Leading with an Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC

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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.

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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.

Why Educators Must Innovate #IMMOOC

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Take a look at this image.

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Do you know what you’re looking at?

That’s what they were stealing in the first Fast and the Furious movie in 2001.

That’s crazy to me. They could have filled that thing with anything they wanted, any technology imaginable, and they filled it with a bunch of VCRs, TV/VCRs, and camcorders. I remember watching the movie and being totally enthralled. It was entirely believable and absolutely appropriate for them to be chasing down a Semi-Truck full of this stuff, but when you look at it now, it’s laughable.

I mean, really… a 13″ TV/VCR is front and center.

If that’s not enough, check out the storage for the plans they used:

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Obviously a lot can change in 15 years.

We all know this, but these images put that reality into perspective for me. It makes me wonder about things. It make me ask myself, “If that’s what was on the movie of the summer, what was in our classrooms? How much has changed with technology? What about in our classrooms?”

Why innovate?

Here’s my worry: Schools that don’t innovate are going to look like this, and it likely won’t take 15 years to happen. In all likelihood, it’s probably happening more places than we’d like to admit right now.

If we don’t change, we’re going to end up looking like that picture appears to us now–irrelevant, a relic of the past. For some (maybe even many) what we were doing now will be nearly unrecognizable in the not so distant future. In hindsight, some of what we understood as best practice not too long ago seems that way.

We can’t control the fact that our schools will continue to grow, but if we don’t start getting some movement now and gaining momentum today, we’re going to end up so big and so settled in that our own inertia will keep us from moving forward. With each day that passes without innovation, we only make it harder to make change happen in the future.

So what can we do?

I love the simple definition that George Couros shares often of innovation.

It’s not about the tools. Not about the technology. Not about an app or about a device or even necessarily about anything that might be considered forward thinking otherwise.

His definition? It’s innovative if it’s new and better.

I like that. It opens things up for me in a way that’s really helpful and encourages me to consider some ideas I’m trying as a little more innovative than I would have at first glance.

It makes all sorts of things (not just what’s technologically cutting edge) an innovative effort, and the desire to innovate under this definition prompts me to be always looking forward.

I need that push to make sure I’m not getting comfortable. I think we all do.

Because so much is changing so often, educators have a choice to make: change or be changed. I, for one, prefer to take an active role (as much as is possible) in that process.

What are you doing this year to be innovative?


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.

Grades, Learning, and Change

Grades,Learning,& Change

A few weeks ago, a teacher shared with me a question his had given to his students. He asked them,

“If you had the choice for your next grade, would you choose an 88 that you really worked hard for and learned something to earn or 95 where you won’t remember anything after the grade and didn’t learn throughout the process?”

I love the question. Both the question itself and the thoughts I have about the implications of either choice are fascinating to me.

Not surprisingly, many students opted for the 95. They are sophomores in high school, and with a few weeks to go until spring break, I can understand the allure of some free points.

Still, there was much to talk about.

So the teacher and I talked though his reactions and our mutual reactions to the students’ reactions while we watched a soccer game after school. I mentioned several articles and books on standards based grading, dropping grades, and assessing for learning v assessing the learning, and we continued on talking for a while about our hopes for students and our desire for great learning to come from the feedback students receive from teachers. He mentioned that he wanted to follow up with these students, and I committed to touching base with him over the coming weeks.

So a few days ago, I stick my head in to ask if they’ve had their conversation yet. I thought I would get a yes/no answer and maybe a quick recap as class started if they had talked. Instead, he invited me into his classroom.

We talked the entire class period!

I used two recent posts to get the conversation going. The first was an idea that I’d heard before but was succinctly summarized recently by George Couros in this post titled “What Success (and Learning) Really Looks Like.” I recreated the drawings he includes in the post, and we talked for a bit

Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros' blog)
Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros’ blog)

This idea resonated with everyone, even the few skeptics who were still a bit unsure about an assistant principal dropping in to talk about turning the grading world on its head.

With that in mind, I decided to share this image “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words” by Starr Sackstein that compares the language of grading with the language of assessment.

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From Starr Sackstein’s blog, “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words”

This is where I really saw students begin to see the value in considering this. Many who if they were honest probably responded out of convenience for themselves initially with their teacher and even with me when presented with the “struggle to learn for the 88 or get the easy 95 and learn nothing” choice seemed to really understand the power of this.

To be honest, they really impressed me.

I expected that they would come around eventually (probably out of overconfidence in myself and the teacher, right?), but I didn’t expect it to come so quickly. Students mentioned their desire to take tough classes but the fear that accompanies that. They mentioned the pressure to succeed (from themselves, their peers, their parents, their coaches). Two students asked pointed questions about how a no grades classroom would work with eligibility for sports and extracurriculars.

Each of those questions have answers–though I am convinced by some more than others. But then they asked the question that has stuck with me the most: “Why don’t teachers do this?”

I was struck by their honesty and their enthusiasm for something that seemed so different from their normal and something that would daily ask more of them as learners. But more than that, I quickly realized that the reasons students might be reluctant to change are similar to the reasons the adults might also be reluctant.

Grades have their issues, but the process is predictable and consistent. Though the game doesn’t always measure what we’d like, it’s one students know the rules for. For teachers (and for me), I don’t always love the idea of something entirely new when I know I’m going to be evaluated on it. Teachers likely feel the same way. Grades are established and safe. Shifting is risky.

Three Takeaways From My Conversation

  1. Students will rarely rise above our level of expectation. If we expect them to be compliant, they will, but they aren’t going to try to push that ceiling on their own. At all levels, leaders need to be modeling what a reflective learner looks like. Doing so opens up valuable lines of communication between learners of all ages and breaks down barriers between positions and titles on campus.
  2. Change and learning require vulnerable conversations. I’m thankful for this, but it can be a barrier to our progress. In front of those students, I had to admit that the same reason that my reason for not pushing on this topic in a wider fashion is likely quite similar to the reason teachers aren’t always keen on pushing a tough to implement idea–it’s risky. I like to look like I have it together; taking risks doesn’t always do that. Still, it’s time we had those vulnerable conversations to push this forward.
  3. Success in reimagining assessment isn’t going to happen in a linear fashion. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was nice and neat to present? That’s not reality. Instead, our lived experience is going to follow the messy path that Demetri Martin depicts (and I think even his drawing is optimistic in that the change continues in a generally positive direction throughout it’s journey). As much as that’s not something I love to engage with, it’s a great (and necessary) reminder that our path through change is not one that is without risk at any level. Instead, it is one filled with excitement (and a bit of treachery along the path) and one that is worth effort!

I’ll leave you with a few questions. Leave me a comment to help push this conversation forward in a way we can share!

  • How satisfied are you with your/your school’s grading practices?
  • What would ideal grading practices look like to you?
  • What is one thing you could change to move toward that ideal?
  • What makes talking about the shift from grading to assessment worth it?
  • Any tips for the those interested in the transition?

Grades,Learning,& Change

10 Big Ideas From #TCEA16

10 Big Ideas From #TCEA16

I recently had the chance to engage with so many influential educators at TCEA in Austin, and I have a lot floating around in my head that’s waiting to find a landing place. That conference is definitely one where part of the challenge is managing all the new ideas and considering what challenges you’ll accept before planning them all out over a period of time.

Since I find myself in the thick of wading through a sea of good ideas, I thought I would blog about it. I’ve picked ten ideas that stood out to me. These ten ideas stand out as concepts I’ll continue to come back to in order to push my thinking, especially with regard to technology in the classroom.

Admittedly, a lot could be done to unpack each of these ideas, but rather than sharing a series of mini posts, I simply wanted to share the big ideas that have stuck with me from my learning last week. So, here’s what’s on my mind lately.


“Our kids will not know the difference between a social media site and a website. It will all be the same.” – Kasey Bell

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“You may be sitting next to the smartest person you don’t know.” – Steven Anderson

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“We use social media for conversations because that’s how we learn.” – Steven Anderson

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“Twitter chats precede faculty meeting conversation by 12-18 months.” – Tom Whitby

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“Your comfort zone should never impede the learning of your students.” – Tom Whitby

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“Our technology decisions should be based on education and learning, not on business sense.” – George Couros

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“Quit telling people to think out of the box. It’s how you innovate inside the box that counts.” – George Couros

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“In education, how often does ‘data driven’ mean we become ‘weakness focused?'” – George Couros

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“Isolation is now a choice educators make.” – George Couros

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“The higher up we go in the traditional hierarchy, the more people we serve; not the other way around.” – George Couros

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So, there it is. There’s plenty to ponder, but I’m enjoying thinking through these ideas and considering how we can change to push student learning to a greater extent.

Help push my thinking. What do you agree with here? Disagree with? How are you making change happen based on these ideas?

Let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you!