Lessons From the Valley II: A Roiling Stew of People and Ideas

Why is Silicon Valley the Magic Kingdom of innovation, and what lessons can K-12 schools learn about how innovation succeeds in times of rapid change? I have been pondering and studying this and will write a series of short blogs based on the findings of some long-standing experts from the Valley, translated into ideas and options for K-12 educator-leaders. (Some of my ideas are prompted from the thinking of AnnaLee Saxenian, Richard Florida, Victor Hwang, and John Seeley Brown.)

A major characteristic of  Silicon Valley is the remarkably fluid movement of both people and ideas.  Saxenian uses the term “recombitorial” to describe how people move from one company to another, taking and sharing ideas, progress, success, and failure as they go.  These movements create an ever-roiling stew of creative innovation as ideas groups find new ways to merge ideas at their margins…which have always held the greatest potential for innovation. One of most powerful catalysts to this movement of people and their ideas is the tolerance for failure. Not only us failure in the last job accepted, it is often a prerequisite of future employment in the Valley.  Companies recognize that a person who has tried and failed, often multiple times, has a far more valuable mindset and field of understanding, than one who has not.

Schools need to dramatically adopt this fluidity of movement.  Schools are static places with many teachers who have taught in the same room, grade level, department, division, school, and district for their entire careers.  For much or most of this time they have not been empowered or expected to take a risk. If they have failed or performed poorly according to a rigid evaluation matrix, there is only downside and no upside.

Does this mean that teachers must constantly leave their schools and move to another? Of course not.  Movement of mind and practice can take place within a single school.  I visited a well-respected high school this week and was told that teachers ALMOST NEVER meet with colleagues outside of their department or curriculum development team.  This is an absurd reality in many schools, but it is easy to change. Schools can easily and quickly adopt a new set of practices that will draw them closer to the proven best practices of Silicon Valley creative innovation:

  • Limit the number of years a teacher stays in one course or grade level.  Reward those who move more frequently; they are demonstrating a valuable growth mindset.
  • Empower, promote, require, and celebrate risk-taking in the creation of new programs, use of pedagogy, and curriculum.
  • Require, celebrate, and reward teachers who join and lead in professional networks on social media with colleagues from beyond the school and district boundaries.
  • Hire new teachers who have a proven track record of trying something new.

Is it easy to make these choices, to help teachers and administrators move outside their comfort zones? Yes. It may be uncomfortable, but it is not hard.  And isn’t this what we want our students to do? How can we expect them to push into discomfort, to take an intellectual risk, if we don’t show them how? 

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