence? People always point to Finland as this education powerhouse, and it definitely has done some great things in their system that people from around the world that educators need to learn from.  An educator that I have known for years that went to Finland said to me that the most significant difference in education in Finland might come from the outside factor of how different Finland was as a country than where he lived.  Joe Sanfelippo said something to me that stuck out (paraphrasing);”You can’t carbon copy culture. You have to find things that work for your context and make them your own.”I have worked in schools and communities that were literally within 30 miles of each other and what would work at one school, might not work at another.  Learn from others, but more importantly, learn from yourself.

    I believe the following:

  2. What is the bias of the research? I read an article recently, and it talked about “unbiased experts” and it stopped me in my tracks.  Is there such thing as an “unbiased expert?”  Is it truly possible to be totally unbiased? Seriously, I am asking.Just like Internet searches, we should dig deeper into where the research is coming from and perhaps why it is shaped the way it is.  This leads into the next one.
  3. What is your bias? Confirmation bubbles are easy to fall into our world today with the Internet tailoring what you see to what you have clicked on before, or even, what some sites want you to see.  We know that this is a growing problem with the Internet, but it does start with us.If someone’s research doesn’t line up with what we want to see, do we disregard it?  I have had someone argue to me that all practices in education should be based on “evidence,” yet when I challenged them with the idea of homework in education, they stated that there was no evidence to support it was bad for students.  They hadn’t seen any evidence that it was good, but to confirm their bias toward homework, they disregarded the importance of  “evidence” in this case.I have gone out of my way to read articles that go against what I believe, and openly share them on Twitter.  One of the reasons is that I am genuinely interested in what I am interested in, but I once heard someone say that any effective debater knows that they can make their opponent’s argument for them.  If we do not have a 360 degree understanding of something, do we understand it at all?
  4. Does the measure of the research support a new context?  Many people cite Hattie’s research and how thorough it is on “Student Achievement,” and I think it is important information to pay attention to the term “Student Achievement” (from the Visible Learning website).  Is this all about how well students do on a test? Does it measure their happiness and living a life of purpose after school?Here is something that I think about often…if we want to see the impact of K-12 education on the life of a student, wouldn’t that be something that we would have to measure after they leave school?Katie Martin also shared the idea that although we need to look at the evidence of the past, we must understand that if the context of the future changes, that those numbers could become irrelevant.  How our students do in school might not measure how well they do after.  Every person knows someone who is successful at their job that was terrible in school, and vice-versa.

    But here is a quote that gave me “real pause” recently.

    “It bothers me that the intelligence of animals is measured by how willing they are to obey the commands of a human.  Same goes for students at schools.”


    I am not sure if the above statement is entirely true, but it did jolt me, and it made me think of this…

    In a world that is asking for creativity out of people, why is the measurement for schools focused on everyone doing the same thing?

    — George Couros (@gcouros) October 14, 2017

    Just some things I’ve been thinking about…

I am not asking you (or anyone) to disregard research. It is so crucial to the work that we do in education.  I am asking that we think about the things that we see in education, as we are applying it to humans.  The thing that we all have in common is that we are all different.  No two people are exactly alike.  Outside factors make a difference in every one of our student’s lives and although we need always to be open to learning from wherever we can to serve them, learning about your students is where all research should start.

One thing I am still adamant about…know the people you serve and move backward from there.  That is always your best bet.

Categories: Planet

Change the World or Simply Maintain It?

13 October, 2017 - 22:05

Image via Chris Bick (chrisbick1963)

Two things stuck out to me this week…

One was that I had the opportunity to work with students on how they use social media and tried to help them focus on “what’s possible,” not on what you shouldn’t do.  When I was introduced at one of the school’s this week, it was announced that I was going to be talking about social media and the students in unison, made a large groaning sound.  I knew (and understood) why.  They were expecting the “don’t do this, don’t do that” talk that they have become so accustomed to.  How inspired would you be to talk about any subject if worst intentions were always assumed?  Although I talk about online safety and the impact of what we do on the other side of the screen, my focus is mostly on how we use the opportunities in front of us to make the world a better place. 

The students you serve right now could, at some point, be working for you, working with you, or your boss.  Do you want them to make the world a better place, or just leave it as is?

This thought ties directly into the next…

As I was discussing with someone who was extremely focused on “traditional teaching” and criticizing anything new in education, they shifted the conversation to focus on how we all got into this field to “change the world”.  Yet, as I thought about it, I was struck by the idea that if we really got into education to change the world, why would we gravitate to only the practices that have always been done? Is that not focused more on maintenance, then it is on making the world better?

This is very important to state as I am not an absolutist; not everything new is good, and not everything old is bad.  But we do have to accept that the world is, and always will change, with or without you.  Our hope is that we help our students change it for the better, not just keep it as is.  I have stated this often that I hope to go beyond preparing kids for the “real world”.  I want them to make the “real world” better. Many of those students I worked with this week want that exact same thing and by only focusing on what not to do, we are setting a bar for our students that is much lower than the initial impact we hoped to have when we joined the profession.

We don’t want our students to simply change the world; we want them to make it better.  The best way we can help our students do that for the future is to help them see that they can make the world a much better place today.

Categories: Planet

Less Work, Deeper Learning

11 October, 2017 - 22:33

The quote above has been sticking in my brain for awhile, and although this is something that I have thought about often, John Spencer puts it into words in a succinct yet compelling way.

As many people discuss the merits of homework for students (not a fan, never been a fan), I think about the late hours that many teachers spend working at schools.  Although a strong work ethic is essential, I also believe that we have to (#clichealert) work smarter, not necessarily harder.  Denzel Washington said something I watched in a video that stuck out to me the other day:

Don’t get movement mixed up with progress.

There are lots of things that teachers have to do that go above and beyond what the general public sees, but going back to John’s question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”

I thought of this as I was reading something on how technology has brought more work onto teachers because now they have to redesign their notes into flashy presentations to “engage a generation with a shortened attention span.”  As I am reading this, I think that efficient use of technology in a classroom is not in how the teacher uses it, but in what the students do with it.  If you want to see how effective an educator is, don’t watch the educator, view their students.

For example, many people talk about “flipping the classroom”, where teachers would make videos for students to watch at home, instead of lecturing in person. This way students would have more time to dive deeper in person with their teacher.  Although I understand why teachers would do this, I also thought, “This seems like so much more work that may be unnecessary.”  I challenged the notion of the “flip” in my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“:

With access to a plethora of digital resources and information, it’s important to foster a culture of creation versus consumption. Instilling the idea of creation is especially important in light of growing popularity of the “flipped classroom,” in which students watch some sort of video or connect with a resource at home and do their “homework” at school. The thing is that, whether delivered in person or through a video, the lecture focuses on the consumption of information. What if the “flip” was, instead of students watching a video, they created one in which they shared the objectives they needed to grasp? Consider how much deeper learning could be if “creation” was a non-negotiable in the learning for both us and our students.

If you keep going back to John’s question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”, I believe that you will not only lessen the amount of work that you are doing, but it will create opportunities for deeper learning for your students.  What we often see as the “work,” could also be construed as the “learning” we take away from our students.  I know it is not always possible, but it is something that we should continuously strive for.

I know it is not always possible, but a focus on more in-depth learning for our students doesn’t always mean “more work” for us, and continuously leads to better learning for our students.

Categories: Planet
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