Want Innovation? Start with the Teachers in Your School Instead of Experts on the Outside

"The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage" Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Besides the fact that there is little really innovative and new about them, the real problem with the heavy-handed reform strategies and tactics imposed from above, like the imposition of the Common Core, Merit Pay, or value-added teacher evaluations, is that their development and implementation failed and continues to fail to be collaborative endeavors. As Isaacson points out, the birth of an innovation is usually a group effort between those who have the vision and the engineers. In each of these examples, the true "teaching and learning engineers" in the individual schools are left out of the innovation loop. Sure, token teachers are often asked to serve on the committees, but there are also "experts," researchers, and politicians too, who often take so much control of the process, that the real engineers are left out.

I want to propose a new idea that follows more closely what Isaacson describes. I want to move innovation from meeting rooms, conference rooms, and think tanks totally outside the school. I want to move innovation back to the level of the school where the visionaries and teaching-learning engineers are. Engage in innovation at the school level, instead of searching for magic snake oil that might or might not exist out there somewhere. Engage staff at the school level in "innovation collaboration" and hackerism.

But I suspect the "experts" won't go away quietly. After all, too often their job is simply to sell their wares, which means marketing and creating a "need" where one did not exist before. In education, there's still this underlying belief that "experts" from the outside can walk into a school or district, conduct some professional development, provide some consulting services, and then collect their hefty professional fees, and "Presto!" innovation happens. They then move on to the next school district, like some medicine man, peddling their wares once again. In the end, this type of "imposition-of-innovation-from-above" (or outside) often leaves schools with mediocre results and a little less professional development money in their pockets. Politicians, school leaders, and teachers are guilty of taking on this medicine man role too, which is very often more about their own ambitions, prestige, and financial wealth than truly helping a school engage in innovation and ultimately help children.

Why do schools continue to engage in this "medicine man" style of professional development and innovation seeking? Besides the fact that is much easier seek innovation from without than try to engage your school or district in becoming innovative, I would also stress that the marketing of these medicine men, educating consultants, professional development experts is often more effective than their products or wares, but that is another blog post entirely.

Instead, if we truly want to innovate, I suggest we approach it the hacker and geek way. Let's involve the engineers a great deal more and the medicine men a little less. Let's engage in innovation at the school level with the teaching and learning "engineers" there. They are the ones who know everything about the "context" of that school. Very seldom will any neatly packaged product or "innovation" being sold by "experts" and educational entrepreneurs will work as advertised anyway. That's why many schools have these piles of educational materials sitting in their book rooms and media centers gathering dust. These all were "bottles of the latest elixir" promised to cure all that ailed that particular school at the time it was purchased.

Experts and professional development consultants can offer "sources of ideas," but their outside status places them in a position of not being able to fully understand that school's issues no matter how much "data" we feed to them. If they do claim to sell "research-based" wares, we should demand that they provide specific, independent, and valid research studies that examined the effectiveness of their product, not some vague or generic studies. If they can't provide them, send them packing. In education, we don't have a federal or state organization approving the effectiveness of these products, methods, or programs, so we have to take that on ourselves. Let's listen a little less to their very often unsubstantiated promises and engage our own teachers in our own schools with the task of solving the problems. Let's create cultures of innovation and hackerism in our schools that can make true and lasting innovation happen.

cross posted at the21stcenturyprincipal.blogspot.com

J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.