Monday, September 23, 2013

Innovation and Growth

From the BigHeads Network
In a recent conversation on growth and professional development, I was surprised by some of the defensive ideas that came up in the discussion, namely, rejecting potentially valuable feedback, hiding failure, and playing it safe when setting goals. These are the same ideas that have been recycled in education for years that are preventing growth. To be fair, what "growth" means in education can be hard to pin down, given that the definition is often personal and isn't always shared with others. Most basically, I think, growth means getting better at the craft of teaching, but what does mean to be "better?"

To my mind, growth involves a large component of innovation, especially as more and more schools are moving toward blended-learning 1:1 programs. Innovation, of course, is often based on using technology in the classroom to a greater extent; but it more importantly requires us to change the way we think about solving problems. Innovation isn't simply putting homework assignments online. And so, I can't help but believe that these often-held assumptions about what growth is are preventing us from the kind of innovation that's possible right now. In order to move forward with our professional growth goals and innovate, we need to rethink these assumptions and change our culture toward one that promotes growth over fear, since within a culture of fear, growth and innovation are almost impossible. Though there are certainly other behaviors that promote growth and innovation, I'll list here a few specific ones that I have been thinking on, inspired in part by Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From.

Involve Students in the Process

It makes no sense to me to ignore students in the feedback process we use to evaluate ourselves and "grow." We're designing new curriculum around them, after all, using phrases like "collaborative work," "student centered," and "personalized" for the curricular changes we intend to make. Ideas thrive when they're not only shared between teachers, but also when they're shared with the students who will be subjected to them, and in order to innovate, we need to listen to their feedback.

Embrace Failure and the Attempt at Innovation

It also makes no sense for us to hide our failures and avoid trying new things, lest they don't work out. There's nothing that's more "fixed growth" (cf. Dweck's Mindset) than being afraid to try something new because you don't want others to learn that it didn't work. That's no way to grow, and it shouldn't be a model for students to learn.

Think Big

I learned at #gtachi this summer that we need to think big if we want to innovateit's the Google way. No one has ever changed the world by thinking small, and we're certainly not going to teach the next generation how to solve the significant problems that threaten the world by thinking like this. The bigger the goals we set, the greater the number of people involved, typically, which can help lead a school down a more innovative path.

Reflect as Often as Possible

Growth and innovation require constant reflection and refining, rather than thinking about personal and/or departmental goals once a year. This is where failure is actually advantageous and critical for the process of innovation, since it helps us to constantly refine our goals, as we move closer toward them.

Open Your Mind

Finally, innovation and growth require us to embrace diversity and welcome new ideas into our own frame of thinking (cf. more on this below). Albert Einstein, who is the source of several famous quotations on innovation, said that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them," and this is precisely why we need to think openly, not defensively, and embrace diversity for the benefit that it can bring to our own ways of thinking. More connections within our Personal Learning Network (PLN) hinders stale thinking and increases our exposure to new ideas that may help us to innovate and facilitates reflection on these ideas.


I've been reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow on cognitive processes underlying how we think, which has proven to be quite fascinating. In particular, it's interesting to consider the differences between our "System 1" and "System 2" processes. System 1 is "automatic and quick, with little voluntary control," basically providing us with our first-impression thoughts. System 2, on the other hand, gives our attention to "effortful mental activity" and is "associated with subjective agency and choice" (20). System 2 is what we use to ask and think through questions that aren't intuitively obvious to System 1. But System 2 is lazy and often defers to System 1, especially when it's tired or overworked.

Kahneman introduces the pertinent idea of WYSIATI ("What You See Is All There Is") that, thanks to the way System 1 works, has us "jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence" in experiment after experiment. Moreover, WYSIATI facilitates coherence of events (i.e. seeing relationships between things), even when there is none, and leads to cognitive ease, which causes us to give too much weight our first impressions, rather than carefully evaluating the evidence presented to us (86-87). Importantly, WYSIATI is based on our experiences and current collection of ideas in our heads.

I don't know many teachers, if any, who have plenty of free time and need extra work. Because we're so mentally drained, all too frequently, I think that we let System 2 give way to System 1 too often and fall back on what we already know, which is why innovation in education has been painfully slow. It's precisely why these old ideas have been kept around for so long. To pursue growth in whatever way that it is meaningful to us, we need a good measure of innovation, and to innovate, we need to explore new ideas so that we don't fall back on old patterns, just because they're all too comfortable and familiar.

McGonigal, in her fantastic book Reality is Broken, wrote that it's "easier to change minds than behaviors" (186), and I think she's right. With that, how do we change our culture toward a model that openly encourages growth and innovation? After an inspiring discussion on innovation last night on #caedchat, I'm also curious to know how people define growth an innovation. Feel free to share your thoughts here or with me on Twitter at @mosspike.