Why Innovation is Important in Education

Have you seen the viral video of the man on the airplane, working with all of his might to fit his bag in the overhead compartment? After 45 seconds of trying, a flight attendant comes to help. She twists the bag and it slips into the compartment. At the very end, you can see the the onlookers laughing at the man, shaking their heads at his inability to see the obvious.


We can find the video funny, but I’d like to suggest that we have all been the man in this video. We have an idea of how it is supposed to work. We try, and to our confusion, it doesn’t happen. So what do we do? We try again, and again, and maybe again. Perhaps we convince ourselves that grit, perseverance, and persistence will win the day. With that personal pep talk, we pick up the bag once more and try the exact same way, but to no avail.

Then someone comes to us and suggests another way. Maybe we are open to taking their advice? Or, maybe we reject it. Sometimes on a matter of principle, we persist with the method, protecting it like our only child.

“This is now how it is supposed to work.”

“This is the right way to do it.”

“It has worked for me this way before.”

“I’ve tried everything and it just doesn’t fit.”

This is why we need innovation in education. Innovation is not just a buzz word. It isn’t just about embracing new and trendy ideas. It is about embracing the breadth of possibilities, acknowledging that there might be a better way, being open to new ways of embodying our values and embracing our mission.

We’ve had enough of trying to stuff students in our educational compartments. We blame the students, the compartment, the people around us, or even ourselves when it doesn’t work out as we desired or expected. Maybe innovation is really about having the openness and humility to consider something new. And maybe it is sometimes as simple and subtle as twisting the idea on its side.

Into the Basement of the Higher Education Innovation Haunted Mansion at HAIL Storm 2018

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I can’t say that I consistently live this teaching, but I value it. It is part of why I share candid, idiosyncratic, under-developed, rough draft ideas and projects online. Scan a random sample of my 1000+ online articles and you will find ample inconsistencies, false starts, over-zealous goals that fizzled before having something substantive to show for them, along with a few wins and accomplishments. Look carefully and you will find an article where I share what I called my un-resume, a long list of failures and underwhelming moments in life. Why would I share such things with the public? Be assured that there is even more that I don’t share, but as I gain the courage and weigh the risks, I strive to offer such a public record because it is something that I’ve long sought from others.

Growing up, I saw people who intrigued me, did what I wanted to do, reached a milestone that I hoped to reach one day, and/or who inspired me in some way. I saw their titles, feats, polished accomplishments, published works, and I read stories of their achievements. Only, I wanted to see how they got there. I longed to know the stories behind the stories, the struggles, fears, failures, and crossroads moments. I wanted to know about their flaws and limitations and how they managed them, how they pushed through the down times, whether they struggled with moments of doubt or depression and how they didn’t let such things consume them. I wanted to know about the hard times that also turned into important lessons. Then, amid all of that, I wanted to hear those stories of achievement once again.

Recently, I had a very brief visit to Disney World. A group of us went through the Haunted Mansion. In room after room, we saw translucent figures floating about. Many get that experience of the Haunted Mansion, but not what I saw next. Afterward, our guide took us on a second tour, this time a side door that took us into the basement of that same mansion. Walking in partial darkness between the carefully marked glowing lines on the floor, we were given a glimpse behind the scenes. I saw boxes stacked in corners, unimpressive plywood constructions, and other sights that resembled more of what you might expect in a storage unit or old barn. As we continued, we found ourselves beneath the public exhibit in one of the rooms, a behind the scenes view of the ghosts and ghouls. Only now we saw mirrors, lights, props, and human-like figures.

When I went on the first tour, I was impressed and amused. Walking out of that second tour, I was more inspired and informed. I could envision working with a team to creating our own haunted mansion. That is the same sort of thing that I longed for over the years as I looked at mentors, role models, and others from whom I hoped to learn. I can be impressed and engaged by the polish and public side of accomplishments, but that real and raw behind the scenes view is something that points me to more of a roadmap. While we sometimes face missions and challenges in life that do not seem to have much of a roadmap, getting the raw view of other’s journey can be used to build both competence and confidence.

I’m writing this as I sit in the Hollywood/Burbank Airport, leaving from a professional development experience that I would equate with a tour of the Haunted Mansion basement. HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) Storm was a small gathering of 35 people who are passionate about higher education innovation with a purpose. Only we didn’t gather for a typical conference experience. Instead, unlike any professional development experience in my higher education career, this was a time to hear the stories behind the story, to speak candidly about successes, challenges, developing ideas, and yes, even some of our failures. As such, I head home inspired and informed, a little more confident to pursue new possibilities, a bit more emboldened to persist through failures and challenges, and committed to lean even further into mission-minded educational innovation.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer?

Recently, I got a new title. I still have the old ones. I remain a professor and AVP of Academics. Now I’m also the Chief Innovation Officer. Of course, that begs the question. What is a chief innovation officer? As best as I can tell, it goes back almost twenty years, drawn out of the broader world of research and development, which I find helpful in thinking about the different expressions of chief innovation officers across organizations.

When it comes to research and development, there tend to be three emphases, all of which align with a central purpose. R&D units in companies and organizations have the task of championing and forming innovations that further the core mission and business of a company. Yet, those three emphases are important to recognize.

Sustaining Innovations

There are the sustaining innovations that some R&D units pursue. These relate to enhancements and improvement of existing products and services. This might been revamping an existing product or service to better serve existing users of that product or service. It might also involve reworking a product or service in a way that it meets the need of a new audience.

Another way of looking at sustaining innovations is to think of the learner, customer or end user. Many great sustaining innovations come from observing, learning from and listening to these end users. It is about finding out what is working, what is not, what needs are unmet, what expectations might be unmet or only partially met. Or, it might be about how the current products or services are just not accomplishing the end goals for the user. From that research, we revise existing products or create new ones.

In the world of education, this is where the majority of innovation work focuses. We are learning about what is working and what is not. Then we use that data to improve the student outcomes, student experience, student satisfaction, or a combination of these three.

Disruptive Innovations

Focus upon truly disruptive innovations is almost non-existent in the education space. A truly disruptive innovation creates a new market or disrupts an existing one. It might be a small market, not tapping into the audience served by the dominant and related products and services. Of course, this is speculative. It is heard to determine if a technology or innovation will be disruptive. Yet, we do know a few things. First, disruptive innovations are often ignored or belittled by the largest players in a domain. From a financial perspective, the return on investment might not even look very favorable. So, the small startup or grassroots effort has an opportunity.

Because of the speculative nature, the attempt to find and grow a disruptive innovation is almost certain to include multiple failed attempts. Of course, learning organizations are risk averse and have negative views of failure, which is why most learning organizations don’t venture into this world. Yet, those who do, and do so successfully, tend to create a culture of experimentation and pilots. They take a concept and try it out for different contexts and populations, perhaps a dozen until the right one is discovered.

Curiosity-Driven R&D

There is another category of work that sometimes involved a Chief Innovation Officer. This is heavier one the pure, curiosity-driven research. There are questions posed and research is conducted to seek answers to those questions. There might be my initial application of the knowledge pursued or acquired. This is much more exploratory and not necessarily even focused on a potential product or service. Yet, many great and practical ideas do come from this sort of exploratory work research. The one who conducts the research and the one who applies it to solve real-world problems might even be a different person.

CIO Roles

So, what does this have to do with the role of a Chief Innovation Officer. As I learn more about this role myself, I’ve come to define it this way. The role of the CIO is to champion innovative policies, practices, procedures, and programs that further the mission of the organization. This might come in the form of sustaining innovations. It might involve efforts to identify that right fit for a disruptive technology. It might involve supporting more curiosity-driven research too. At the same time, the CIO might be involved with promoting innovations and collaborations across units, promoting and pursuing that which is unlikely to take root in a single unit. So, someone living and working within the seams of these units might have what it takes to move things forward. In addition, this CIO might be the one to draw people together for shared accountability, all for the sake of innovation in pursuit of the organization’s mission.

The CIO is not necessarily the one doing all of the innovating. Sometimes he/she is, but the primary role is to promote and champion innovation wherever is arises or exists. This will result is a much broader range of innovations, far beyond what a single person or team could accomplish. At least that is how I plan to approach the role.

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Innovation as a Means of Educational Problem Solving

A number of years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of colleagues to work through an emerging problem at the University. We spent time defining the problem and exploring the causes of it. We eventually got around to devising a plan of attack to address the problem. True to form, I jumped right into asking questions that I thought might help us innovate our way through the problem.

Of course, innovation is not the only way to solve a problem. Some problems are quite easily addressed by using longstanding practices in our organization. Others can be addressed by drawing from best practices in the field or learning from what worked for others. Still others can be addressed by looking to solutions in parallel fields. However, there are problems where existing solutions will not work, and those call for innovation if we are going to find a viable solution.

As one colleague noted when I started with my innovation questions, “When it comes to solving a problem, Bernard’s default approach is to innovate his way out of it.” That can be a strength, but it can just as often be a weakness. If that description of me is true, then I may well try to innovative my way out of a problem that could be more simply, quickly and inexpensively resolved with a more standard solution.

As such, I interpreted the statement as neither a compliment or a strong critique. I know this about myself. For one reason or another, I seem to have an initial bias toward the unconventional or innovative solution. That doesn’t mean that I have to go with that strategy each time a new problem arises, but it is certainly a good thing to know about yourself. Others have an initial bias toward the standard solution or toward finding out and imitating what others are doing to solve a similar problem. Each of these three have their benefits and drawbacks.

Yet, for the sake of this article, I’d like to make a case for innovation as a form of problem-solving in education, not because it is necessarily the superior option, but because I often see organizations struggle because they are not willing to consider it as an option. They are intimidated by it. They see it as reckless and risky. Or, maybe they just don’t consider it. The problem is that the same old strategies are likely to produce the same old results, and that can be dangerous given the rapid rate of change in education today.

There is a very important caveat to this. When it comes to innovation, we don’t want to put students at risk. It is always important to assess the risks of failure and how this could impact our primary mission of serving students and families. We certainly don’t want to turn students into guinea pigs, although there is something to be said for inviting the students to turn the school itself into a guinea pig (more about that in a future article).

At the same time, just falling back on what we have done and what everyone else has done brings plenty of risks too. First, what works in one situation or context doesn’t necessary work in the next. So, there can be just as much risk trying to play it safe. While we might like to think that we have much of education down to a science, there is still a great deal of art to the enterprise.

Consider this example in higher education. Universities think about student enrollment quite a bit. Selective schools with large endowments think about enrollment much differently than small, tuition-dependent private schools with a limited endowment; but they both think about enrollment. Yet, when it comes to the strategies associated with recruiting that freshman class, there is a large set of rather standard approaches; and that is where almost everyone turns when we face an enrollment problem. They look for what worked in the past and what works for others. Yet, that might be part of the problem.

This became clear to me over the last several years with the growing number of schools starting online degree programs and competing against one another for students or a certain type of student. Because a handful of large for-profit schools set the standard for online recruiting through certain digital advertising strategies, so many people have followed suit. It has certainly been a boon for companies like Google. Yet, as more people started to complete with one another, the competition increased and so did the cost per click. This led to a massive increase in the cost of recruiting a new student. Some pay thousands of dollars to enroll just one student. Yet, if you want to grow by five hundred or a thousand students, using that strategy, you need millions of upfront capital that you can invest in digital ads. Given that many schools were not prepared for that type of an investment, they gladly hired outside for-profit companies who were willing to make an upfront investment in turn for a significant piece of the tuition pie.

So, if you experience an enrollment drop in such an online world, what do you do? You can go with what worked for you in the past and try to spend more money to recruit students. You can look at what others are doing and imitate it. Many of them are doing the same thing. You might assume that the standard cost for recruiting a new student is the only way forward.

The problem is that this is a  dangerous cycle. The more people who do this, the more we raise the cost of recruiting a new student. Eventually, the cost gets so high that only a few players can compete, or it starts to take away money needed to improve the academic quality of the program.

Yet, that isn’t the only option. This is where the third way comes into play. Instead of just doing what worked in the past and looking to the example of others in the space, you can start to consider alternative pathways. What if you challenge the assumption that it should cost thousands to recruit a new student and explore completely different ways to connect with students who might want and benefit from what you have to offer? What if you brainstorm new strategies? You don’t have to disregard the old ways. You just build a more balanced portfolio. You invest some in what works for you. You invest some in what works for others. You invest some in what is more experimental. This is a lesson highlighted for me by a valued colleague.

I happen to think that this approach can work quite well when we face any number of problems or issues in education. We can approach it with this sort of a portfolio investment mindset, making sure that we leave room for some experimental endeavors that might have a bit more risk. Yet, it might also have a huge return for the students and school as well.

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How to Predict Educational Trends: It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

People sometimes ask me how I spot or predict educational trends that are likely to stick. I usually share an idea or two, but I thought I would give a little longer answer for those who are interested.

You go to bed one night and wake up in a world of blended learning, online learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and a dozen other phrases. How did that just happen so quickly? While some people might feel like things changed overnight, that never happens when it comes to educational trends. They come about amid years, decades or even longer. If you are not paying attention, it might feel like the changed happened in a day, but it didn’t. There were signs of the impending change for a long time, and anyone with the desire and commitment can learn to read these signs.

I’ve been doing this for decades. Once you get a feel for key factors, you can get good at seeing them develop from a distance. It is not always easy to predict when the innovation is going to reach a critical mass and spread more quickly. I admit to being off as much as a decade in some cases. Yet, we can usually do better than a decade, and we can use this skill to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what is coming. Consider the following fifteen factors that are valuable when you are studying trends likely to shape and change education over time.

Domain Jumping

Lots of promising ideas in education don’t start in education. They begin in entertainment, the world of video games, in the business sector, in health care, or dozens of other domains. Yet, when there is an impactful development in one of these domains, it will eventually influence broader cultures and find its way into education. We can’t always trace the direct moment in which an idea jumps from one domain to education, but by looking at innovations more broadly, we can notice patterns that hint at that future jump.

Level Jumping

Too often, people focus on their small and local world of education. We don’t look across early childhood, elementary, secondary, tertiary, workforce development, continuing education, informal education, and other forms of education. As such, we miss a major development in one area that will likely jump to another level.


We also want to look for the mixing of ideas, sometimes from within education, sometimes a mixture of ideas from within and outside of education. This is where two or more seemingly disconnected and distinct ideas come together. This is largely what happened with blended learning. Online learning started first. People basically just imitated what that saw in the classroom in an online environment. Then people discovered distinct benefits of online not possible in face-to-face. Then we had the development of video sharing technologies. These converged with face-to-face teaching to create what we call blended learning today. If you can see various developments and begin to explore what it might look like if they were to combine, you can get ahead of many developments. Of course, you can also be the one to help create the future.

Technology Maturity

In their infancy, most technologies are not quite as impressive as they will be in a decade or two…or three. As new features are added, we begin to discover new possibilities. These technologies mature into things that have greater application and possibility in education. Their ease of use or affordability develop, inviting more people to consider their possibilities in education.

Changing Metaphors

If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend the wonderful little book called The Metaphors We Live By. In it, the author points out the power of a metaphor to change how we think, how we make decisions and the possibilities that we consider. When you start noticing the growth of a new metaphor in a culture or community, you can identify a forthcoming innovation or set of innovations.

Amplifying Technology

Some technologies amplify beliefs, values, and philosophies. When one of those amplifying technologies emerge, they will give greater power to one philosophy or set of values over another. We can use this to predict which trends will win over others. We can also use this to try to find and promote those technologies that best amplify the values and philosophies we support.

Funding Growth

Investors, foundations, and government grants can and do help create the direction of future trends. Money is not the only factor, but when you see significant and persistent investment in an innovation, that is certainly an important factor to consider.

Revenue Potential

There are plenty of financial factors at work in education and when there is a revenue generation potential behind a certain educational technology, this gives it an extra boost. Textbooks didn’t just grow as a dominant curricular resource for a century because they were the best means of teaching and learning. They did so because they met a need and did so while creating lots of money for people and organizations.


In general, easy to understand, concrete or simple innovations gain more traction in education than complex ones. This is true even when a more complex solution is better for students and organizations.

Media Attention

The media doesn’t typically create any educational innovations, but media attention can and does influence awareness and adoption rate. We saw this with Massive Open Online Courses as an example, an innovation that continues to grow to this day even though it no longer gets the frequent media headlines. Yet, the stories and attention around these developments, leaders in the MOOC movement, and key higher education and corporate players, it gained traction rather quickly. This is not a factor that lets us track trends far away, but we can use it to identify 1-3 year developments…even a bit further out.

Superior but Muzzled

There are great innovations, models and ideas that sometimes clash with the agenda of those in power. People ignore or muzzle the innovation to keep their influence. Sometimes this is enough to kill it altogether, but it usually re-appears in another time and place, seeking a place with fertile soil to grow and spread. This is why you can’t always predict which organization will take the lead on a new development. Some try it out early on but don’t have the culture and support to expand. Someone else often creates a new organization and accomplishes much of the earlier vision.

Superior but Isolated

There is incredible work happening in small pockets in education, and most people don’t even know about them. They are serving a small group in amazing ways, but there is either no drive to expand what they are doing, there are not the resources to grow it , or others have just not learned about it yet. When you come across one of these and it truly is superior in some way, keep an eye on it. These can and do blow up on occasion to have a quick and massive expansion.


Kairos is Greek for the “due season” or the “opportunity time”. It is when a series of cultural and other conditions come together to create an ideal time for a given idea, trend or innovation. Think of it as similar to the idea of “the perfect storm.” If we follow innovations in view of larger cultural developments and trends, we can sometimes see the emergence of a forthcoming kairos.

Policy Change Creates Fertile Ground

Policies can kill and give life to educational trends and innovations. Watch the patterns of debate and lobbying around educational policies to get a sense of which trends are more or less likely to grow and spread.

Compounding Interest

Some downplay or disregard significant growth on a smaller scale. An innovation might increase its impact or reach by 500% but it was so small to start that it didn’t seem like much compared to larger efforts. Yet, don’t forget the law of compounding interest because it can apply to trend and innovation development as well. Some innovations don’t lend themselves to scale and that is important to note, but with time and attention, you can begin to uncover where you are looking at something that can scale and is experiencing compounding effects.

There are plenty of other factors involved in noticing the growth of educational trends and innovations, but careful and collective attention to these fifteen can give you a good sense of what will and will not stick, develop, and expand over the upcoming years and decades. In fact, I’ve pretty much shared how I manage to notice trends early. This can aid you in helping to create the future, prepare for it, challenge trends that you consider dangerous, or just become very good at studying trends in their infancy that will eventually become mainstream and widespread.

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Bias Toward Action in Education Innovation

I love ideas but I confess that I still have a bias toward action in education. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech entitled, “The Man in the Arena” at the Sorbonne. In that speech, he said the following words that have since gained widespread attention:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve often thought about this quote in terms of my role in education. As much as I’m drawn to the world of ideas, and part of me would be content spending the rest of my life reading great books, there is another part that is not content analyzing and critiquing education. I want to pull up my sleeves and do something that matters. I want to help people explore the possibilities and then do something with this new perspective. Design rich and engaging learning experiences. Pursue promising practices and innovations. Solve important problems. Create new schools and learning communities. Help shape high-impact learning communities of purpose and possibility. This is why I consider myself an applied scholar.

James Bryant Conant was quoted as saying that, “a scholar’s work must have relevance.” I agree. The work of a scholar is intended to contribute to something good in the world. Of course, some researchers are doing work that has yet to reveal obvious applications in the real world (and those can have a huge payoff down the road for society), but I continue to think that our task is to do work that is relevant in the world. Contribute research, ideas, models, and frameworks that help people solve important problems; gain new perspectives; explore promising possibilities; and/or create products and services that benefit others.

This is why I might take the time to critique the modern education ecosystem, but I hope that frequent readers see that the majority of my writing is not a critique as much as it is an invitation to look at old problems with new eyes, to consider options previously overlooked, to revisit that which compels us and informs our work in education, and to pursue values-infused innovation that matters.

We need plenty of critique today. It serves as a source of feedback. It is part of evaluating what is working and what is not. It helps us to lead from a place of depth, a sense of mission and purpose. Without it we will find ourselves unable to make progress. We would perpetually repeat the same mistakes, often unaware that we are even making the mistakes.

Yet, postmodern tendencies in the contemporary world can lead us to think that our job is done once we’ve engaged in a thorough critique, once we’ve deconstructed the system and commented on the rubble that we’ve left in our path. This isn’t enough. In a space like education, I’m not even sure that it is responsible. If we deconstruct, then I consider it our responsibility to at least contribute in small ways to reconstruct or to construct something in its place.

As a kid, I used to love taking things apart. I would save up my money to buy something like a radio or remote control car. It usually didn’t last a month before I would take it apart, piece by piece. There was something wonderfully rewarding about doing this. Yet, sometimes they would just stay that way, deconstructed and no longer functional. When I managed to put it back together, thinking about the purpose of the different pieces, and then it worked, that was far more invigorating for me. Or, the first time that I ordered the individual parts and built a computer from scratch…you would have  thought that I’d just built a space shuttle. As I dabbled with computer hardware for fun in my younger years, taking things apart was not nearly as rewarding as building something new or fixing something that did not work.

I suppose that I think about education in a similar way. It doesn’t take that much to tear down the system, to point out its many flaws and limitations. That is good and important work. Yet, my respect goes to the person who steps into the education arena, whose “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”, who might come up short but doesn’t given up, who “spends himself in a worthy cause”, who approaches the possibilities and opportunities in education with passion, conviction, and courage. I consider it an honor to step into that arena, and I’m just as honored to have the opportunity to share the stories of others in the arena, people doing incredible work in the education space.

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A Recap on My Talk About Leading Outside the Box

The week of April 4, I had the joy and privilege of participating in LEAD Now!, Concordia University Wisconsin’s first TED-like event that included five 18-minute presentations on innovative leadership in education. In this case, the audience consisted largely of Lutheran educators and administrators from around the United States.  My assigned topic was Leading Outside the Box. While the videos for this event will likely be available online at some time in the future, I thought I would offer a recap of my words.

The phrase, “outside the box” has pretty much reached the level of cliché today, but I was excited to take that idea and put a new twist on it. So, I started my preparation with a less-than outside-the-box strategy. I looked in the online Merriam Webster dictionary to find the definition of “box.” A box is, “a rigid typically rectangular container with or without a cover.” 

Okay, if that is the definition of a box, what is the definition of an organizational box? Now we are getting in outside-the-box territory because you will not find that definition in the dictionary. As such, I took the liberty of coming up with my own definition. An organizational box consists of all the policies, preferred practices, beliefs, habits, and rituals that make up the look and feel of our organization. These things shape what we do and how we do it. They are the metaphorical walls of our organization. In other words, an organizational box is our current culture.

We collectively build our organizational boxes and then we live and work in them. We learn to play well together in our sand “boxes”. Over time, we take great pride in our boxes. They give us parameters within which we work. They are safe. They can make us feel comfortable. They give us a useful sense of identity. At their best, they help us to live out our mission.

Organizational boxes are not, however, synonymous with our mission. Missions are wild, unleashed, compelling whys that, when they are in full force, demand to be let out of the box, to not be entirely contained. Missions want to grow, and there come times when the context changes, opportunities arise, problems face us and we must decide if we are willing to let our missions lead up out beyond those safe and comfortable walls of our box.

leading outside the boxMissions can live well in many of our boxes, our cultures. In fact, it is important that they permeate our culture, that they are woven into the walls of our boxes. Yet, again, they are not the same as the box. The are distinct from and bigger than our boxes.

You’ve probably heard the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is certainly true. However, it is equally true that culture can eat mission for breakfast if we are not careful. Over time we become so fond of our current practices, traditions, perspective, and models that we treat them like they are one in the same with our mission. We cling to them with missional fervency…but they are not our mission. As such, sometimes, just sometimes, that wild, compelling why, that mission that drives us into new ventures and opportunities, it calls us to leave the safe and hallowed walls of our traditional boxes.

Some reject this notion. They confuse their culture with their mission. If someone challenges part of the culture in pursuit of new ways to live out the mission, they are condemned as acting counter to the mission. The Lutheran education system, the second largest private school system in the United States, had to face this years ago.

When German Lutherans first came to the United States, they set up schools immediately, and instruction was in the German language. They sought out German immigrants, both those who attended Lutheran churches and those who did not, and wove their faith into the schooling experience.

Yet, they were in a country where English was the dominant language, and these schools had to make a difficult decision. Do we continue to teach in German or do we instruct in English? Some argued that language and mission were too deeply connected to be separated. German was the language in which their faith tradition was forged. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German language of common people and it was the first time in their lives that they were able to read these deeply meaningful words in their native tongue, their heart language.

As such, there was justifiable concern about switching the language of instruction. Yet, because people had the courage to make that difficult decision, Lutheran schools have served an incredible number of people in the United States, making it one of the largest private school systems in the nation. That would have never happened if people did not have the courage to follow their mission beyond the existing walls of their organizational boxes.

The same thing is true today for that Lutheran education system. This time it is not a language change, but there are other cultural changes that calls for stepping outside of the traditional boxes so that they are able to live out the mission in new ways, serving new people.

In an area of study known as phenomenology, they are interested in getting at the essence of ideas and things. As one way of beginning such an exploration, they might ask three simple questions. The first question is, “What is essential?” What are the traits so integral to whatever it is that I am studying that, if you removed those traits, that something would cease to be what it is.

Consider the example of a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? We might say that a ball needs to be spherical, but that would rule out something like a football. With a little effort, we can get to the idea that a ball must be something round on at least one plane. We might come up with one or two other traits. That is it. Those are the only essential, ultimately defining attributes.

From there we go to the second question. “What is important?” These are traits that impact form and function, often in significant ways, but it can still be a ball without meeting specific criteria. Size, weight, density, and shape, for example, would likely go into this category. We can have a football, golf ball, basketball, baseball and more.

Then we have the final question. “What is merely present?” These are traits that can change from one item to another but they don’t really change the overall function that much.

Leading outside the box demands that we ask these same sort of questions about our organization, starting with the assumption that our mission is the essential. We must strive to be completely transparent, setting aside our preferences and agendas, to get at the essence of our mission and organization. It is too easy to put items from the “important” category into the “essential” category, which can limit our sense of the possibilities. It can also prevent us from following the mission into incredibly promising new ventures. Heaven forbid that our culture gets in the way of living out our mission to the greatest extent. Leading outside the box, pure and simple, is having the courage to unleash our mission, to let it outside of the cultural boxes that exist in our organizations, to let it lead us into unchartered territories, serving new populations, taking on new forms and models that we’ve never considered before.

In my opening remarks to the group of people who, as you might remember from the beginning of this essay, were largely people working in the Lutheran education system, I started by explaining that I am one of Lutheran education’s greatest critics, and that I would explain why in my talk. That is obviously a dangerous opening for a group of people who, in some cases, have devoted their entire lives to that system. Why am I one of its greatest critics? At the end of my talk, I explained. I am one of the Lutheran education system’s greatest critics because I believe so strongly in its mission, and I am just not willing to let that mission get limited to one or a small set of cultural boxes.

In fact, I could say this about more than the Lutheran education system. It is true for me about the entire contemporary education system. Too often we are fighting over the maintenance of our preferred boxes, our cultural preferences, or the ones that have the most to offer us personally or as a select group of people. Yet, compelling missions demand that we exchange our personal preferences for the grander mission. It is not about us, and if we try to make it about us, then we must admit that we are limiting its potential reach and impact. We would rather have it our way than have it pave the way for reaching and serving new people in new places with new possibilities.

If you are part of an organization with a compelling mission, then there are probably new boxes to be built at some point. I certainly believe this in the education system. New boxes extend the mission. They don’t compromise it. As such, box building is a healthy and important part of growing organizations with a wild and unleashed mission.

Furthermore, some of are wired, inspired, even called to stepping out of boxes, even to missional box building. Please hear us out and consider that we might not be challenging the mission when we are challenging others to consider moving beyond our current boxes. Some of us are addicted to mission. It fuels and animates us. We fall asleep thinking about riffing off of the mission in new ways like we are trying to create the next great guitar solo. We wake up in the middle of the night scribbling down new ideas. We get up in the morning excited to jump into another day of missional living. Admittedly, sometimes we need to be pulled back into the box a bit when we move too quickly or need to think through the implications more carefully. Yet, I ask that you consider the possibility that maybe we box builders are an important part of extending the mission or sometimes keeping it alive.

The reality is that our many missions in education today drive us to respond to the changing contexts and cultures in which we serve. This means that there will be times when we have to make the decision about whether we are willing and able to look beyond our boxes, to recognize that the mission can breathe and live beyond the walls of our box, that it can, in fact, thrive in the wild. It can help establish new boxes that benefit even more people. Or, consider that mission might lead to an extreme makeover of our existing boxes. This is because, when you have an organization that truly expect everyone to put mission ahead of the current culture…watch out! You are in for an extraordinary journey.

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Eggs, Spring & the Kairos for Educational Innovation

Timing matters. Kairos matters. On the first day of spring, my wife asked where she could find our level. She was checking the kitchen counter to see if it was adequately level for something that can only be done one day a year, balancing an uncooked egg on one of its two points. As you can see from the image, it worked, and it was a moment of fun, celebration and even a few commemorative photo opportunities.

Of course, it didn’t take long before I had to ponder the implications of this event for educational innovation. Once I started thinking about it, I remembered a Greek word that I’d learned years ago, kairos. As I recall, there are two words for time in Greek. The first is chronos. As you might suspect, this relates to chronological time. Kairos is the other. Instead of looking at time in terms of chronology, kairos is concerned with the nature of the time. . .the due season or opportune time. It is that moment when the conditions come together for something special to happen.

For those of us from the Christian tradition, we might use this word kairos to describe the incredible combination of events that came together in the birth of Christ, also the culminating events that many of us just remembered and celebrated on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In fact, there is a wonderful book that first introduced me to these ideas called In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. It describes the many conditions that came together, resulting in the kairos for the coming of Christ. The Roman roadways allowed for people to travel more broadly. A more common language throughout the empire also allowed for ideas to spread. Add many others and it becomes easy to see how it was indeed the karios.

As I stared at this egg standing on its end, a sense of accomplishment even though it was all due to the thought and persistence of my wife plus the right conditions. I wondered about the kairos for educational innovation. I wondered about the ideas and the people who conceive of them, share them, and create something based upon them. It isn’t just having the right idea. It is also the right idea at the right time. . .under the right series of conditions.

I think of many interesting open concept experiments in education back in the 1970s and 1980s, and recall how so many people critiqued them as unrealistic—the main cause of their failure according to many. Yet, no small number of these ideas have returned with far more favorable results today. I consider, for example, Malcolm Knowles ideas about self-directed learning to be quite powerful in their day, but they are gaining renewed interest and more traction than ever today. Why? It is because  the nature and demands of life in a digital, increasingly open, and connected world amplify his ideas. Self-direction has become a key differentiator among people. It is a massive advantage in more contexts today than it was when it was first written about decades ago. In addition, the tools of the digital age have made it easier than ever to access and shape one’s own learning, especially learning beyond the walls and structure of formal schooling. The conditions are right for the idea of self-directed learning to take root and grow.

Some ideas are ahead of their time. The conditions are not right for them to take root in a given context. As such, there is wisdom in not being too quick to dismiss an idea as permanently and absolutely ineffective. There is also wisdom in recognizing that a great idea might not be a great idea for your specific school or this specific time. The conditions might not be right.

With time and effort, sometimes we can help shape many conditions, but that is usually no small effort. It might be as simple as moving to a place where the conditions are right. It could also be a persistent and concerted effort to discover the right conditions and then to help create them.

I’ve met many who learned about a promising idea or innovation and sought to bring it back their organization, only to find that it is not well-received or that they were unable to make it work the way they had hoped. There are many potential reasons for this, but one important question is about the kairos. Are the conditions right for this to happen? If not, how might I create those conditions or is it best to wait until they are here?

I also recognize that these things are more easily recognized in hindsight. These can be complex matters; it is not always easy to tell which conditions are essential or important. Sometimes we just need to give it a try and see what happens. Other times a more cautious approach is prudent. Either way, timing and conditions matters in educational innovation.

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How do you Measure Success of Innovative Models in Education?

How do you measure the success of an educational innnovation? In The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, Frederick Hess wrote the following:

How would you respond if asked for a plan to transform America’s schools into a world-class, twenty-first-century system? Now imagine that there is one condition; you must retain the job descriptions, governance arrangements, management practices, compensation strategies, licensure requirements, and calendar of the existing system. Hopefully, you would flee just as fast as you possibly could and if so, you would be way ahead of the rest of us, who have spent decades slogging through that dismal scenario. p. 1

Somehow I overlooked this 2010 book until recently, but much of what I’ve written and said about education reform aligns with at least a few key ideas in this book. Of course, there are plenty of differences as well. I suspect that I will have other posts prompted by some of the ideas that Hess presents in the book, but for now, I’d like to focus on the quote above. I suspect that one of the reasons why there are so many limitations to our innovations is that we have created rules and measures that are directly tied to existing practices.

For two decades, I’ve been studying innovations, school models and learning contexts that break new ground in the education space. As I often tell people, when I decide whether to visit a school, I’m far less interested in visiting if the school has desks in rows, bells, or letter grades. I don’t mean that literally (although all three of those are often absent in the schools that visit). What I mean is that I am interested in learning from models of schooling that have moved away from the 19th and 20th-century molds. They are not just tweaks on the existing system or practices. They are genuine alternatives or sometimes completely new.

Yet, as Hess and many others point out, there is much that has changed since many of the common features in contemporary schools were initiated. Where high school graduates were a small fraction of people in the United States a century ago, it is the majority today. Expectations about what should be learned in school have changed. The diversity of people served has changed. The demands of life and work have changed. . .drastically in some instances.

Some argue that the longstanding and dominant schooling model can be adapted to meet these changing needs, but others, including myself, believe that the changes are significant enough that we are wise to explore a much broader and more diverse selection of learning contexts and approaches. Even if the current model is able to adapt enough to meet the changes and contemporary needs, it is certainly not the only (or best in any widespread and demonstrable way) option.

One point that Hess makes in his book, however, is that people championing for greater and broader educational options are sometimes labeled as enemies of public education. People mistakenly equate “public education” with specific roles, policies, practices, political structures, models, frameworks, approaches and balances of power. To argue for a new way of thinking about teacher professional development, teacher accountability, or new roles and job descriptions is too often labeled as an attack on public education. I’ve seen this happen in many instances where the people exploring these alternatives were genuinely seeking to improve and strengthen public education. The problem, as I see it, is that people are defining something like “public education” or more broadly “school” by a group or person’s preferred form and not by its purpose and mission. Itt could also be that they are just using “attack on public education” rhetoric to demonize people who hold positions different from them, to protect their personal interests (but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt).

One person argues that it is too extreme and potentially irresponsible to overhaul the entire system, to imagine something entirely new. The next argues that this is the only way, that we are on a sinking ship. You can do all the remodeling that you like to that ship but it is still sinking. It is maybe just a little more attractive or comfortable while it is sinking, but it is irresponsible to convince people that they should trust you and stay on the ship.

I’m not convinced by either of these positions, at least not in many contexts. Instead, I am confident that we are wise to resist censoring some possibilities because of personal agendas and political interest. Exploring the possibilities and creating a diverse ecosystem of educational models and learning contexts strikes me as the wisest and safest way to face the nature of life in a connected world. This is why I am a champion for mission-minded experimentation with rich feedback loops and constant adaptation.

The mission foundation is important because, without that, we don’t have a means of measuring our success. We just use the existing or dominant measures which were never designed for an innovation with a distinct mission or vision. The traditional measures were designed under certain assumptions about a system. When that system changes, the measures often need to be revised or changed as well. If not, they fail to measure what matters most or is most promising about the new effort.

Too often public voices of education critique one approach to schooling on some one-dimensional basis (or maybe a short list that serves a given group’s agenda). Then they write and talk about their assessments as if they should be the universal measure of quality schools. Starting with mission invites us to consider an alternative. We measure each school according to its distinct mission. There is certainly room for a small set of more broadly accepted measures, but we must force ourselves to be incredibly careful about what goes into such as list, as history shows us that it is often too tempting to adding ideas and wording in these more widely used measures that create unnecessary limitations and boundaries, that unintentionally (or sadly, in some cases, intentionally) create winners and losers among the students.

Using existing, sometimes reductionist, oftentimes biased (toward traditional efforts) measures will not give us adequate insight on a given innovation’s promise. If we want that, then we must differentiate our measures on the basis of the mission, vision, values and goals of that specific innovation. Those with the greatest power for core measures are well aware that the person who controls the tests has immense control of the system.

Oddly, I’ve even seen well-known critics and figures in contemporary education critique new innovations and models (even entire systems like the charter school system. . .despite the fact that “charter” has many different meanings depending upon the state and context, and that each charter has a distinct mission and vision) on the basis of measures established for more legacy schools and practices. And, of course, many of our governmental policies are written with narrow conceptions of education and schooling in mind, which intentionally (or I suspect more often, unintentionally) limit the extent or nature of innovation in education or at least sets them up for failure or reductionist analyses of their value and impact.

The widely used and well-known measures make it easier for people to compare, but they also too often disregard the distinctions. Remember that cartoon which critiques one-size-fits-all testing, assessing an elephant by how they can climb a tree? This same point applies to how we measure new education models and innovations. More often than not, we need differentiated measures for differentiated models. When we do opt for a set of universal standards and policies, it takes great care to design them in ways that do not unnecessarily limit promising future innovations.

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What Compels People to Pursue Radical Innovations in Education

What compels people to pursue more radical innovations in education? It has now been almost two decades since I started to more seriously and systematically study innovations in education and innovative learning organizations. Many of the musings about that show up in the chapters of my book on Missional Moonshots (not to mention the many articles on this blog), but since my exploration started, I can’t think of a single day that has passed without some thought experiment or reflection about educational innovation. In that sense, it has become a consuming passion for me because I see educational innovation as an important social good, and I have immense respect for those who tap into the courage, creativity and hard work necessary to pursue revolutionary or radical innovations in education.

As such, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about what compels people to pursue such innovations. What is it that happens inside or outside of people that draws, drives or inspires them to get off the paved roads of legacy education models and frameworks and do the hard work of helping to create completely new roadways? Under what conditions is this more likely to happen for a person? While some of this has to do with how people are wired (both genetically wired and wired through a longstanding set of life experiences), there are other aspects at work as well. That is what leads me to start to put into words some of what I’ve seen. Amid many observations, conversations, formal and informal interviews, and my study of educational innovators and entrepreneurs, the following six consistently show up as conditions that often catapult people into trying something more radical in the education space.

When there is nothing to lose or you have little stake or loyalty to the established system.

This doesn’t need to be an objective statement. You might, from many perspectives, have a great deal to lose. What matters, however, is that you believe that you have little to lose, or perhaps that you do not have a strong sense of loyalty to the existing system. You might (or might not) be extremely loyal to the broader mission or goals, but not necessarily the system or current methods. Perhaps the system failed you. Perhaps it was never that important to you. Perhaps you are coming from outside of the system and looking at it with fresh eyes. Regardless, this is a significant entry point for some who pursue what others might consider more radical or revolutionary innovations.

While some critique educational innovators who don’t have longstanding experience in the classroom, it is sometimes this outsider-ness that allows them to think and act in what others might consider more radical ways. In fact, some don’t even see or think that their innovation is all that radical. Feeling like an outsider might be unpleasant for some of us or a source of pride for others. Either way, it can drive us to look at the context from a unique (or at least less common) perspective. We are willing and able to consider possibilities censored or disregarded by insiders. We are open to possibilities that others reject because they would have too much to lose by such possibilities.

When there is no other option but the mission is still important to you.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, right? Or, as John Kotter points out in much of his work, a “sense of urgency” can be a powerful lever for change and innovation. If there is no other option and you lack a compelling mission, innovation is less likely. Or, if you have mistakenly glued the mission and your current practices together, no longer able to see that they are indeed separate elements, you may rather shut down, learn to live in persistent failure, or use denial to avoid the intense pain of current failure instead of looking for alternatives and innovations. Yet, when one sees that the mission is compelling and separate from what is currently being done, and the option of staying the course is no longer an option, this is enough to move some people to lead or embrace revolutionary innovations in education.

When you experience a compelling alternative.

Sometimes people are stuck in educational ruts simply because they are not aware of the alternatives. Yet, when they see them, when they experience them firsthand and work through some of their doubts and questions, this is enough for some to venture into more radical changes. It is why I advocate so strongly that people at least take the time to get informed about the possibilities, even if they don’t choose to embrace any of them.

When your passion for the goal and/or mission far exceeds your fear of loss, discomfort or failure.

There are plenty of us who have many radical or more revolutionary ideas. It is just that our fear keeps us in check, we are not willing to take the associated risks, or the pain and discomfort associated with the change is not tolerable to us at the time. Yet, for many who do embrace a more radical educational pathway, it happens when their passion for the goal or mission grows to such a level that it overshadows these others. Or, we find ourselves in a life circumstance where we’ve been able to minimize some of these risks enough that we are then willing to venture out into the less knoswn or unknown.

When you are deeply connected to or convinced of the minority opinion, situation or a specific need.

There are winners and losers in the dominant education system. When you are connected to those in the system who are on the losing end and you care deeply about those people, this can be enough to move to you to bold and new actions. It is not a coincidence that many parents are active innovators in the charter school system throughout the United States. Interview founders of innovative charters and independent schools and you will find compelling stories, often about their own children. Love and concern for another person (family member or not) is a fuel for more radical innovations in education.

When the vision or dream is too strong to deny or delay.

I’ve heard from this from many educational innovators. They sometimes thought, planned and dreamed for years or decades. Finally, at some point, the conditions were right but they also got to a point where they just could not wait. They had invested so much of themselves into the idea that they just had to do something about it. So they acted. Sometimes they have a vision for the impending doom if we continue down the standard path and they’ve reached a point where it is so urgent (internally), that they just need to do something. In other cases, it is just that they want it to happen so much and all the years of thought and emotion create a tipping point toward action.

Interview innovators in education, and you are likely to find one or more of these six answers at work. There are many others as well, but these six are among the more common and transparent. These are the kind of things that compel people to what the rest might consider more radical innovations in education.

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