Innovation Limited By Minds, Not $$

CMidrCWWIAAbjrKYesterday I tweeted “Innovation is limited by minds, not $$”. I am in Houston to work for a day with a highly respected independent school. In response to that, a Twitter colleague suggested that innovation is easy for those with money and not for those less well funded. Both historical and current evidence supports my sense of what triggers innovation, not only for schools but for many other organizations and industries as well.

Over the last several years I have asked thousands of educators what they wish they had more of. I have never heard a SINGLE word mentioned other than “time. There are a growing minority, not a few or dozens, but hundreds or perhaps thousands of public schools, operating with frighteningly low levels of per-student support, that are dramatically changing the face of education. I have visited or worked with and reported on just a handful: Design 39 Campus, VIDA, Ortiz Middle School, Science Leadership Academy, Denver Green School, High Tech High, Innovation Academy, and public schools in the Deeper Learning, Big Picture Learning, EdVision, New Tech, and Alt School networks, to name just a few. These schools operate on the same stipends allocated to other publicly funded schools in their respective areas; most serve ethnically and economically diverse populations of students; and all are examples of post-factory model K12 innovation.

Money does not lead innovation, it follows. Radical innovators, from high tech to the arts, started out on shoestrings. Silicon Valley lives on the legends, from Hewlett and Packard to Jobs and Wozniak and many more who worked in their garages before attracting funding. The Allman Brothers camped out in tents and lived off peanut butter sandwiches in Muscle Shoals before anyone recorded them. Shakespeare, van Gogh, and many other artists groundbreaking artists lived hand to mouth much of their productive lives.

What are the key lessons for educators?

  • Lack of funds is not a reason to whine about lack of innovation. Lack of funds may prevent innovation from growing to scale, but it is not an excuse to not pioneer change.
  • Conversely, lots of money is not a reason to put off innovation. If you work at a well-funded private school, or a public school with generous funding and a supportive community, understand that these poorly funded public schools are proving they can provide a superior education and student outcomes at a fraction of what you charge or use. If you think that your school is immune from this disruption, history is not even close to being on your side.

Educators have vastly more control over “time” than they do over “money”, and time is the more precious resource. You can create time for innovation. It might involve discomfort for some, but true innovation rarely comes without discomfort.

What if you want to change and the school system you are working in does not? You have a series of choices to make.

  • You can stand pat.
  • You can try new things, grow your mind and practice, and encourage others to do likewise.
  • If your school or system finds resources, primarily time, to support your innovation, great!
  • If not, you have another choice to make: either work even harder for change, give up and do what the system requires, or find another system in which to work. Not every system is going to change at a pace that is consistent with your personal and professional beliefs. Only you can decide when you have reached that point. I know: I had to make that decision for myself a few years ago. It was very uncomfortable, but it sure was the right thing to do.

Over the last 7-10 years we have increasingly asked and answered the question “why” schools need to change. Over the last 3-5 years we are seeing a growing landscape of schools putting real change into practice. Organizations change for one or both of two reasons: because they must or because it is the right thing to do. Money may be a limiting factor for the first reason: if you are not going to attract enough students to keep your doors open, the school either changes or dies. Money is not the limiting factor for the second reason; there are plenty of schools proving that right now.

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