Monday, March 23, 2015

Innovation Leadership in Schools

This article has been cross-posted to Getting Smart.


There's been incredible progress in the past few years with individual, cutting-edge teachers making some incredible gains in innovations like #geniushour, project-based learning, design thinking, the maker movement, and more more more. But how do we SCALE those kinds of innovations wider throughout our schools and throughout the education system? Starting from discussions on Twitter and in our GOA course on Coaching Innovation, Maggie Powers and I have been on a kick about supporting innovation leadership in education...

When our SXSWedu core conversation on exactly that topic - Scaling Innovation in Schools - was accepted, we knew we had our work cut out for us... We co-moderated two separate twitter chats leading up to the conference, one on #dtk12chat and one on #isedchat, to begin building our ideas and lexicon. Our core conversation went excellently: you can find our session resources here and Maggie's reflections here. Over the course of SXSWedu, I also had at least a dozen separate conversations about what innovation leadership means for advancement of K-12 education. (There are also great conversations happening in the comments here, so this idea is still evolving. Please continue contributing!)

(Another resource for such school innovation leaders is this amazing eBook by David Culberhouse: Scaling Creativity and Innovation.)

My ultimate goal was to pull together all the ideas from our different conversations to craft a "job description" that could serve as a template for building innovation leadership in any school, and potentially even use in defining my own job description as I move into exactly this sort of role in my school (although my job also includes curation of our makerspace, which isn't discussed here).

Following ridiculous amounts of review and analysis of our three sessions, I put together the following Venn Diagram in creately:

So, here goes nothin' -

Job Posting: Innovation Learning Strategist

The _____________ School is committed to strengthening and enriching student learning through innovative teaching methods that put the student and his or her own goals for the future at the center of all learning experiences, and empower students to identify and solve problems, bridge content across traditional "subject" domains, and develop an unshakable growth mindset. We define "innovation" as mindsets, design processes, and teaching practices that challenge traditional norms and assumptions. These can take the form of new strategies or iterations or remixes of existing strategies.

Seeking: A listener and risk-taker to lead and support innovative teaching and learning in our school.

  • Varied professional experience, both in classroom settings and outside of schools. Former entrepreneurs encouraged, having demonstrated ability to independently develop professional connections and skills.
  • Demonstrated expertise in listening and understanding needs, as well as in introducing new ideas without forcefulness.
  • Demonstrated reflection upon and learning from failures. Examples will be requested.
  • Demonstrated perseverance, resilience, and comfort with ambiguity. Examples will be requested.

  • Provide inspiration and support for faculty and students in developing and implementing new innovative learning opportunities. Connect with teachers individually to support each teacher's innovation growth from their own starting point and at their own pace. Publicly celebrate attempts, successes, and failures in new endeavors.
  • Support development of a community-wide common language around innovation, including faculty, students, families, and local community. Reach out to "outside" community to collaborate and form partnerships.
  • Create safe physical and emotional spaces for teachers to explore and develop innovative learning opportunities. Support a cultural shift towards more collaboration and less competition among faculty.
  • Build capacity of faculty and students to independently investigate and design new innovations. Act as a multiplier of faculty and student strengths.
  • Broker relationships between disparate groups both within and outside the school community. Foster ties between groups with different expertise and daily experience to encourage cross-pollination and boundary-crossing.
  • Collect data and track innovation growth throughout the school to support connections, monitor patterns, and provide example cases to others. Data might consist of qualitative project examples and specific feedback from teachers, students, and families, as well as quantitative numbers of students served and events held.
  • Establish long-term and quarterly goals for innovation growth milestones within the community. Meet with education administration team at least once per quarter to share data on innovation growth and solicit feedback for continued progress. 
  • Connect with innovation leaders at other schools, such as:
  • Other duties as assigned.


  1. Love it! So many great ideas to explore here, and, as is no surprise, I'm a fan of the connections between brokerage (Responsibility #4) and closure (Responsibility #2). In particular, I think it's very important how you've emphasized that innovation must take into account closure in creating shared languages, etc. to build community. An effective innovation role, then, must be able to balance new ideas and trust within a school. And for these reasons, brokerage is as much about "non-cognitive" skills, as much as it's about the new ideas themselves.

    There's so much more I want to discuss, as you continue to work with the idea; one quick question: how does this new role interact with other roles at the school, both admin and faculty? Specifically, I wonder if it's thinkable for a school to both have a Director of Innovation (i.e., a broker) and a Director of Community (i.e., a role focusing on closure in various ways). And going further, what kind of schedule time is this role given to work with people?

    1. Awesome questions, Moss! Thank you! I'm going to go back in a tinker and bit with the scheduling bit - Maggie had some ideas there too. Lisa Palmieri's role at The Ellis School definitely includes giant elements of community outreach, but you're thinking community-building within the school? I wonder how many schools have such a role... My instinct is that it's a (perhaps "too"?) distributed role across lots of people here at my school.

  2. I think the one thing that has made my role more successful is having a seat at the Academic Administration table. It has allowed innovation to be a core focus of all academic discussions. I can see your position on the peer learning piece but would have some concern about not elevating the role to a Program Director position. In the least, perhaps the person in this role reports to the "Academic Dean." For me, I do spent a portion of my time with community programs and outreach. This is due in part to our Learning Innovation Institute and wanting to be an independent school with a public purpose. I did request a 30% partnership coordinator position to support me with connecting teachers to our partnerships but it's not been funded yet. The other key to my role has been having technology report to me as its a key piece of learning innovation at our school. I can't wait to see how this continues to develop. I definitely see a GHO happening soon!

    1. I definitely see that point, Lisa. I think whether to have this role be "admin" level or not would probably be very dependent on the particular school, as well as the particular person in the role... If the school treats it more as a "peer coach" role, it makes sense to not be admin-level, but hopefully also serve as a "consultant" to admin on relevant issues. But DEFINITELY need major admin support to provide the urgency and cultural demand for action.

      I need to talk to you more about the "public purpose" aspects of your role... Definitely hoping for a GHO soon! I should set up a doodle... :-)

  3. So much good stuff here. My school (prob like many others) is finding its feet in this world, too. We added "& Innovation" to my existing "Dir of Tech" last year b/c. as Lisa said, these two things are intimately connected. We're developing our community service coordination position to "Dir of Community Purpose," making sure we have one (a purpose, that is) out in the Dayton community and that it has a purpose at the school.

    One of the parts I like about what you've got here is the focus on creating safe spaces for and a culture of risk-taking, celebration of failure, etc. This is the overall goal, right? People won't do it if it's not ok to do it... I'm reminded of the example of the stop sign as a way to see how culture is created: a red octagon is a THING, putting a word on it and giving it a job/definition gives it MEANING, and adding a narrative ("good drivers stop at these things") creates CULTURE. I'm wondering how/if that development (thing>meaning>culture) works in this position's/school's context.

    Also, thanks for the shout out. :)

    1. I love the "community purpose" specificity rather than "community service" !

      That analogy of the stop sign is super interesting... For that particular example, the red octagon is pretty meaningless without the cultural definition. I wonder in what direction that's similar for innovation? Is it that X new teaching technique is meaningless without the cultural link of what the purpose of the new technique is? I think an interesting place where the analogy might fall apart is: the stop signs were put up all over the place, and the culture fell into place around it. But with pedagogical innovation, I think - for the most part - the cultural shift needs to come *first*. Or at least *first* from the perspective of the late adopters. I'd be curious to get your thoughts on that, Bryan!

  4. Thanks! It's an adaptation of a position that was called "Dir of Public Purpose" that I found a while back from... somewhere... The title got me thinking and had sticking power! Service is a part or purpose, but it certainly doesn't have to be the whole thing.

    Yeah, the order is a question I've been wrestling with. With the hire of a new tech position ( - sorry, had to), a lot of my time as Dir of Tech & Innovation will be freed to start getting out into the school more, working with teachers on improvements for their daily struggles. I've been thinking about my new role as the stop sign: we created a Dir of Innovation without a strict commonly-understood definition. I've been working on defining-by-doing this last year or so, making sure my work lets people know what I do (I have a boring old standard job description on record as well). According to the analogy, I'm giving it meaning by doing this, but it's through the working with others and creating new narratives so that we'll get to growing a real culture of innovation, I think.

    The order we used, then, was thing>meaning>culture. In a highly functional community like ours, it has been slow going encouraging folks to examine practices for "cracks" (as Mary so well phrases it) without success stories to point to... this would have been easier with an established culture, but I'm not sure how that would have been established before the thing>meaning part.

    Back at ya: thoughts on how the culture exists before the narratives? :)

    1. "Examining practices for cracks" is such a gentle way of saying it... I love it.

      I think my ideas about culture needing to come first comes heavily from some concepts we discussed with Glenda Barker in the GOA Coaching Innovation course last summer... That the school needs to have a culture of safety, cooperation, collegiality rather than competition - all of those things before the deeper work of "looking for cracks" can begin.

      I guess really - like everything else - it's cyclical. I'm envisioning a gravitational slingshot model (because I'm a nerd) with incremental cultural changes flinging the community forward into deeper innovation. Culture of safety leads to "thing" of looking for cracks which leads to culture of improvement which leads to "thing" of problem-solving in curriculum which leads to culture of student empowerment which leads to "thing" of... Does that make sense?

  5. Indeed, and the gravitational slingshot metaphor fits it perfectly!

  6. I love this so many things about this description, although I can see where it would change based on a school's particular culture and structure. We're hiring right now and I'd love to include some of these qualification and responsibilities in our description and in interviews. I particularly love the monthly time allocation chart. If you find anyone that fits this description, send them my way!

    1. I hope this post can be helpful, Margaret! From what I'm hearing, people who fit this description are going to be in very high demand this hiring season. :-) Please let me know if you include some pieces from here in your job posting, and I'll link to it.


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