The Two Critical Planes of School Innovation

The Two Critical Planes of School Innovation

I have had the unique privilege of visiting more than 100 K-12 schools in the last two years, and in virtually every one I found a spark of what the school leaders called “innovation”. A principal or head of school says “you just have to see what Ms. Jones is doing in her classroom; it is SO exciting. This is what we want learning at our school to look like in the future! ” And off I go to see Ms. Jones and her passionately engaged students, working deeply on an interdisciplinary project or noisily collaborating on idea walls or building something remarkable in the school garden. The teacher, site leader, and students all know they are engaged in something special; this is the class they love to teach, to come to each day, and to show off to visitors.

But on my way to and from this class I passively observe. I glance sideways into the rooms we are passing, through closed doors often at rooms with neat, rigid rows of desks, students sitting quietly listening to a teacher lecture at the white board or click through a PowerPoint that has not changed in years. Students at the back of the class stare out the window or draw pictures on notepaper. One hand rises at a time to answer the question that the teacher asks, a question she knows the answer to, and about which the students don’t really care.

In these schools, there are brushfires of innovation burning, but the key question is: will they ever coalesce into a conflagration? If so, how? Do the teachers and students at the end of one hall even know what is going on in Ms. Jones’ class that is radically different from what is going on in their own? Is there any reason for them to care? Are schools and school leaders merely “checking off the box” of innovation, or are they truly on a pathway that will change learning in a world where the rate of change threatens to make the current learning system irrelevant? As Beth Holland questioned recently in an Edutopia blog, is innovation that does not have a significant impact on student learning, innovative at all?

Schools do not exist in a vacuum. They are organizations that offer a distinct set of services, but they are subject to many of the same drivers that have differentiated successfully innovative organizations in times of rapid change for at least the last 500 years. It is within this context that we recognize that transforming schools requires change in two global areas: organization and learning.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 8.09.55 AMIt is easy to draw the simple Venn diagram of school change. But easy is not accurate, elegant, or sufficient. Many schools can point to a class, program or new practice and say “We have teachers that are flipping the classroom or who “do” PBL or use a new iPad cart this year”. These are the brushfires, and in my work I find that this approach to innovation MAY be successful depending on a wide range of factors, but even in the best case, true change at the school might take 12-15 years. Schools that are serious about changing their approach to learning for the current generation decide to take a different approach. I have been working to synthesize the key elements of this approach for the last several years, much of which is indelibly informed by my friend/colleague/mentor Bo Adams, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. I focus my work largely on organizational change and understanding the critical role that a radically re-imagined learning process must have. Bo is able to focus the cutting-edge work of he and his team at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian on re-imagining and systematizing a different learning process because, in my opinion, his school has already climbed the stairway of effective organizational innovation.

Two years ago Bo shared with us his layers of a successful “pedagogical master plan”, or PMP, which is the best articulation of the right side of the Venn diagram I have seen. If a school uses these elements to construct a set of blueprints, Bo argues, they will build a systemically strong and sustainable ecosystem based on what we know are the keys to great learning, not the assembly line model of industrial age education. I have used these elements as the core of what I call “zero-based” strategic thinking, in which schools align their thinking, planning and resource allocation to these key elements of the core value of schools: learning. Schools that adopt this plane of innovation understand that great learning MUST drive our vision, our resources, and our community. As I work with schools to adopt this kind of thinking, we are building a culture of leadership, decision making, creative thinking, and continuous evolution that are aligned to a shared vision, not to the political/structural silos of department, subject, or grade level. Bo’s PMP represents not a simple circle of a Venn diagram, but one of two critical planes of school innovation.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 8.41.31 AM
 I have been working on articulating the second plane, the details of successful organizational innovation. My current thinking expands on a graphic used by Timothy Knoster and others adapted from the Managing Complex Change Model first published by Mary Lippett of Enterprise Group, Ltd in 1987. I took the Knoster version and expanded it based on my work with schools and districts around the country, and for now I think it represents a complete stairway (though likely not a linear sequence) of steps that are necessary for a school to evolve into an organization capable of implementing a forward-thinking pedagogical master plan:

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 1.54.06 PM

True innovation in schools, the conflagration of those disparate brushfires, occurs as the SYSTEMATIC intersection of these two planes, an intersection at many points both in time and space. (I wish I knew how to draw that, but I don’t, so use your imagination!) Schools and districts are systems, which is why Bo’s metaphor of an architect’s blueprints is so essential. No architect designs a building without coordinating the good work of engineers, designers, users, and builders. Foundations, roof designs, plumbing, walls, and electrical layers all work together as a system, or the building is an utter failure. So if we are going to re-imagine a learning system that better prepares our students for their futures in a rapidly changing, increasingly ambiguous world, why would we not design our learning organization system with the same degree of thought, detail, and care?

The two planes are equally important. They represent the next level of commitment for those schools and school leaders who are serious about transforming school from what it has been in the past to what it might, or indeed MUST, be in the future. There is a tremendous amount of detail embedded in both of these planes, and in that detail lies the exciting, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, tactical work to make it happen. But rather than prescribing a cookbook answer for all schools, I prefer to ask questions that provoke thinking: Where is your school in this process? What are you willing to tackle? Are your school leadership discussions mindful of both the PMP plane and the Stairway plane? Which elements represent your strengths and which your weaknesses? Do you see this as a linear pathway or roiling stew? Perhaps most importantly, what steps on the stairway, or element of interaction have I missed?

About the Author: