Innovate, not Invent #IMMOOC

Why is innovation in education so crucial today?

In my daily work as Director of Digital Learning, I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about change. Not the pennies and dimes kind of change, but the hard stuff…the let’s scribble all over this and look at it differently change. And let me be the first to tell you: people do not like that kind of change.

I get it. It’s scary. Most of the time, at least in my line of work, talk of change evokes a trademark teacher move: the eye roll and sassy head crane, followed quickly with the oh, so you want me to reinvent the wheel? My answer is an emphatic no.

There is a basic misunderstanding between the words invention and innovation. I am stymied by this myself, as I often struggle with feeling compelled to find something “new and ground-breaking.”

If you ask most anybody to describe me, you’ll find a theme:

“a firecracker,”

“innovative, bold and courageous,”

“creative and flashy.”

And I can own that; I have my own special brand of crazy.  

But, I have a confession. I am terribly boring when it comes to my fear.

You see, my fear shouts “STOP!” to me, every single time I sit down to write. Fear doesn’t offer interesting insight or compelling rationale. Never. It just SCREAMS ad nauseam that one word, repeated and repeated with increasing hysteria: “STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP!!!”

My fear wants me to stop, because it wants me to be safe, as it perceives all inspiration, all work, all risk, all passion *whatsoever* as potentially life-threatening.

My fear wants me to be disconnected from my supports, to feel alienated and self-conscious in my pursuits of excellence.

My fear’s wicked whispers of inadequacy and destructive comparison often paralyze me, freezing my confidence when it comes to sharing stories of learning and my experiences as an educator.

For the longest, I’ve *almost* celebrated this fear: pretending as if it were a unique kryptonite that only I felt; but it’s not. Your fear is exactly the same as mine. I guarantee it. You see, fear is common. It’s ordinary.

This fear of not being creative enough, original enough, innovative enough boxed me into this notion of being ‘just.” So much so, that I found myself repeating the words that so many of my students and colleagues have told me: “I can’t…I’m just…” ( see #meant2BEE) 

I say all of this because we often stress over the notion of innovation. It becomes that daydream prize that is simply out of reach. As learners, we tend to limit ourselves through fear.

We fear it will be too hard. Too intense. Too isolating. Too controversial. Too challenging.


If we find strength and connection with others through shared experience; we improve.

If we iterate, refine, and tweak educational experiences, we’ll find the critical and crucial innovations necessary to improve and empower our learning systems and structures.  

How will you #BEEtheChaNGe?

VISION quest: Whats & Whys

I was recently in a district-level administration meeting where we were planning for the upcoming school year. As is typical in our district, this meeting was relatively casual. Participants freely brainstormed and spitballed ideas for professional learning, campus initiatives, curriculum focus, data points, student progress—you know, the foundational elements of school.

Director after director, principal after principal, pointed to percentages and reports, surveys and scores, calling out goals that would “surely provide a clear vision of where we need to move as a district.”

“Our reading scores could be better. This year we’ll increase 11% in standard 3.XYZ.”

“Our survey showed that our parents don’t feel a strong sense of involvement with our campus. We need more PTO involvement. We’ll create a Facebook page that will increase awareness.”

“We want to include STEM opportunities; let’s host an Hour of Code.”

“We want to be sure we’re using our technology; we need to find a program that will track our students’ progress.”

‘Whats’ the Goal?

At first glance, these suggestions do, indeed, provide parameters. A principal or teacher could take any of the above and apply that lens to focus efforts for the school year. In that way, goals are the “whats”—the efforts, the tasks, the steps, the procedures. Goals take into account a snapshot of the end-product that can occur if the proper steps are taken. While many of us agree that’s a step in the right direction, “whats” typically compartmentalize efforts and building tasks instead of culture.

Education is the business of learning; we are not product-based, but instead, are people-, interest-, and demonstration-driven. As such, we all—regardless of community, economy, demographic, age or any other data point—are compelled by one factor: belief.

We are called to the business of education because we believe in the potential of people.

As professionals, we’re pretty darn good at the “whats.” We know our content standards inside and out; we can quote and demonstrate development theory and brain science, citing the rationale behind pedagogical best practices; we can disaggregate a seemingly jumbled and disconnected series of testing reports and pull a thread of continuity to see where students are struggling, then determine a plan of action to improve their learning experience.

These are no small feats. However, if our “whats” don’t have a “why”—if our processes don’t have a passion—we lack true vision and will, ultimately, fall short. We cannot go through the paces of performing our “whats” every day if we do not truly see the intention behind our work.

Developing the ‘Why’  

We’ve read countless articles, clung to the words of speakers recounting their journeys of school transformation, all compelling us to find the holy grail of a culture of innovation. The culture serves as the heartbeat of an organization. It’s the steady pulse of “why” that transforms our needs from must-do action items into rallying cries of purpose-filled impact that will improve the lives of our children.

Sounds like an insurmountable challenge, right? Actually, the key to culture is unifying the work through common vision.

So How Do We Get There?

As we began our visionquest in my district, Stephenville, we knew that we wanted the input and buy-in of the community, families, and faculty that we serve. While there is commonality of interest among these parties, we recognized that each had unique perspectives, and we wanted to limit influence from others; therefore, we met with these stakeholders as organizational entities. In each session, we asked the same questions and took scrupulous notes to be sure to capture the intent and beliefs of all involved.


  • What do we do? List out the goals.
  • How do we do it? List the options and choices available.
  • Who is this for? These answers often start as broad-brushed demographic categories, but please don’t stop there. To be truly effective with this question, ask each person to think of a specific child who will benefit. Give time to allow individuals to reflect on that child’s needs around this goal. What is she challenged with? What is he not getting [content, access, support, opportunity, voice, etc.]?
  • Why is this important? Take that specific child and process through the benefits and impact that will come.  


It’s interesting to note that, with one small exception, the responses that came from these meetings were very similar and allowed us to establish six core values centering on this underlying principle:

Developing the potential of every student, every day.

This vision sets the tone for every lesson, business decision, resource, device (you get the idea) considered in our district. The litmus test is simple: is it what is best for kids?

Visions are not reserved for superintendents, school boards, or principals. Empower every member of the organization to see the power of her impact by defining her why and you will most certainly achieve that culture of innovation and true transformational learning for everyone.

Looking to redesign the culture and learning experience of your campus? Check out Learning Transformed by Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray (available at ASCD & Amazon) and learn how you can be part of the solution.