The Innovator’s Mindset Book Study – Week 2 (Chapter 2: The Innovator’s Mindset)

This week I’m focusing on a single chapter because there was SO MUCH that resonated with me and I didn’t want to have a post that was 1,000 words long! You’re welcome.

In this chapter, George defines what The Innovator’s Mindset is and provides some examples of this at work in schools. Borrowing from Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset, the Innovator’s Mindset “can be defined as the belief the that the abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas” (p. 33). It’s not enough to just believe that through practice and hard work one can get better, but that we use those increased skills to make something that is better than what existed before.

While I feel like this concept has been somewhat embraced in schools, I think its implementation has suffered. For too long, schools have been searching for “the next big thing” in education, the tool or resource that will be the magic bullet, raise test scores, increase student engagement, reduce behavior issues, etc. While there are certain tools that will resonate with students – for awhile at least – the “big thing” that will really change education is already in our schools. Teachers, support staff, and administration that believe our students have the abilities to succeed, to create, and to share with the world. These teachers and schools have cultivated an environment where creativity is encouraged, where students know they are loved and respected for who they are, where connections with the world are made as part of normal curriculum.

I’m not naive enough to think that this is an easy task. As a former classroom teacher, I remember how challenging it was to differentiate based on each student’s strengths and needs, how difficult it could be to maintain positivity in the face of political backlash and budget cuts, how the temptation to “get through” the curriculum instead of deepen discussions and learning opportunities was ever present. One of the most critical things I learned early on in my student teaching was that if I didn’t have a relationship with a student, it would be very challenging to get him or her to do anything. For some, this is a difficult understanding to reach. For me, it was second nature because that’s how I operate. While I will follow rules because that’s also who I am, I won’t be happy about it and I certainly won’t go the extra mile for someone whom I think doesn’t care about me or like me. Building – and maintaining – those relationships with students is key to cultivating the Innovator’s Mindset in our classroom.

The Innovator’s Mindset starts with empathy for our students. Equally important is the desire to create something better. If we are going to help our students thrive, we have to move past ‘the way we have always done it’ and create better learning experiences for our students than we had ourselves” (pp. 41-42).

Having seen George speak at a few conferences, a question he often asks is: “Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?” Such a simple inquiry, yet also incredibly powerful. If we are honest with ourselves and examine the types of learning experiences we are providing for our students, answering this question can be a bit of an eye-opener. I’ll end with a quotation that resonated with me:

Innovating in our schools requires a different type of thinking, one that doesn’t focus on ideas that are ‘outside the box’ but those that allow us to be innovative despite budgetary constraints. In other words, we need to learn to innovate inside the box” (p. 36).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are some examples of innovation that you have seen within constraints, both inside and outside of schools?
  2. What questions do you think are vital to understanding those whom we serve in education?
  3. If you were to start a school from scratch, what would it look like? (See my answer to this question).
  4. How do we take what we currently have to create a better education system for our entire community?


Reading through the #InnovatorsMindset hashtag on Twitter, I came across this post – If I Could Build a School. Created as part of the Ontario School and System Leaders Edtech MOOC, the post really got me thinking. It’s pretty easy to complain about the things that are wrong with schools, bemoan the many challenges facing teachers and schools, be frustrated with all the things that are seemingly out of our control, etc. However, when thinking about how to change schools, it can be a much more challenging conversation.

If you could design a school from scratch, what would it look like?

My school would be open and welcoming from the very moment you enter – bright colors, soft flooring, lots of seating options and areas for collaboration. There would be student work throughout the school, highlighting the unique learning and various student cultures present in our building.

Our building would not have specific areas for learning specific things – i.e., “technology lab”, “classroom”, etc. Rather, students and teachers would have many areas to take their students to immerse them in learning. When you walked into my school, you would see students working in collaborative spaces throughout the building. iPads and other technologies would be integrated seamlessly into instruction. Students would be documenting and sharing their learning on their personal blogs. There would be many opportunities for formalized sharing – Google Hangouts, Skype with other classrooms, presentations, small group discussion. Makerspaces and “studio” space would be available for students to create and share their learning in myriad ways.

Our focus would be on building relationships and fostering a culture of support and collaboration. Students would feel safe, welcomed, loved, and supported. They would be inspired to learn, to ask questions, to create, and to build. Our school would not have bells and our schedule would not be a strict structure. Inspiration doesn’t happen in neat, hour-long chunks, so why would we force our students to learn and create that way?

Your Turn: If you could design a school from scratch, what would it look like? 

Social Media and Students

If you’re reading this blog, chances are pretty good you find value in connecting with and learning from others on the Internet. One of the easiest ways to do that is through social media channels. As an avid Tweeter, I cannot express how much Twitter has changed the way I learn and grow professionally. Through a variety of educational chats like #miched, I have connected with teachers and administrators throughout the country. Nothing is more powerful than posting a question and getting many responses within a few minutes. It’s so great to quickly see what kinds of learning and professional growth is happening in other places as well.

While many teachers utilize social media in their personal lives, many are reluctant or hesitant to include it in their instruction. Even though it’s one of the main ways our students connect with one another, teachers and schools often ban social media, blocking the sites at the server level, and monitoring students’ cell phone usage. Just like any distraction, students need guidelines and scaffolding to recognize how and when to use any tool. Kiddos can be distracted with a pencil – tapping out a rhythm, drawing or doodling when they’re supposed to be taking notes, writing to a friend instead of working on their math practice. As teachers, our job is to help students learn how to use technology as a tool and a support rather than just a passive distraction.

There are many great pockets of examples of how Twitter and Instagram are being used in classrooms across the country. Just recently, George Couros wrote a blog post about how Twitter allowed him to make a connection between a student, a teacher, and himself. It’s hard to imagine how this connection would have been possible without technology. Kindergarten students are engaged in learning on Twitter with help from their classroom teacher – and getting incredibly excited to connect with another classroom. This makes their learning so much more meaningful and personal.

Recently, I read an article from EdSurge – “Three Reasons Students Should Own Your Classroom’s Twitter and Instagram Accounts.” The author discussed three big ways that posting on these social media channels has changed her students and their learning. We know students must be good digital citizens, since they will have almost their entire lives captured and documented online. We must make learning meaningful and relatable, not just “Don’t post personal information because it’s bad!” Students need to learn about digital citizenship in an embedded, purposeful way. What better way to model, demonstrate, practice, and learn how to be good digital citizens than through a classroom Twitter or Instagram account?

In Michigan, there currently isn’t a law regarding the use of social media in schools. But, Representative Adam Zemke has proposed HB 4791 which would require districts to “adopt and implement a policy regulating social media interactions between students and school personnel.” While I believe this is forward-thinking in being realistic that social media channels are an integral part of how students today connect and communicate, the fear is that this type of policy may cause an undue financial burdens on schools. For example, if each district is allowed to set its own policy, each district will need to meet with legal experts to determine appropriate language, implications, etc. and this could cost a lot of money in legal fees. For cash-strapped districts, many might look at this and decide to ban social media interactions altogether. Schools across the state – not just those in struggling urban and rural areas – are being asked to do more with less. Penny pinching and belt-tightening has become a way of life throughout the state. I can envision an administrator who doesn’t understand the power of social media in empowering and engaging our students looking at the potential costs involved and deciding it’s not worth it.

Your Turn: What do you think? Should schools have a social media policy? What would yours include?

Wrong For Schools, Wrong for Michigan

Late this week, in the last voting session of 2015, the Senate sent Senate Bill 571 to Governor Snyder for his signature. Buried within the 53 page finance bill is a measure that will make it much more difficult for local schools and school districts to inform voters on proposed millages to support school systems.

According to MASSP, “The House adopted a floor substitute to a campaign finance bill that included this measure and took the legislation from 12 pages long to 53 pages at the end of a nearly 12-hour session.” The provision would bar local districts, schools, and ISDs from distributing factual and unbiased information for 60 days prior to an election. This includes mass mailings, TV, or pre-recorded phone messages.

Given the deep cuts to the School Aid Fund and the overall reduction in per pupil funding the last several years, millages are often the only way schools can bridge the gap between what they can financially provide their students and what their students actually need. Millages are one of the most democratic proposals citizens can vote on. Investing in the future of their city’s schools and students ensures that all will receive a quality education in a school that is safe and secure. Students will have access to technology that will support and enhance their instruction, and will be of the same caliber they will encounter in college and their careers. Millages often provide infrastructure support – improvements in lighting, classroom heating, wireless access, updated bathrooms, etc. These are things that have fallen by the wayside as schools have continued to see their budgets shrink due to a variety of factors – one of which is decreased funding from the state legislature.

A democracy thrives when its citizens are able to participate in the electoral process. An informed electorate was one of the key principles of the nation our Founding Fathers valued. They understood the importance of information when it came to choosing laws and policies that would guide our country. For the Republicans in our state to attempt to pass a law that is in no way good for students, for schools, or for the public as a whole, is reprehensible and despicable. Unfortunately, it is par for the course in the last few years. Taking away the ability for districts to be able to distribute factual and unbiased information around a millage means fewer people will be informed, and thus, fewer people will participate in the democratic process by simply choosing not to vote, or voting no because they don’t understand what it is they are voting for.

What’s even more appalling, is earlier this week, Republicans passed Senate Bill 13 that eliminates the ability to vote “straight ticket”. Proposed under the guise of allowing the electorate to be more informed, the Republicans fast-tracked this legislation through the House and Senate, designed to make voting less efficient and less easy. The electorate already voted on this, and over 60% of the population voted to keep straight ticket voting. This time, when the Republicans passed the bill, they attached it to an appropriations bill. Under Michigan’s Constitution, a bill that is attached to an appropriation is ineligible for referendum. So much for democracy in Michigan.

It is my belief that Senate Bill 571 is just another attempt to make it more difficult for public schools to operate in Michigan. Years of reduced funding and cuts to the School Aid Fund. An elimination of caps on charter schools. And now this. Where, pray tell, are schools supposed to get the monies they need to provide a high quality education for the students of Michigan. I am ashamed of the Republicans in our legislature.

I urge voters to contact Governor Snyder and ask him to veto this bill. It serves no clear purpose other than to make it more difficult for schools to offer a high quality education to its students. This bill is not good for schools, it’s certainly not good for students. The people of Michigan deserve better. Our kids deserve better.

Schools Are Not Businesses; Students Are Not Commodities

No one can argue that education has changed. Something that is pretty noticeable to me is this shift in focus on creating the best schools we can to spending money on marketing events to recruit students. This idea was sparked from a blog post written by a colleague – Todd Bloch. He spoke about how School of Choice has actually hurt many schools, particularly those in urban centers as the suburbs have more appeal for many families. Those who can afford to transport their students to a (sometimes) better school outside their district do so. What happens of course, is that local districts lose students, which means they lose money. This has, of course, set up an impossible situation for schools, who are already tightening their belts and cutting all the “fat” they can – and have been doing so for years.

More and more it seems to me that schools are operating like businesses. There are pockets of really innovative schools where students are emerged in technology-rich, critically focused, problem and project based learning experiences. Here, these schools are able to share what their students are doing every day via social media and other mediums. They don’t have to spend top dollar creating catchy slogans and commercials. Parents hear from their students how great their school is. They share this with other parents. Students are excited about school and tell their friends.

Unfortunately, the majority of schools are not utilizing this new way of teaching. In classroom after classroom, you still see students being taught to be compliant: walk in rows, don’t speak until called upon, make sure your packet is stapled and in the correct order, etc. We are still pushing students through each grade, often treating them as empty containers that need us (the experts!) to fill them up. It’s so similar to the same way we educated students 100 years ago. Why, when we don’t treat injuries, solve crime, communicate, etc. the same way we did 100 years ago, are we still teaching students that way?

Between the focus on standards, high-stakes testing, performance pay, evaluation confusion, and the myriad other challenges schools and teachers face, it can be difficult to redefine learning in a way that is meaningful for students. Why take a risk when doing so could potentially generate failure? Before, failure was okay and you learned from it. In today’s evaluation-driven schools, failing on a project could be the difference between effective and minimally effective. When it comes down to making hiring and firing decisions, those evaluations matter. A lot.

So what’s the answer? It’s a pretty big problem.

First, we need to reform the current School of Choice policy. You can read the official policy here, but there have been many negative impacts on schools, especially in terms of funding and creating budgets. Beyond that, students miss out on a comprehensive education as they are often going back and forth year after year. The impact on students of Michigan was the topic of a recent MSU study.

Secondly, if we can change the idea of School Choice, that will take some pressure off of schools to spend money on marketing campaigns, fairs, and giveaways that many times just get pitched, and really take a look at where money might make a difference for student achievement. Can we hire more coaches to help with literacy and math? Provide smaller class sizes for teachers to be able to work with smaller groups in a more effective way? Maybe we would have more latitude to be creative with scheduling to provide opportunities for enrichment, re-teaching, challenges for students above grade level, and non-traditional learning opportunities.

Teacher evaluation is also an area that needs to be cleared up. Right now there is no standard for evaluations. School districts were able to choose from a variety of models and the implementation of those models is still convoluted and not clear at all. Implementation of the same model can look vastly different across school districts. The state has not explained what student growth measure should be used for deciding the level of effectiveness of a teacher. This school year, 50% of a teacher evaluation is based on student growth. But it’s not clear what assessment will be used to measure that achievement – M-STEP? District assessment? Grade-level content assessment? It is unacceptable that teachers are held to a standard that is constantly changing. A complete lack of leadership and too much playing politics has led to an unsustainable situation where no one is clear on what the expectations are.

Lastly, I think it would be valuable for university schools of education to work to partner with area school districts to provide the same kind of on-the-job-training similar to doctors and residents in a medical program. I believe this will help new graduates be more prepared for the day-to-day “stuff” of teaching and will also be useful for universities and schools to share resources and access.

While these are not easy solutions and will involve a shift in how we view education at a lot of different levels, I believe it is crucial for education to shift if we are to truly change the focus, improve student engagement and achievement, and actually modify the types of learning students are involved in.

Changing the Education Narrative

Recently I read an article from The Huffington Post titled – “5 Ways Educators Can Take Back Their Professional Narrative” – that really got me thinking about the public perception of teachers and education. Several things stood out to me about this article, and the one thing I really liked was the author, Dr. Chester Goad, provided solutions and ideas rather than just complaining. He suggests:

  1. Don’t hate. Educate
  2. Engage in academic research and discourse.
  3. Change classrooms
  4. Protect the reputation of the profession
  5. Love it or leave it

While I don’t agree with all of Dr. Goad’s suggestions and opinions, it’s a good starting point to begin the conversation about how educators have to take some ownership over the state of education and how we can work together to raise it up to the level it deserves.

As an educator, it’s very easy to get frustrated when you hear comments like, “Yeah, but you only work 9 months out of the year!” Anyone who has ever taught knows that we work all year round updating curriculum and assessments, attending workshops and training, shopping for new classroom supplies, setting up our classroom, etc. But what we know and what the public knows are often worlds apart. It’s the reality that folks think they know about education because they have all gone through the process of schooling. And while it’s true that everyone has an experience with school, they are not all experts. After all, I have had an experience with the dentist, but I don’t claim to tell the dentist how to do his job.

Regardless, utilizing the voices we have to change the narrative and eventually the perception is a huge part of helping educators feel more empowered. It’s important that we’re not just “complaining” because it’s too easy for people to dismiss us when we do that. This year I am focusing on listening more and finding the positive. Beyond that, I also want to be results-oriented. Who better to have the best ideas on how to improve education than those who are doing the work? I want to share my thoughts and listen to other teachers’ ideas. Bringing these ideas  – and sharing what we’re already doing that works – to policy makers and stakeholders is the only way we can change the narrative.