I recently heard a talk from Michael Tushman with the Harvard Business School. Tushman’s recent work (with Charles O’Reilly) touches on a vexing problem in all organizations, both in the public and private sector.

To summarize, that problem is in how firms remain strong and competitive in their core markets, while also working to be innovative and compete in new ways.

Teetering too far in either direction can result in organizational disaster. A firm overly committed to existing markets and structures stagnates and becomes overwhelmed as the world moves past them, and (to quote Tushman) “the past kills the future.” A firm that neglects its core and instead puts its energy into trying to discover the next big thing may lead to the dead-ends of innovations that didn’t pan out.

Tushman and O’Reilly say (to over-simplify) that firms need both and they refer to this ability as “ambidexterity.”

The need for ambidexterity certainly applies to education as well. We must work to improve and grow capacity in our existing schools, while also working on how to make real and genuine breakthroughs in learning. We must attend to both “best” practices and “next”practices.

Another dimension on this issue that I’ve wondered about is at what level in the organization does innovation take place. I’d venture that too often, school innovation is looked at from a macro-level. We make big system changes in standards, testing, governance-models, school configurations – but too often these macro-level changes don’t really change the experience of the student. It’s change without change.

In my professional view, meaningful innovation in an educational context happens at the micro-level … how the individual student experiences learning. Our challenge as an educational system lies in how to innovate at this level – the only place it really matters.

7 thoughts on “Micro-Innovation

  1. At the macro level, often students are told what to learn, when to learn it, how it should be learned, which ultimately has led to an engagement crisis within schools nationally (especially as students progress through the K-12 system). Rarely are students provided the opportunity to follow their passions, explore their interests, and engage in personal and authentic learning opportunities. As I read your blog post, the necessity to transform the learning experience connected with me.

    At the macro level, we must break from the traditional lock/step progression of teaching and learning. We need to redesign the learning experience to one that is personal and authentic. To compete globally in the years ahead, we must provide students the opportunity to exercise more agency and ownership of their learning. There is an intentional design that needs to take place. Teachers, school leaders, parents, students, district staff, and district leadership all have important roles to play to make it happen.

    After hearing a sample of the forthcoming vision Tuesday night at the DAC meeting at Arvada HS, I walked away thinking this. If sustainable change is the goal —– we need to clearly define the what, the why, and the how — followed by a clear metric of success. Listening to parents and school leaders, there was a buzz around the auditorium and break out groups about the idea and a general understanding of why Jeffco needs to move in this direction. Where I felt further clarity was needed in listening to responses is what transforming the learning experience looks like (what) and how redesigning the learning experience will be accomplished.

    Here is what I know. Making student learning personal and authentic is no longer an option, it’s a necessity. We need to intentionally design schools to develop and implement various adaptive and dynamic interventions to meet individual needs and see student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) as a valuable component of the instructional process.

    When our kids walk out of our school buildings every day, they are consuming and creating content. YouTube, Netflix, Snapchat, Roblox, Minecraft…..I could go on and on. Our students chose what they learn, from whom they learn it, and how they will learn constantly outside of school. If we want to reengage students and ignite the fire for their passion for learning, we have to give all students opportunities to chose what they are learning, how they will learn, and how they show their mastery of learning.

    This will lead to increased relevance and value for students — which will lead to better outcomes and results for all learners. We must transform the student experience to one that is meaningful, student centered, and builds on every learners unique strengths.

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  2. That said, transforming learning is not a simple task. This transformation that Jeffco is set to embark on is not going to happen overnight. It is imperative that school leaders who are leading for this necessary transformation of learning to be personal and authentic — that they ground themselves in research-based evidence, utilize a high-level framework to support dynamic student learning opportunities, and leverage student agency to develop students with the necessary skill set to thrive in THEIR FUTURE, not our past.

    As we head into the 2017-18 school year, we need to not focus solely on preparing students for something, we need to prepare them for anything.

    The solution lies within all of us. Parents, teachers, school leaders, district staff, district leaders, and most importantly students. Wheels up, it’s time to journey to new horizons.

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  3. This is so very insightful- you can liken it to the old saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” The best educational practices bring along the best practices from our own intellectual and professional histories and build upon them in creative new ways. We learn from the past and build as professionals through that learning. We shouldn’t want to throw it all away. But we do need bridges. And I think we need them now.
    Guided Inquiry Design is a research based best practice that works as a bridge from the old to the new. Through the professional development teachers learn to use their old but useful practices and yet transform learning in schools for this new information age.
    Districts using this model have effectively transformed teachers into facilitators and designers of authentic personalized learning experiences. For example- Technology in these places is seen as a tool that transforms learning rather than that shiny add on.
    You are so right that we have to get beyond “I’m doing tech” “Im doing inquiry” and into transforming schools at the micro level, with the bottom line being each individual student.
    What systems, at the macro level, can you/will you open up, so that people are liberated to try a research based model like, http://guidedinquirydesign.com ?
    Leslie Maniotes, PhD

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  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head! Innovation begins with humans, not technology. The most amazing innovations can be “seen” through play and creativity in children. These are important skills to nurture and sustain into adulthood. Much of this post reminds me of a book I read in my previous school district in Wisconsin- one that is going through much of the same need for change while keeping a momentum (what works) and innovation moving forward. As a member of Cabinet, we held bi-monthly literature reviews or book studies. One of the books, “Change by Design” by Tim Brown speaks to how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. What he found through studying the most successful and innovative organizations in the world, was that they all had “design thinking” in common. The findings were that if we worked more in line with the “users”, they become collaborators. Instead of big decisions from the top with expected micro change, Brown suggests that design thinking is “us with them”, “empathy” and “taking a customer journey” or truly understanding and conceiving the experience of the customer (student). The only way to “get it” is to engage and think divergently and holistically. Our task in Cabinet was to brainstorm how we can use the idea of design thinking to help transform a large educational system. I recommend this read. Although heavy into business and large corporations, imagine how these ideas can help us innovate through “prototypes”, ideas, and needs of our “users” (students /learners). Here is a fragment of one Ted Talk with Tim Brown on design thinking

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    1. Hi Katie,
      Just seeking out alternative programs that are not in our field of vision is innovative! I may be one step ahead in this discussion about design thinking, but if the “customers” in our system are the students, those who I like to call the learners, then we would be smart to look at a research based design for learners.

      We don’t have time or need to look to business or other models when we have research based programs right here in the field of education, albeit sometimes in the fields of information science that are not typically considered and often seen as tangential to the daily work of literacy and math instruction or even the content areas. However, when we recognize that we are living in an information age, and the work in schools needs to map onto that living and existence, then that research turns out to be highly relevant.

      So please, empathize with the students and keep the focus on educating them for today’s world. There are many more specifically helpful resources that can support our direct goals more quickly. Focus on programs based on what we know about learners using multiple resources of information to learn. That’s where the focus needs to go, not on lofty thinking about design from a business perspective. (I’ve seen other districts spin their wheels, time, energy, and money on that with no systemic gains to show for this energy.)

      Let’s not waste time folks, let’s get down to the work that will make a big difference for each and every student today. Let’s walk the walk. Just like Jason talks about in his post, focus on best practices and next practices. Stick to the program, please don’t go on cat walks in the name of “innovation.” That’s a passé trend that we cannot afford. These learners are in schools TODAY, we need to reach them ASAP.

      Here’s a link the the research mentioned above.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Leslie,
        Upon reading Change by Design, you’d learn that it was less about the end product (or solution, or outcome), and a lot about the process of embracing what our students need- that can be translated to educational systems. It also speaks to the warning of “this too shall pass” phases of change. What we teach our students today (and how we teach/reach them) must be relevant for what they need in the future. It is much different than what typical schooling has been.


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