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Leading Innovation for Systemic Change

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Last spring, I found this short video from Scott McLeod through Twitter.

In the video @mcleod posits the next "big thing" in educational technology will be learner agency - a technology-rich landscape marked by a shift in learner autonomy and empowerment. As leaders, many of us are seeing pockets of this kind of learning in our institutions. But it's just that - pockets; not systemic. I agree that the next "big thing" is learner agency, and I also believe the next "big thing" in educational leadership will be to lead systemic change to support learner agency - beyond simply pockets of innovation. Pockets are a necessary start, but we can't stop there. System-wide implementation is the end we should have in mind.

I find the ideas of learner autonomy and empowerment very exciting, I suppose because it is these elements that make learning so much fun for me and many others. If we are to lead a systemic transformation, where do we begin? Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to frame some answers to this question in terms of three texts:

The Pocket Perspective Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick (@DonWettrick) - In his book @DonWettrick describes personal experiences developing an innovation course, essentially inquiry in a networked world. Wettrick proposes a basic blueprint for such a model:

  • Students research a personal topic of interest.
  • Students work individually or in small groups.
  • Students connect with at least one outside expert to develop their knowledge and understanding of the topic.
  • Students submit a project proposal including academic standards and timeline along with assessment.
  • Students reflect regularly and share progress and learning on a weekly basis using social media,  typically a blog.
  • Students present their project to key stakeholders, reflect on the learning process and negotiate a grade based on the process of implementing the project plan.

This excellent book includes a variety of impressive examples from the classroom perspective - examples of what is occurring in a pocket of innovation.

The System Perspective Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Ritchhart (@RonRitchhart) - @RonRitchhart posits that while schools and classrooms that value thinking - cultures of thinking - are not the norm, there is a framework for transformation to, what I would suggest, is the kind of culture of thinking and innovation that Wettrick describes in his book. How do we get there and what is the framework? There are 8 forces that create, sustain and enhance the learning culture:

  • Expectations - Recognizing how our beliefs shape our behavior
  • Language - Appreciating the subtle yet profound power
  • Time - Learning to be its master rather than its victim
  • Modeling - Seeing ourselves through out students’ eyes
  • Opportunities - Crafting the vehicles for learning
  • Routines - Supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking
  • Interactions - Forging relationships that empower learners
  • Environment - Using space to support learning and thinking

After reading Pure Genius and the many quality embedded examples, it is clear to see the learning culture reflecting the forces proposed by Ritchhart. If we want to move toward systemic change, building a culture of thinking and innovation, the 8 forces will play a critical role and cannot be overlooked.

The Leadership Perspective Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull (@EdCatmull) - Catmull shares the story of Pixar as a creative and innovative organization from his perspective as leader. Few would argue that Pixar isn’t one of the most innovative and creative companies around, so it’s worth school leaders interested in innovation taking pause to think about the leadership lessons embedded throughout the book. In the final chapter, Catmull summarizes many of his key points - 31 in all - for leading a culture of creativity and innovation. Here are just a few:

  • Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
  • If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
  • It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.

This is a mere sampling, but if you are serious about leadership and innovation, check out the full list.

These three texts, along with other resources on innovation in schools such as George Couros' blog and Don Wettrick’s blog, provide an abundance of ideas for leaders to think about creating a culture of system-wide innovation - from the pocket, systemic and leadership perspectives.

Back to the question: If we are to lead a systemic transformation, where do we begin? I'm still working on developing an answer to this question, but here are four points I'd like to share for how leaders can begin to bring about a transformation to an innovative culture that reflects a shift in learner autonomy and empowerment.

  • Start with the end in mind. Arrive at consensus on what innovation is and looks like in your particular context. Discuss why it’s important. How does innovation move us toward what we want to see in our classrooms?
  • Leaders model the way. Principals, district leaders and department leaders adopt innovative practices. We have started  doing this with our leadership team through this year's goal setting, using Couros’s 8 characteristics of the innovative leader.
  • Identify the pockets of innovation. Find the innovative teachers and provide support through professional development. We are doing this through our Innovate Salisbury team. Learn more at TL2020.org.
  • Share the successes and failures. Keep an open mind through the venture. Not all the work will be a success; there will be failures. How do we gather formative and summative data along the way to improve the implementation and move toward systemic change? How do we share successes and failures inside and outside the organization?

For us, these steps seem like the next logical path in our transformation. We have made much progress in our teaching and learning initiative over the past 5 years. We have pockets of innovation and uses of technology that are considered transformative and innovative. It’s now time to move the organization even further, and the resources shared here have helped develop the beginnings of a plan to lead innovation for systemic change.

How do you lead innovation?

Connect with Randy on Twitter and on the TLTalkRadio podcast!

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Randy currently serves as Superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District in Pennsylvania. Prior to his current position, Randy was a classroom teacher, Department Chair, Technology Integration Specialist, Director of Technology and Assistant Superintendent. Randy is also Clinical Adjunct Professor of Education at Moravian College, teaching courses in inquiry, assessment and technology in the undergraduate, graduate and principal certification programs. He graduated from Moravian College with a B.Mus. degree, earned his M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University in technology leadership, and an Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in educational and organizational leadership. In 2014, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA) recognized Randy as the Outstanding District Administrator for the state of Pennsylvania. In 2015, Randy was recognized by the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology (PAECT) as the Outstanding Leader of the Year. Follow Randy on Twitter @ziegeran, read his blog WorkingAtTheEdge.org and listen to the podcast co-hosted with @lfuinihetten at TLTalkRadio.org.
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Guest Sunday, 24 June 2018