Invest in Innovators, Not Innovation

“What is your plan for innovation?” this is the question I was asked a lot when I was working as the Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships for the Los Altos School District.  I guess it’s a fair question, but we didn’t have an “innovation plan” per se we had a plan to create more innovators. Innovation within an organization happens when you invest in people, providing them with the tools they need and creating a culture that supports innovative thinking and behaviors.   


Unfortunately, this is where I see so many well-intentioned leaders go wrong.  They want more innovative schools and more innovative experiences for their students, so they focus on implementing more innovative programs—project-based learning, a new iPad deployment or even design thinking projects just to name a few.  They heavily invest in products and training and then wonder why a few months down the road they aren’t seeing the results they hoped to see. I would contend that they entered the change process at the wrong point. Jumping straight to behavioral changes may feel that you are embracing a strong bias to action, but these efforts will likely not yield the results without first focusing on the mindsets of every adult in your school or organization.  Mindshift work is hard and it’s certainly not sexy but it is what leads to behavior change and in many cases is what leads to innovation.

So, how do you invest in your future innovators?  Here are 3 suggestions that I have found successful:

  • The Power of the Possible:  Continually share examples of teachers, schools, and districts that are approaching their work differently.  As educators, we are the only profession where our internship started at the age of 5! It isn’t easy for even the most well-intentioned teacher to unwind all of their beliefs and practices without seeing a different way.  Need inspiration? Check out Edutopia or Education Reimagined stories of what is possible.  Share these stories any way you can! And then keep sharing!

  • Create Short R&D Cycles:  Empower teachers who do want to try something new with students.  Work to create a culture where risk is minimized and testing out new ideas is celebrated.  Have any discretionary money? Create a mini-grant, where a teacher can apply for money to support a new idea with the caveat that they share their learning with a broader team.  

  • Invest in Learning: Don’t limit learning opportunities for adults to professional development days or staff meetings. Flood your team with opportunities to learn.  Sure you may not be able to require their participation, but at the very least you can create awareness of opportunities. Why not do a whole staff book read?  Need a suggestion? I may be biased, but Design Thinking for School Leaders is a great place to start.  Or send a few teachers to a conference, there are some great ones around the corner—Learning & The Brain (Educating with Empathy), ASCDEmpower19 or SXSWedu.

I’d love to hear how you are investing in your team!

The System Isn’t Working, So Let’s Redesign the System

“Our school system wasn’t designed for the needs of our students and so we have to figure out how to change a system never designed to serve the kids we serve.”  

These were a few of the powerful remarks made by Dr. Luis Cruz during the opening keynote of Rowland Unified School District’s professional learning day last week.  As I listened to his message, I couldn’t help but wonder what will finally tip the balance? What will it take to truly redesign public education systems?

I agree with Dr. Cruz that our “system” has to be redesigned and yet I also worry that talking about the need for a system to be redesigned allows us to abdicate some personal responsibility.  Taking on an entire system is complicated and yet a system is made up of a group of units that regularly interact and form an integrated whole. So taking on any part of a system and redesigning it has the potential to influence other parts of a system.  This is where personal responsibility is key. I believe EVERY educator has a responsibility to redesign the system. I recall too often from my days as an Assistant Superintendent, hearing teachers and principals talk about the need for the District Office to do something about one issue or another as if the DO were some magical entity. Whenever I heard this, I would politely interject that the District was made up of ALL of us, sure some may have more power to impact changes but we ALL have a responsibility to speak up for changes needed for our students.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein

As framed by Dr. Cruz, systems can be broken down by:

  • Policies - Do the policies we have in place serve ALL students?  Unfortunately, some policies that we have in schools make zero sense when looked at from viewpoint of serving the learning of students.  For example, how does your school interact with truant students? It is almost comical, but some schools discipline truancy with suspension.  If we want students to be at school then why are we suspending those who might need us the most?

  • Practices - Do the practices we have in place serve ALL students?  The practices can be a little trickier to uncover as these aren’t usually written down anywhere. Our practices are the just the way we do things or have done things for years.  One practice that we should collectively call into question, is the practice of placing our most inexperienced teachers with our neediest students. Can you imagine a first-year surgeon taking on the most complicated case of conjoined twins or a new lawyer taking on a high profile case like the OJ Simpson trial?  It doesn’t make any sense and yet we have practices like this that don’t serve our students well.

  • Procedures - Do the procedures we have in place serve ALL students?  What are the grading procedures at your school? I was chatting with a parent who shared that her son only gets two bathroom passes a day and if he needs another bathroom pass he loses points from that class, impacting his grade.  How does that serve his learning?

  • People’s Mindsets - Do we have the right mindsets to serve ALL students? This is where things get more complicated.  Education attracts people for all the right reasons. Most people who go into education do so because they want to help kids, and yet those very same people can be very resistant to change.   As Dan Lortie points out in SchoolTeacher: A Sociological study, teachers are often drawn to the system because it worked for them making it nearly impossible for them to have any real desire to change the system.   For teachers, unknowingly our internship starts at the age of six and then we unintentionally replicate the system we have been a part of for most of our lives.

Of the four P’s listed above, people’s mindset is the most important to change.  I have seen that with the right collective mindset of people, policies, practices, and procedures are so much easier to change. This is why I devote so much of my time and energy toward helping leaders develop new mindsets.  As Albert Einstein so eloquently shared, “ We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

I’d love to hear how you are working to redesign the system!

Why Do We Have So Many Rules in Education?

Front Office at a Jr. High School

Front Office at a Jr. High School

  • No hoods may be worn in hallways at school.

  • Students must follow the dress code.

  • Students must line up single file when the bell rings.

  • No talking in the library.

  • No chewing gum at school.

  • Students must line up in a boy line and girl line for lunch.

  • Students who are late will go to after school detention.

  • Students may not get off the buses until 8:25 am (even if they arrive at 8:15 or earlier).

  • Students must wear the uniform with the school logo (even though it is more expensive and our students can’t afford them.)

  • Students will be given nightly homework by each teacher.

  • Students must ask permission to go to the bathroom.

  • Students must sit quietly in the mornings before school starts.

  • Students must sit in rows by class as they enter the cafeteria, no moving seats

These are just a sampling of the hundreds of rules educational leaders were questioning a few weeks back at a Design Thinking Session I co-led with Kami Thordarson at the ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership.  As a long time educator, I’ve always struggled with how rule-based education is but have been hopeful that we’ve moved beyond the experiences I heard and honestly felt shocked by the rules still in place at many schools.  No wonder students struggle to be engaged. I don’t know about you as a learner but I immediately tune out teachers, presenters or leaders who start with a list of rules for me to follow. Why should we expect anything different from our students?   

Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.
— The Dalai Lama

And these rules don’t yet touch on the unwritten “practices or traditions” that govern so much of what we do in schools.  You know “the way we’ve always done it” kind of things. Below are just a sampling of these practices and traditions leaders were questioning during our time together.

  • Why is our school year 180 days?

  • Why are Parent-Teacher conferences scheduled during the workday?

  • Why does every teacher need their own classroom?

  • Why do we structure our schools around age-based student groups?

  • Why do we have letter grades?

  • Why are we (teachers) continually correcting student work?

  • Why do we insist that students with profound cognitive deficits be tested on grade level?

  • Why do we assign homework?

The world has changed drastically, and yet many of our educational institutions are embracing practices of the past that have become so much a part of us we no longer question why we do them.  This is further exasperated by the fact that most of our teachers and parents are also a product of the educational system and as a result are accustomed to the routines, rules, and rituals of school.  We are all fish swimming in the ocean, having a hard time describing what the water is like around us. And yet, in order to change practices, we must first become uncomfortable with the status quo. The good news is that anything that has been designed can be redesigned including all of our archaic rules & practices.  If you too are questioning the rules at your school, here is a simple 3 step process you can use to challenge and change them.

Simple Change = Profound Impact   What is the simplest thing you can do that will have the most profound impact and move you closer to your goal?  Is there something small, a practice or rule, that is getting in your way? If so, investigate it using a simple one-two-three approach:

  • Identify (one simple rule or practice getting in your way),  

  • Ask Why? (why does the rule or practice exist? Is the rule for students or was it created for the convenience of adults?)

  • Modify (how can you change the rule or practice to make a big impact)

What rules are you starting to question?  Let’s stop tweaking our educational system around the edges and start intentionally breaking rules that will create space to re-imagine school based on the needs of our students. Intentional rule breaking can help us step into the universe of possibility.

I’d love to hear what rules and practices you are questioning. Better yet, I’d love to hear what rules you are breaking and changing! Share #DT4EduLeaders #RuleBreaker

How a Designer Mindset of “Yes, and….” Changes Everything!


“I would like honeybees on campus.”  Sam shares with her principal at Mt Abraham Union Middle/High School, a small school in central Vermont.  Immediately images of bees, the school superintendent saying no, liability forms, and even chaos fill her head, but Gaynell the principal chose to silence all of the “yeah, buts” that were swirling around her head.  She knew that Sam would only propose ideas that were good for students.

“Tell me what I need to know to say yes,” replied Gaynell.  That simple affirmative response coming from a designer mindset of “Yes, and…” is key to innovation in schools.  The Design Thinking process is one way to get there.

How easy would it have been for Gaynell to shut down Sam’s ideas?  No one would fault her, having bees on campus is a new idea and unconventional to say the least.  And yet by responding with a “Yes, and…” she invited Sam to share more. Sam, a biology teacher who was teaching a kitchen chemistry class, wanted to create authentic learning experiences.  By incorporating bees into her curriculum, she saw an opportunity to teach students a skill that they could use later in life. She also saw opportunities to connect their learning to environmental causes.  Bees are a dying resource. Teaching students about them would be good for the environment and good for the community. Sam did her research, she found a beekeeper, they walked the campus and found a suitable spot for honeybees.  

With all of the research and plans in place, Gaynell approached her Superintendent and shared their plans.  Initially, the idea of honeybees wasn’t received well, but Gaynell pressed on taking full responsibility for any parent concerns.  They agreed if there were any health issues they would consider other options, and developed a contingency back-up plan should they need to find a new home for the bees. Gaynell wrote an article for the school newsletter, “We are Bringing Honey Bees to Campus” which assured parents and students of their safety and provided access to resources.

The honey bees came to school. Students were engaged at every step of the process.  Students built the racks, and learned how to use the smoker. There was a lot of interest in the bees.  How can I learn more? Do I have to take Kitchen Chemistry to work with the bees? Can we have a club?  Success. None of this learning would have taken place, without a “yes, and” mindset.

What is your first response when you encounter a wild and crazy idea? Where do you sit on the Yes o’Meter?  If a “yes, and….” response doesn’t feel natural to you, don’t worry you aren’t alone. Design thinking is messy and nonlinear, which can make it challenging for educators to embrace the process.  Being open to new ideas can feel counterintuitive in a world that is often driven by mandates, but it is a mindset that can be developed. You could take a cue from Gaynell, borrowing her response, “Tell me what I need to know to say yes,” or try these three ideas to help build your “Yes, and” mindset.

Use Nurturing Language - New ideas are fragile and need to be treated as such.  Unintentionally, we use language that kills ideas both with our teachers and our students. Phrases like “A good idea but…,” “They’d never let us do that,” or “We tried that already.”  Try replacing those idea killing phrases with nurturing phrases like “That sounds interesting, tell me more,” “How can we make it work?” or “Let’s try it.” This isn’t to say that every idea you are presented will work out, but try to nurture ideas a little longer until they have had time to grow and are a little less fragile.  It is far easier to kill an idea than to get an idea to a workable solution.

Turn a “Yeah but,...” into a “Yes, and…”  As you learn to be more open and less judgemental of ideas, challenge yourself to identify roadblocks or any “yeah, buts…” that will come up and see if you can remove them.  If there was a crazy idea I wanted my students or staff to entertain, I would try to brainstorm all of the “yeah,buts..” that I knew had a possibility of showing up. Then I would see If I could think of a way to solve them before they derailed the development of a new idea.   

Let Go and Take Small Risks  We’ve all heard the advice that we need to get out of our comfort zone, yet very few of us ever really do it.  Why? It’s easier not too and we equate getting out of our comfort zone with doing something big or scary, when really very small actions are required.  At least once a week try taking a new route home, eat at a different restaurant, have a conversation with someone you don’t normally spend time talking to, take a different fitness class or watch news from a different channel. Trying new things forces your brain to think that stimulates creativity and will rub off into other areas of your life.  As a result, you might just start to see everything in a new light.

Developing a “Yes, and…” mindset unlocks possibilities and allows ideas to flourish and grow.  Over time, I’ve learned good ideas often hide in the crazy ones, never to be discovered when “yeah, buts…” run rampant.  

Embracing Questioning (Even If At Times It Means Offending)

Last school year ended on a low note for me.  Professionally it was an incredible year—I co-authored my first book, worked as an educational consultant and supported numerous leaders who are pushing the boundaries of learning for students.  So many exciting developments! Yet personally, my educational volunteering experiences left me feeling ineffective and deflated at best.

As a big proponent of public education, I volunteer countless hours to support our local elementary school.  Having two boys who attend the school, I love nothing more than spending my free time helping to support and improve the learning experiences for them and all their classmates.  This volunteering takes all forms—chaperoning field trips, selling spirit wear, organizing school celebrations, helping with in class reading groups and fundraising to help bridge the gap in California school financing.  Last year we had a particularly successful fundraising year, enough to hire yet another teacher reducing an upper grade level from 30+ students per class to 20 students per class. The community wholeheartedly supported the decision, but our school personnel didn’t.  It became complicated, teachers didn’t think it was fair to reduce the class size of one upper grade level without the other and had seniority concerns around hiring another teacher. Ultimately, our funds were not able to be used to reduce class sizes. I questioned the decision and advocated for what I believe to in the best interest of students. After all, teacher needs are lobbied collectively through their unions, but where’s the collective voice on behalf of our students’ needs?

It quickly became clear that teachers were uncomfortable with my public questioning.  Comments were made indirectly to me about how “disagreements should be kept in the family” and how inappropriate it was for me to discuss or second guess the decision.  In one meeting someone even referenced a “twitter scandal”.... little did I know at the time that I was the scandal.


Thankfully it was the start of summer, and I took a much needed break from the volunteer role. Working in education can be intense and no matter our role, we all benefit from time for self-reflection and distance.  I reflected, read, played and enjoyed the fleeting moments of summer. I also questioned and checked in with others. Had I pushed too hard for change? Was I not trying to do what was best for students? Would my own children be negatively impacted at the school because I was vocal and outspoken?  Is this why people give up?

Looking back with some perspective and some distance, I can chuckle a little about the events. I’m mean I’m hardly a twitter scandal, but it has also made me take a hard look at how we impact change in schools.  Change is never easy, but trying to push for change as a parent volunteer is a downright humbling experience. This whole experience has left me wondering… “When did asking questions become a bad thing?” and “Is our current culture of playing nice hindering us from making the changes our schools so desperately need?”

In my summer reading, I was very thankful to come across a blog, Willing to Be Affirmed  (July 24, 2018) by one of my favorite education change makers, Will Richardson.  This blog caused me to pause and reflect even more about the work of change in schools. I appreciate Will’s willingness to disturb people in education.  The post reaffirmed my desire to disturb people, to get them thinking even if it means at times offending. I especially appreciated, Will’s reference to Margaret Wheatley’s work. (Excerpt below, full access here.)

“Sometimes we hesitate to listen for differences because we don’t want to change. We’re comfortable with our lives, and if we listened to anyone who raised questions, we’d have to get engaged in changing things. If we don’t listen, things can stay as they are and we won’t have to expend any energy. But most of us do see things in our life or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, we have to listen more, not less. And we have to be willing to move into the very uncomfortable place of uncertainty.” - Margaret Wheatley

This year I am embracing the notion of questioning and moving into a place of ambiguity wholeheartedly!  I am choosing to embrace a stance of being more curious than certain, which will mean asking a lot of questions.  Questions that might challenge thinking or the status quo. I don’t intend for my questions to offend you and recognize full well they might. And so as I embrace a willingness to question (and possibly offend) will you embrace a willingness to listen? If you feel shocked at my position or my questions, I wonder instead of judging me could you too question what you to believe to be true? I am confident it will take all of us stepping outside of the “culture of nice” to question, even if it means we unintentionally offend someone to improve learning for all students.