Leading with an Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC


One of my goals this year is to help create a culture of innovation and risk taking on the campus I serve. My last post highlights why that’s so valuable to me, so I won’t retread that conversation here.

Innovation, creativity, and change are not ushered in through announcements. Most of what is worthwhile in education just isn’t brought about that way. But that’s left me wondering this: In my role as an assistant principal, what do I need to do to make our campus a place where innovation and risk taking are embraced?

My first answer is that I need to practice what I preach (meaning I better be taking some risks myself if I want them to).

I wrote recently about how we often position ourselves in the safest positions in education. What do I mean by that? We find all the symbolism and then lead the discussion. We work all the problems and then share them with the class. We find all the pitfalls and then carefully avoid them as we lead instruction.

While it’s good to provide solid examples, I think it promotes an “I have it all together” attitude and persona that is really detrimental to a growth and innovator’s mindset.

So I think it’s worth our time to look at ourselves as learners in light of these eight characteristics that George Couros claims are essential to an Innovator’s Mindset. Here’s a great graphic from Sylvia Duckworth that outlines the eight characteristics.


I’m a big believer in the idea that models accelerate learning. But although modeling well is crucial for our success and the success of others (especially as innovators), I think we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that being a model is enough to lead widespread innovative change on any significant scale.

For me, the problem is that I feel really comfortable reading a book like The Innovator’s Mindset, determining what I need to do to grow and innovate, and letting that be my method for bringing about change. In the long run, I think it will bring about some change, and it’s certainly better than letting the status quo roll forward for another year. But I think we can do better.

Realizing that modeling alone cannot be my answer, I kept coming back to this question, “What can leaders do to cultivate an Innovator’s Mindset in both themselves & among those they lead?”

Not surprisingly, that’s not a quick question to answer.

I tried to tackle it as a big question, but I just couldn’t. Innovation is so intricately layered and multi faceted in many ways that I couldn’t manage it as one big, huge question. So my answer to the question above is broken down into the 25 questions below. Each is tied to a particular element of Couros’ 8 Characteristics of an Innovator’s Mindset.

innovators mindsetWhat follows is really a reframing of chapter 3 in George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. Where his recommendations (at least upon my reading) are for teachers setting up innovative learning spaces for students, I’ve tried to draw out what will challenge me to be a better leader on my campus. It’s not a linear list; don’t try to do all this in one PD day. But as you plan for your year and ask your teachers to be innovative, remember to hold yourself to the same standard.

25 Questions for Creating an Innovative Campus Culture

  1. Empathetic
    • What did I want from my leaders when I was in the classroom?
    • In what ways am I the leader who frustrated me?
    • Do I lead PD that I would want to attend?  Do I offer any PD that I could sell tickets for? (With special thanks to Dave Burgess for inspiration…)
  2. Problem finders
    • Where have I asked for a linear solution to a messy, complicated problem?
    • How can I provide structures that validate messy, non-linear professional learning?
    • Where am I providing too many answers and robbing teachers of the opportunity to become problem finders?
    • How will I develop a clear understanding of teacher needs?
  3. Risk-Takers
    • What are the best opportunities for growth you are doing for teachers on your campus? Compare what were you doing two years ago with what’s new this year. Consider opportunities for innovation.
    • Where are the areas in greatest need on innovative change on campus? (And don’t just ask yourself. Ask your teachers this, too.)
    • What are you doing as you lead professional learning that was happening 10 years ago? There’s probably an opportunity to innovate on your list. What will you change first?
  4. Networked
    • How are you learning about the awesome things that are happening in classrooms and on campuses across your campus? Your district? Your country?
    • How are you using connections to other educators online to improve professional development on your campus?
    • If collaboration is important to you, how are you creating time for it to happen during scheduled professional development?
  5. Observant
    • Dream big–What would it look like for your school to become a model of innovation for your community, even to those outside the education world?
    • Where do you get your inspiration from inside the education world? What about outside sources?
    • How are you giving teachers the necessary autonomy for innovation to occur on your campus? Is this the model you want teachers to follow for students?
  6. Creators
    • If “learning is creation, not consumption,” how do your PD sessions allow for teachers to create as they learn?
    • What could teachers create during PD to show their learning?
    • What have you flipped in your professional development? How might this be beneficial to professional learning?
  7. Resilient
    • Change is uncomfortable for many. What pushback should innovative leaders anticipate?
    • What barriers can you take down for teachers who want to be innovative on your campus?
    • As you move through the change process, how will you invite and provide space for teacher feedback?
  8. Reflective
    • How will you inspire others to be more reflective about their professional learning?
    • Reflection will draw out failures, and failure is scary. How will you recognize the role of failure and welcome it into the larger conversation about innovation?
    • Leading well is tough. How will you be innovative about your support system as you lead others toward innovative change?

I’ll be writing more about my own journey with innovation over the next few weeks as part of this MOOC (massive open online course) centered around George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. I’ll also share throughout the year as I try to innovate and help others do the same. Check out the #IMMOOC hashtag to see some conversation about innovation in education.

10 Replies to “Leading with an Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC”

  1. I love this list. Very thought provoking. I am a retired principal but I so wish I had a learning community to explore these questions with. Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks! Even if you’re not serving a campus, there are plenty of learning communities online you can tackle the question with. All sorts of great educators learning out there these days!

  2. Excellent questions to accompany the Innovators Mindset traits. I especially like this one: “What could teachers create during PD to show their learning?” I would take that further– to go beyond modeling like you say– and ask teachers to create and share something relevant to their teaching and learning each week. An Instragram quote, a tweet, an “aha” blog post, a quick tip slide, a padlet response to a focus, a question, an answer. Nothing big — but something that brings their ideas out and gets them using and collaborating with tools of a 21st Century learner. Like you said — modeling isn’t always enough, and an expectation set is one that gets done.

    1. Thanks for sharing these ideas, Sheri. I’ve been thinking through the same questions, and I’m grateful for your thoughts. We’re working to determine how we can ask teachers to reflect in a way that’s purposeful and helpful for them–not something that’s a mailed in gotcha. Again, thanks for sharing your ideas. It’s helped me already!

  3. How can you be an innovative teacher in the 21st century, when your school board will not allow you to donate better computers than are presently in the school. You are forced to have very limited access for your students.

    1. Hi Maria!

      I think that’s a situation where you almost have to be an innovative teacher. Constraints can feel like they hold us back at times, but I really believe they’re better seen as an opportunity to come up with a creative solution to solve the problem at hand. Don’t give up–your kids deserve the best! Give them all that you have; it’s all that you can do.

      Best of luck as your serve your students!


  4. It seems to me that one good way for teachers to both be innovative and model knowledge creation to students is to develop action research projects. The Action Research Network of the Americas [ARNA] is a good source of information, but I’m not familiar with any PD programs that deal with this. Maybe we need an action research project on how to encourage teachers to do — and publish — more school-based action research.

  5. Guiding questions are always valuable .. they become the map towards something (hopefully, innovative change)

  6. […] thoughts and challenges with his own passionate, proactive pursuit of innovation and risk. His post on innovation and risk is a must read for educators striving to innovate and risk.  I appreciate his thought provoking […]

  7. Hi Aaron
    I used your post as part of my IMOOOC blog tour. Thanks for inspiring my thinking.

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