We have all used the expression “thinking outside of the box”. What do we really mean, how far are we willing to go, how hard are we willing to work, how disruptive are we willing to be, and how much are we willing to change to actually think outside the box?
Picture a bridge; on one side is a box holding the sum of our experiences. The only way to think outside of the box, short of drawing down god-like powers, is to experience something else. At the other end of the bridge is a box that holds all of the dreams and aspirations we have for teaching our students to become effective life-long learners in the Nth (21st) Century. We can call that box “the essential qualities of our graduates” if we like. Few of us have experienced what an education system looks like that fulfills all those dreams and aspirations. We have hints; we are starting to see the outlines of what it looks like; we can see the other end of the bridge over there in the mist that rises off the river. But most educators have never been to the other end of the bridge. Not their fault; they have lived their lives at the first end of the bridge.
We have to cross that bridge. We can say, “Let’s just walk over the bridge; let’s all start thinking like 21st Century educators and make it happen.” The problem is that our best understanding of how organizations change flies right in the face of this solution. The mechanism for getting over the bridge is the process of organizational innovation, and right here rests the problem, the nasty bridge troll, for educators.
Teachers and administrators work in a full-time box. They don’t have time to gain many new experiences; they are overwhelmed by teaching and mentoring a bunch of great kids, and by keeping the lights on. We have to create time and opportunities for educators to experience things that they have not in the past. Lacking this first step, they will not cross the bridge and the solutions they propose to ANY problem will be constrained by what they have already experienced. I think the logic of this is rock solid.
Our people are not going to get over this bridge by attending a couple of PD courses over the summer; the trolls under the bridge are fear and inertia and we don’t overcome those trolls casually. Our commitment must be strong, clear, intentional, sustainable, and permanent. The people in your school must come to understand that they have to cross this bridge, that they have to experience things that they have never experienced, and that we must embrace, not avoid, the process of organizational innovation. They will want to grab answers before they ask the right questions and jump to solutions that are too familiar when the right solutions, by definition, are unfamiliar. They will think they have created a culture of fluid innovation when they have just stirred the same pot in a slightly different way. We need to re-train ourselves in the ways of change to create different outcomes.
This is the difference between leaders and schools that want to innovate, and those that really are doing it. We know that experience is the best teacher for our students, and it is also the best teacher for us. In our rush to make this transformation that we all know is needed, let’s not mess up an enormous opportunity be failing to cross the bridge. The great news is that once you are over the bridge, the next bridge and the next are going to be a lot easier to cross.