I have two big takeaways from a fast-paced, roiling week of interaction with hundreds of education colleagues in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this week. The first is a powerful reinforcement of a paragraph early in the introduction for my upcoming book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education (Josey-Bass Education; coming out this summer):
My head hurts every time I see another article, vodcast, or TED talk preaching that education must change. That train has already left the station! All of the arguments about why education must change can be summarized in less than a sentence, a simple paraphrase of the godfather of modern education, John Dewey, more than a century ago: the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and we have to prepare our students for that future, not for the past. We desperately need to move beyond the discussion of “why” education must change.
I have a great deal of respect for Sir Ken Robinson, and what he has done over the last two decades to elevate awareness that schools must change. And he continues to be an entertaining and witty speaker. But it borders on tragic that an audience of 5,000 educators perches on a talk that is, or by rights should be, long in their rearview mirror. Partly this is due to the turnover in teachers; young teachers are still being prepared by our colleges of education for an outdated learning model, so when they hear Sir Ken for the first time, their natural reaction is “Yes!”. There is no such excuse for those of use longer in tooth.
About my second big takeaway I am far more salubrious. Pushed in large part by true, transformational innovation in some public, charter, and independent schools, the National Association of Independent Schools dramatically elevated their focus this year on how schools can effectively transform…and those sessions were packed. In my talk to 60 business officers on Tuesday night in D.C., I commented on the dramatic change in just a few years about how fluent those “non-academic” administrators are on the language and need for substantive change. In my three-hour workshop on Wednesday with 90 edu-leaders from 30 states and six countries, there was a palpable recognition of the problem and thirst for getting to work.
In listening and speaking with dozens of educators from many schools, I came away with two big points that are driving success at successfully innovating schools:
- They realize that innovation is not a thing, it is a process. It is not the bits and pieces, the isolated good ideas being tried here and there in a school. Those are great, but they will not lead to sustainable transformation. Successful innovation is the glue that hold those pieces together. Yes, schools are “people” places, but if you do not have an operating system in place that allows those people to reinvent their respective roles in service of their students, your school will not transform.
- They are radically inclusive in the processes that create and nurture innovation culture. Innovation is not something handed down from a board, principal, head of school, or superintendent. It includes and is done by “we”.
There is tremendous agreement and understanding about the need to change that did not exist ten years ago. There is a less-pervasive, but very rapidly spreading agreement about “how” schools can transform, the steps, activities, and relationships that lead through the messiness of change to a better place. We have reason to be optimistic. But to quote from the last paragraph of the introduction in my new book:
I can’t count the times over the last five years that I wished some smart marketing team had never suggested the slogan “Just Do It” to Nike, Inc. It is the perfect call to action for all of us who have a stake in great education. But who wants to risk a copyright lawsuit from one of the biggest companies on the planet? So, alternately, and with complete respect, I remind us of that morning in September of 2001, after two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, that on a fourth plane, United Flight 93, passenger Todd Beamer courageously asked his seat mates “Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll”. The first entry in Wikipedia under the topic “let’s roll” says that it is a “colloquial catchphrase that has been used extensively as a command to move and start an activity, attack, mission, or project.” Well, it is time to stop pushing the education rock back and forth, to stop inactive talk, to stop obsessing over the fine points of disagreement, and to stop pointing fingers of blame about why schools are failing to serve all of our students. This is our responsibility, our critical mission, not someone else’s, and we can’t shrug it off. It is time to roll.