What if Experimentation & Play Were a Daily Part of the Classroom?

This article is an early draft excerpt from the book, Breathe: A Vision and Framework for Human-Centered Learning Environments, available at Amazon and elsewhere.


“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.” -Pablo Neruda

Imagine an activity that can increase productivity at work and school, speed the rate and depth of learning something new, increase well-being and satisfaction, decrease stress, enhance the bonding between two or more people, and strengthen connections and communication with others. With such a long list of benefits, who wouldn’t want to engage in such an activity? The activity that I’m describing is play.

Stuart Brown, a leading expert on the merits of play, argues that, “Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice…” If this is true, then play is certainly not just for children, nor is it best reserved for a special treat. If humans really are designed to crave play, then it is best made a part of our daily lives, and the daily lives of learners around the world.

Yet, there is an ongoing tension about the word play for many people. In both schools and work, there continue to be some who are skeptical about anything that uses the word play. School and work are about productivity and hard work, and people think of play as something different. Turning again to Stuart Brown, he reminds us that, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

When we diminish the value of play and playfulness in schools and workplaces, where many of us spend a significant part of our lives, we are depriving ourselves and others from something deeply inspiring and invigorating, something that we crave and that helps us to achieve well-being and higher levels of productivity.

While distinct, experimentation often flows out of play and playfulness. In imaginative play, we venture beyond the present world as we see and experience it. We find ourselves experimenting with other possibilities, even if only within the realm of our own minds. Experiments are, in one sense, tests that we conduct to explore some thesis, question, or examine a possibility. They often grow out of a willingness to ask and wonder. Some of the most powerful questions in human history led to both play and experimentation but went on to discovery and transformation.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that, “life is trying things to see if they work.” Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly wrote that, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” While the scientists among us have more narrow definitions for an experiment or what constitutes a good one, it is the orientation toward experimentation that we are talking about here. To experiment is to test something out, whenever possible, in the real world. You have an idea of how things might be, and you conduct one or more experiments. You observe and seek actionable insights that often leads to more experiments.

To experiment is to learn, and it taps into that drive for adventure that we already explored. Every true experiment is an adventure because you are going on a journey, and you don’t know the outcome. Experiments have that measure of wild, curiosity, uncertainty, and mystery; and these are things upon which thrive as people.

You don’t need formal training to start experimenting, although there are many tools that can help. In fact, you’ve been experimenting your entire life. You conducted an experiment the first time that you tried to walk, and each time after that. You experimented when you tried to reach out and touch that intriguing red stovetop. You experimented when you stuck your tongue out to catch your first snowflake, and to figure out how to get your bicycle to stay upright while you pedal it. You conducted an experiment each time that you tasted something new, tried to improve on a video game, or explored people’s reactions to your words and actions. Maybe you didn’t start each of these with a thesis that you were testing, but each of these are expressions of experimentation.

People continue to experiment throughout their lives, but over time we find comfort in that which doesn’t require experimentation. We develop rituals and habits. We find ourselves drawn to safe and stable situations where we are already confident about the outcomes. Think of how often we design classrooms in this same way? Experiments entail risks, and the yearning for safety and security competes with the equally important yearning for novelty, adventure, and learning.

There is nothing wrong with safety, and rituals are rich, beautiful, and meaningful parts of our lives. Or, even when they are not, they serve other useful purposes in our lives. The problem is when the pull for safety and security begins to close us off from the experimenting part of learning.

It helps to make experimentation a more planned and intentional part of the learning community. One way to do this is through what I call life experiments. These are simple experiments intended to test out new practices, ideas, and activities. For example, if you find yourself struggling with negativity, what if you conducted a simple experiment for 10 days in a row where you end each day writing down three things that went well and why. This particular “experiment” comes from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, finding that something as simple as this can greatly improve the optimism and sense of well-being for many people. Of course, you don’t know if it will work for you unless you try it, perhaps you can test it out for 10 days and see for yourself. You can do the same thing with experiments around building new relationships, setting and achieving goals, managing your time, or getter better at a hobby or a skill for work. Now imagine a classroom or learning community of students who are persistently creating simple experiments for themselves and others, gaining new experiences and insights, and using that to learn and grow in new ways.

Some students will be hesitant, not having engaged in this sort of playfulness or experimentation. Here are three simple suggestions to help them get started. First, have them begin with exploring something that they want to understand or improve, or a problem that they want to solve. Maybe they want to better understand how to make money, get along with a sibling, improve a skill in a sport, address a troubling social issue, or how to develop a new skill.

Next, create a context or where they can read, talk to people, watch documentaries and YouTube videos, and gain some new knowledge about the area of interest. As they learn and explore, they will start to find possibilities and practices that intrigue them. That is where we go to step two. Have each student create a simple, time-based experiment that allows them to learn, through direct experience, how that practice or possibility might work in their life or the world. For example, several years ago, Martin Seligman and others popularized findings of a study that revealed the power of a simple bedtime practice. Before going to sleep, write down three things that went well that day and why. I read this and decided to give it a try. I committed to doing it daily for 4 weeks. At the end of each day, I also wrote down how I felt: bad, okay, good, or amazing. At the end of the four weeks, I went back, reviewed my “what went well?” statements, and I tallied up how many days I felt bad, okay, good, and amazing. I probably should have recorded how I felt daily for a month before starting the experiment. I didn’t. Regardless, the pattern was clear. In week 1 of my little life experiment, I felt bad two days, okay on four days, and good on one day. At the end of week four, I felt bad one day, okay one day, good three days, and amazing on two days. For my personal sense of well-being, that was a great outcome, so I decided to continue with the practice or different versions of it, which leads to the third suggestion.

Once students identify something to explore and conduct their personal experiment, they can make it their goal to gain actionable insight about themselves, the topic, the problem, or the world. It isn’t simple about whether it worked or not. There are lessons to be learned regardless of the outcome. This is where some form of personal reflection is valuable. This can be as simple as posing a few questions to oneself and pondering them. I tend to create times throughout the experiment for reflection, dedicating a more extended time at the end. In addition, I always include some sort of question like, “What next?” In other words, now that I completed this experiment, what do I want to do with the insights? I might continue the experiment, make some adjustment to my life in some way, or get an idea for a new or related experiment. 

This should be fun, even playful. They are exploring and experimenting. Some might enjoy inviting others to join them in creating and conducting personal life experiments, sharing their lessons and insights along the way. Others might prefer keeping them private. Learners can chart their own course. I’m offering a few suggestions, but engage the learners to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

In some ways, this recipe approach might feel “industrial” in nature. As I’ve mentioned before, those are not bad values. We just need to gain control of them and make sure that we are prioritizing and celebrating the deeply human-centered ones. That is what we are doing here. We are creating a recipe that helps you prioritize more experimentation and play in your life.

By adding more play and experimentation in our learning communities, we are embracing a sense of possibility, and possibility breeds hope and a deeper sense of meaning. As Paul Rogat Loeb wrote, “Possibility is the oxygen upon which hope thrives.”

Here are a few questions for further consideration:

  • How much do learners presently play and experiment in the classroom or learning community?
  • What are simple ways for learners to engage in the content or learning goals through structured or unstructured play?
  • How can we infuse more playfulness into the classroom or learning community? What ideas might students have for this?
  • How can I invite learners to take a posture of experimentation about their own learning, but also about seeking understanding of other things that are important in their lives?
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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.

Convergence

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.

Simplicity

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.

Karios

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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Realists, Idealists, Unicorns and Education Innovation

There is an important connection between unicorns and educational innovation. The realist says that unicorns don’t exist and that we need to face that reality. The idealist agrees that unicorns don’t exist, but argues that, with time, energy, effort and the right resources; they might exist in the future.

As Steve Jobs is quoted as saying,

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Let me bring this back to unicorns. A friend/colleague and I were talking about our options among those running for president in the US. We both recognized that none of the candidates are our ideal options. As such, the friend argued for one candidate over others because that candidate has a more realistic chance of actually getting elected. I noted that I am likely to vote for a different candidate, one whom most would say has little to no chance. Why would I waste my vote on a candidate who is likely to lose? It is probably because I’m an idealist and I believe that unicorns are possible.

One view is that we need to stop denying reality. As my friend noted, “And as much as I love unicorns and rainbows, they don’t exist.” Well, rainbows do exist, but I focused on the unicorn part by replying, “My career is partly based on denying a present reality in pursuit of a future one. If I wanted unicorns to exist, then I would probably become a geneticist and try to make them real.”

Of course, I agree with the friend’s general idea. It would not go well for me if I tried to go through my day denying the reality of gravity. At the first large dropoff, my dreams would come to a crashing halt. At the same time, if that is an issue for me, then I can recognize that reality while striving to change it. How might I get to a place where there is minimal gravitational pull? How might I create a device that challenges the typical limitations associated with gravity?

When it comes to educational innovation, there is space for both the realistic innovator and the idealistic innovator. The realist is more interested in iterative changes. Such a person tends to look for ways to improve the current systems and processes. There is often a heavy emphasis on things like best practices and quality improvements. These are good and valuable innovations. In most cases, they meet the needs and interests of the majority. In general, the people who are really good at this sort of improvement and enhancement innovation are not the game-changers, but they get less resistance and are more well-received by the majority in a field. It is just that they are also hardly ever the next Elon Musk when it comes to educational innovation. They focus on polishing what is real.

unicorns and educationEven among those seeming realists, there are those who dream of a different educational world. They might not be sure if it is possible. Life circumstances, resources, and no small number of internal inhibitors keep them in check and functioning along the many other realists, and they can sometimes do fine in that space. However, if you cut through all those internal and external inhibitions, you will see the growth of an idealistic innovator who wants to create something that doesn’t exist or what others believe doesn’t exist or is not possible.

Sometimes, just sometimes, that inner idealist is fed enough that it breaks out and tries something new. Or, I do believe that some realists turn into idealists after one or more rich experiences that debunk their prior sense of what is possible, hence my recent article about why we should be building airplanes with our students. I’ve always been fond of the proverbial truth that, “the majority is always wrong”. . .although I tend to think they the majority can be right. They just tend to be less imaginative. Remember the Henry Ford quote? “If I would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This is where we benefit from the idealistic innovators. The world would be a wild and wildly different place if such people were the majority, but a good measure of idealistic innovators is what pushes us into new possibilities and opportunities that others thought impossible. They are still building upon knowledge and practice from before, but they have a way of:

  • pulling knowledge from more diverse sources,
  • seeing parts of the world as flexible and optional that others consider constant and mandatory,
  • bracketing their doubts enough to persist in experimentation, living in that space of the minority contested viewpoint,
  • asking and seeking answers to questions that others don’t,
  • or sometimes being driven enough to take on a big problem despite their low chances of success.

If I had a glass in my hand, I think this is where I’d have to make a toast. Here’s to unicorns and unicorn-makers in education.

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Fear and Educational Innovation

There is an important connection between fear and educational innovation. Fear can be healthy. It can serve as a useful tool for challenging us to pause and count the costs. It can also be a haunting force, preventing us from venturing into new possibilities with great promise in education. Whether it is fear of personal loss,  financial loss, losing control, personal failure, failure or disappointing others, losing face or harming one’s reputation (individually or organizationally), losing power, or simple fear of the unknown; we can’t ignore the role of feature in our actions, policies, pursuits and resistance to innovation in education.

Someone recently posed a simple question to me. What would you do with your life if you were not afraid? Fill in the blank. “If I were not afraid, I would _____________. We can certainly use this exercise to explore personal decisions in our lives, but how might this impact the way that we approach education?  How much of what we do in education is simply a result of being frozen by our fears, unwilling to take even small and calculated risks in pursuit of noble causes in our classrooms, schools, or the greater educational ecosystem?

Schools can be havens for fear. We can be tempted to use it as the main tool for classroom management. Students work out of fears of getting a failing grade. Students hold back on being themselves out of fear of judgment from peers or even bullying. Then there is just the general fear of failure along with fears of being unwelcome, rejected, our labeled an outsider.

As I’ve written before, teaching students to face fears, to persist through failure, is an important part of life and learning. While we might explicitly teach such lessons to students, if our organization is designed to avoid fear or to be inhibited by it, what are we really teaching students about fear and failure? Our culture teaches as much or more than our planned lessons.

As such, following is a series of quotes with a few thoughts for how we might want to approach fear in our approach to educational innovation.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford

Innovation always involves some measure of risk. I’m not suggesting that we blindly jump off educational innovation cliffs in hopes for the best. However, if we take the time to research the educational equivalent of building a hand glider, do the hard work of preparing, and then find ourselves standing on that cliff of educational innovation, it is time to take a leap.

I met a teacher recently who built an airplane with his students…an actual airplane! How many of us would have thought that impossible, never trying, never considering the possibility? Yet, can you imagine the sense of agency and possibility that was planted in these young people as a result of that effort?

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks

I continue to write about the importance of having a compelling “why.” It is not just about having a why, a reason. It is about having one that is compelling. When we find something that is deeply important to us, it has immense power to move us. That is why many great innovations in education come from parents and others who are invested in the problem enough to act. We don’t get educational innovation from leaders and educators who are content and checked out. We get them from people who see a problem and make up their mind to do something about it, even if it is frightening.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

In the end, just sitting there and doing nothing is an even more frightening prospect in this current educational landscape. Some may be deluding themselves into thinking that all of what we are experiencing is some massive fad that will soon pass. Good luck with that one. The fact is that we are in a time of unprecedented change. Whether you want to preserve past practices or pursue new ones, that is going to require facing your features and action.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

We can get down about disheartening statistics of inequality and student performance. We can be overwhelmed by the grand educational problems of our day. Yet, there are people who are doing something about these things. Find out about them. Get inspired by them. Join the action. If nothing else, at least be a champion for what they are doing until it eventually moves you to do something about it.

“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark, professionals built the Titanic.” – Unknown

I respect professionals and experts and what they bring to the conversations about education reform. Yet, we can always delay acting because we don’t think that we are expert enough, that we lack some sort of knowledge, skill or ability. If so, get started today by growing and learning. Knowledge and skill is not something with which you are born. You develop it. Besides, some of the great innovations in education of our day are coming from people who were/far from educational experts when they got started.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

We all know this, but we all seem to benefit from reminders, don’t we. Over time, it is easy to let fear mulffle our missions, delay our action, feed our inhibitions, and prompt us to come up with a satisfying justification to refrain from moving forward. It takes courage to pursue educational innovations that matter.

“I failed my way to success.” – Thomas Edison

Of course, we have the face the reality that we might fail. We will most certainly fail along the way to success. If we are not ready for this reality, then we can use a failure as an excuse to give up. Or, sometimes it is a complete failure and it is time to move on with something new, but that takes some careful reflection so that we know we are not just letting fear dictate our actions.

Failure is not an indictment on your worth and character. Even if the entire enterprise flops, you have lessons learned and you can achieve success in the future. I live in the Midwestern United States were we can be quick to judge and label “failures”, even if we do it subtly. I once spoke with a leader of a large school who was very skeptical about hiring a highly successful educational innovator who failed at his last effort. He was convinced that this was evidence of some permanent and condemning character flaw. I don’t buy it. Scan some of the greatest minds, leaders, innovators and inspirations throughout history and they failed at things. Some failed far more than they succeeded.

There is a book called Failure is the Backdoor to Success. I agree with much in the book, but my one challenge is that failure is not the backdoor to success. It is the front door, side door, and window to success as well. At some point and in some way we are going to experience failure. That can be frightening. The important part is to not wast waste the failure. Learn from it. Use it.

Fear is a helpful tool in driving us to reflection, preparation, and even caution. Yet, it has exceeded its value when it holds us back from the pursuit of needed innovations and opportunities in education. As I see it, we are wise to be thankful for the gift of fear but also to keep it in check. Let fear be the backup singer in your band, and let mission take center stage.

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