4 Steps to Find Innovation in Your Schools

“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”
Jerry Sternin

This blog is meant specifically for teachers, principals and superintendents. I am beseeching all of you heroically engaged in these positions to take 15 minutes from your busy day and do what is suggested in this blog. I know (from experience) how easy it is to get caught up in the managing part of your jobs. Learners need grading done, teacher evaluations need to be completed and budgets must be created. These are only some of the activities that force you into the role of a technician (please see my previous blog). If you, Mr. or Ms. Teacher, Principal or Superintendent really want to change the way we do school, then take the 15 minutes a day to think beyond a technician.

As we build the New Learning Ecosystem for learners there is something that we must keep in mind…true change does not happen overnight and with a big splash. Systemic, structural change in any system only occurs when smaller steps are built on each other to build a better system. This means that we do not look at the New Learning Ecosystem, or Mass Customized Learning, and think that change will happen once we “implement” it. Change occurs when we encourage innovation, support different practices (especially in the classroom) and empower educators to create learning experiences that support the New Learning Ecosystem and MCL.

The quote that headlines this blog is from Jerry Sternin. Jerry and his wife, Monique, developed this theory of change while working with Save the Children in Vietnam in the 1990’s. To make a long story short, the Sternins were trying to decrease the percentage of children that were malnourished in rural villages. Programs that were created from outside the communities were consistently failing to change the behaviors of the villagers…simply put, they would not make the changes suggested by groups like Save the Children to better nourish their children. Jerry and Monique came up with a different tactic to address this issue. They went and looked for examples of families where the children were not malnourished and studied what the families did to achieve this. In this case, parents fed their children local food that traditionally had not been fed to children and did other behaviors that led to more healthy children. The Sternins used the term “positive deviance” (PD) to describe these families that did something different that led to a positive outcome, in this case, well-nourished children.

The principles of positive deviance are (from Wikipedia):
· Communities already have the solutions. They are the best experts to solve their problems.
· Communities self-organize and have the human resources and social assets to solve an agreed-upon problem.
· Collective intelligence. Intelligence and know-how is not concentrated in the leadership of a community alone or in external experts but is distributed throughout the community. Thus the PD process’s aim is to draw out the collective intelligence to apply it to a specific problem requiring behavior or social change.
· Sustainability as the cornerstone of the approach. The PD approach enables the community or organization to seek and discover sustainable solutions to a given problem because the demonstrably successful uncommon behaviors are already practiced in that community within the constraints and challenges of the current situation.It is easier to change behavior by practicing it rather than knowing about it. “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting”.

What does this mean practically? School Boards must empower superintendents. Superintendents must empower principals. Principals must empower teachers. Most importantly, teachers must empower Learners. How can this happen? The answer lies within the schools and classrooms across the United States. Educators throughout the country are finding ways to place the Learner at the center of the education ecosystem. They are accomplishing this despite less resources; they are doing it despite poor leadership; they are finding ways despite misguided and harmful national policies. Your job is to look and find the “positive deviants”.
So, what does all of this mean to you, Mr./Ms school administrator? I am suggesting 4 things you can do to find your positive deviance example in your schools.

  1. For the love of God, if you are a school administrator, go work with your staff. Visit classrooms. Talk about what is happening in the classrooms. Talk to students. You will never find “the good stuff” hunkered in your office staring at PVASS tables with bloodshot eyes.
  2. Lead a book study. Go ahead, find a book that moves YOU and share it with someone. The book study can be with a single person, a small group, or your entire school community. Whatever you chose is fine…just do it! P.S. when I say lead a book study, I mean for you to get your “teacher hat” on and plan a unit of instruction that is meaningful and FUN.
  3. Look for your “rock stars”. Every organization has great people doing creative things. Once you have done the first two activities, you will know who your rock stars are…once they are found, DON’T LOSE THEM! I have led rock star teacher groups and I can tell you they are invigorating. Give them a challenge (one might be “create the ideal school”) and meet with them consistently over the course of a school year. And do not make excuses about not being able to find subs or that you don’t have time to meet with them. This is the most important endeavor that you will do for kids learning, so find a solution to any roadblock you can think of…no excuses!!
  4. Set aside 15 minutes each day (at work) where you are not thinking about student discipline, test scores and scheduling state-mandated tests, board relations, budget issues, what the State government is not giving you, etc, etc. Instead think about where to find greatness in your schools and DO SOMETHING!

Finally, remember the difference between being a manager and a leader. A manager thinks about tasks, a leader thinks about people.
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About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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