Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Compass for Innovation

Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” 
George Couros

Among the many things I was thankful for this past Thanksgiving was the time to finish an amazing book by an educator I respect a great deal, George Couros. The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity is one of the best educational
 books I have read and I recommend it enthusiastically to all teachers and school leaders. In this well-written, inspirational, and practical book, George provides readers--as Dave Burgess suggests in the Introduction--a “compass” for creating a culture of innovation in their classrooms, schools, or districts. 

Image via Amazon

Although I have been focused on helping to create innovative classrooms and schools for years, this new book challenged my thinking and offered new insights into the direction we need to head in our own district. It all starts, as Couros suggests, by understanding that innovation is not about skill set; it is about mindset. The way we perceive changes and new ideas determines the extent to which such changes will be successful and such ideas will be implemented. I love the example George provides in the book when talking about Vine, the six-second video app. Some people asked, “What in the world can you do with six seconds?” Others (those with an “Innovator’s Mindset”) said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?” When new tools such as Vine present themselves to us as teachers, learners, and leaders, each of us has an equal opportunity to innovate. Some of us do and some of us do not; we are the variable.

This powerful book is filled with page after page of keen insights and sharing my thoughts about these go well beyond the constraints of a short blog post. However, here are seven brief points I find myself still reflecting on after perusing this book:

  1. Have We Forgotten Our “Why”? Couros reminds us to examine why schools exist and why we serve as educators. I find myself hard pressed to improve upon his offering of a collective “Why”: “When forward thinking schools encourage today’s learners to become creators and leaders, I believe they, in turn, will create a better world.” Helping to create a better world is a Why? I can get behind.
  2. Defining "Innovation." Again, it would be a waste of my time to attempt a better version of the definition George uses for the purposes of his book: “A way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of 'new and better' it is not innovative." Change for the sake of change is never good enough and, in fact, often counterproductive, if our goal is meaningful innovation.
  3. Innovation vs. Transformation. After reading this book, I realized many of us have been using these terms interchangeably and, therefore, incorrectly. In essence, Couros maintains that transformation requires dramatically altering the work we are doing in education. To truly transform our work is beyond the scope of an individual teacher or administrator. Innovation, on the other hand, is within easy reach for each of us, no dramatic shifts required. Each of us has the ability to innovate almost immediately, regardless of our role. For teachers, of course, it helps when school leaders have worked to create a culture that inspires and empowers them to take risks in order to provide the best learning experiences possible for the students they serve.
  4. Innovation “Inside the Box.” Couros notes that people are always challenging us to “think outside the box.” This sounds innocent enough and, indeed, I have employed this mantra myself as an exhortation to educators with whom I work. After reading this book, I will instead focus on innovating “inside the box,” as George suggests. This point is directly related to the previous one of transformation versus innovation. Great educators do not necessarily innovate outside the box; many are too impatient and realize that it is more effective and efficient to simply innovate inside the box--often by creating new and better methods to teach the required curriculum. In public schools, we are likely to have standards we are required to teach for many years to come. Although some may disagree, I maintain that we should have such standards. Instead of fighting against these or fighting to teach different versions, great educators create innovative learning opportunities for the students they serve within the constraints of the system.
  5. Innovation as “Doing” Rather than “Knowing.” One of the first steps on the path to encouraging innovation within our students is getting them to see themselves as creators because real learning begins when students create. Whether we are focusing on our kids or ourselves, we must always keep in mind that what we learn is not nearly as important as what we create from what we learn. 
  6. Innovation as a Series of “What If’s”. When George speaks to groups, he often shares a slide with the following question: “What if all teachers Tweeted about one thing each day that they did in their classrooms and took five minutes to read other teachers’ Tweets? Imagine the positive impact this would have on learning and school culture." In this book, he includes a series of questions that begin: “What If…” as a way to challenge us to dream big and figure out what is most important for us as educators and for the organizations we serve. These are powerful questions well worth reading and reflecting upon.
  7. Innovate or Teach “Basics”? I find myself agreeing with Couros wholeheartedly when he answers, in essence, “Both.” It is counterproductive to get caught up in the extremes of either school of thought or be forced to choose between one or the other. To truly innovate in any field, our kids need basic skills, whether the area of study is literature, music, art, or science. Leaders should not insist on one or the other; teachers should not pretend they cannot do both. Having said that, although the basics in any field of study are of critical importance, in order to truly innovate, we must move beyond knowing into creating and doing.
image via slideshare

I have been a huge fan of Couros’s work for several years now; after reading his new book, I am even more impressed with his passion for innovation as a way to improve learning for our students and his ability to clearly communicate his passion in a way that inspires me to re-dedicate myself to this important work. As Burgess says, the book is not a step-by-step guide nor a checklist one can follow or complete to “become” innovative. In fact, no such book does or ever will exist; skill sets can be taught in such a way; mindsets require much more. However, I encourage you to read this book for what it is: a compass for cultivating an innovative mindset within yourself and empowering those with whom you work--students and adults--to become innovators as well. 

image via Debbie Saviano
When speaking of compasses and directions, one inevitably learns about “magnetic” versus “true” north. There is a significant and critical difference between true north and magnetic north. True north will lead you directly to the North Pole. Magnetic north is influenced by a pulling effect of the earth’s magnetic core. In reading George’s book, I noted that he comes back time and again to simply doing what is best for each and every child we serve. Innovation and an "Innovator’s Mindset" is but a means to this noble end; the “magnetic north” may well be innovation, but the “true north” which compels us to innovate is continuously asking ourselves and each other, “What is best for kids?” Keeping our eyes on “True North” is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!


  1. I'm challenged by the thoughts about "thinking in the box."

    Operating only in the box means getting better at what always has been done, and operating within the boundaries of typical education. That statement seems to sacrifice challenging status quo and looking in new directions not taken.

    Its my belief that innovative educators look in two directions: improve what has been done before (that's good) but extend thinking and innovation beyond what beyond the normal construct of school (get new things).

    Staying within the box makes you better at 2002.

    I'm a proponent of extending beyond the box, and a process that enables educators the opportunity to temporarily suspend the conditions of the box (culture, etc.) allows them to think more freely, and creates the conditions for becoming more innovative. The key is not necessarily remain there, but bring that thinking back into the box, effectively extending and pushing on accepted boundaries and enlarging the context for innovative thought.

    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with the spirit of what youa re saying and I, too, want to ultimately move beyond the "box." What I am saying in the meantime, however, is that every one of us can innovate tomorrow---within the box---by changing our instructional or leadership practices for the better. I fear some are waiting fro "transformation" when "innovation" can happen immediately. Thanks again,

  2. Fabulous book Jeff - glad you're sharing it on your blog. It was one I couldn't stop sharing on Twitter. Thanks for spreading the word in it!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nathan; agree! Best, Jeff

  3. The comment section alone on this post make it worth its weight in gold. I think we need to explore David's notion that "innovation in-the-box will only make us better at 2002." I respectfully disagree; applying innovation to pre-existing pedagogy actually injects relevance and this could result in new paradigms...if we let it. I think it falls back to mindset again. When we introduce 2020 to 2002 a beautiful co-mingling occurs that might not otherwise be possible for some.

    Keep the conversation going, and thanks for sharing Jeff and David!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Brad; although I understand and respect what David is saying, I join you in respectfully disagreeing. We cannot wait for systemic transformation or nothing will ever change. Instead, we need to innovate now--individually if we must until we reach the tipping point we truly await. Thanks again, Jeff