On the Road, Seeking Out Innovation
Author Grant Lichtman on why America’s best schools are adaptable and creative.
by Kim Greene
Grant Lichtman packed his bags, climbed into his 1997 Prius, and embarked on an epic cross-country road trip, at least by an educator’s standards. Over the course of three months in the fall of 2012, he visited 64 schools, from California to New York, public and private, suburban and urban. His goal: to learn what the word innovation means to schools, what obstacles educators encounter, and what successes they have found. His findings form the basis for his new book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education. We caught up with Lichtman at his home in California to delve deeper into what the senior fellow with the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence learned while on the road.
Q: Early on in the book, you say change in schools isn’t hard—it’s uncomfortable. How does an administrator create a school culture that embraces change necessary for innovation?
A: The biggest obstacles to innovation and change in all organizations are fear and inertia. These are very much present at schools. Leaders need to have the courage to take risks, primarily to overcome the fear and inertia. Schools have always had a unique and difficult relationship with the idea of risk both as learners and as adults. Yet we know that organizations are not capable of changing unless we do take risks. In a time of rapid change, we have to engage strategies where risk is not a bad word. It’s not dangerous. Actually, the risk to an organization of not changing frequently is greater than the risk of making some changes. The book is full of examples of how school leaders are changing their approach and mind-set to the idea of risk—how they are changing the management structure to create more distributive, creative processes and allowing those processes to happen within their organizations. The real hallmark of innovation is the ability to move quickly, which does not happen when we have rigid, highly vertical, hierologic reporting structures.
Leaders are recognizing they need to value employees with different strengths than they’ve had in the past, rather than just valuing teachers because they’re experts in a particular subject or because they’ve had longevity in the system or because they’ve demonstrated ability to manage a classroom. We place a high value on people who have a willingness and capacity to create something—to collaborate as members of a team—as much as we do knowledge of subject. Those are some of the similarities of schools that seem to be developing a capacity for change.
Q: You spend a chunk of the book outlining the characteristics of an innovative classroom. If we walked into one today, what words would you use to describe it: adaptable, creative, dynamic?
A: I think it starts with those words. Those words are ones that I synthesized from so many schools and so many interviews with so many educators. They tend to be messy, noisy, and slightly chaotic.
I use the word permeable a lot. This follows on the thinking of my colleague Bo Adams, whom I cite in the book. We have to break this boundary between the concept of school and the rest of the world. This means breaching the physical boundary by getting off campus more, even if it’s only a few steps, to use the world as a learning space.
Certainly, teachers are becoming much more nimble and adaptive. They’re changing their curriculum each year, allowing students to help negotiate and change that curriculum, doing that as co-learners rather than as a teacher and a student at opposite poles.
Q: You make the point that innovation and technology are not terms to be used synonymously. Why do some educators think that putting a tech device in the hands of students is instant innovation?
A: We have to look at the history of it. We don’t have to go back more than 15 years—or, for some schools, the last 10 years—to when computers really started percolating into the classroom and school space in a meaningful way. A number of people felt that placing this technology in the classroom would be disruptive innovation that would fundamentally change learning. This included Clayton Christensen, who built a lot of the disruptive innovation idea around the example of computers in the classroom. What we found is that it does in some cases and it dramatically doesn’t in other cases.
I wrote an article for ISTE a year ago (“Take Aim at Innovation,” Learning & Leading With Technology, September/October 2013,) and its punch line was, technology is the bows and arrows in our quiver. Our goal as educators is not about bows and arrows; it’s about training the archer. I think that we’ve seen in the last few years a shift, importantly in the minds of educational technologists. Eight or 10 years ago, they felt what they were bringing to the table was the innovation. Now when I meet with them, many of them understand the shift is in the pedagogy and the learning space, the practice of relationships between teachers and students and knowledge.
Q: It’s difficult to imagine the types of innovations you talk about happening in schools that have so many requirements and regulations. Private and charter schools have more flexibility and, as a result, seem riper for innovation. What changes are necessary to help foster innovation in traditional public schools?
A: You’re right. Charter and private schools are a legacy of the old laboratory schools of the progressive era. This is exactly what they were meant to do—try new things and hopefully some of those will percolate, and of course did percolate, into the public system.
Public school leaders have to recognize a few things. If public schools do not change to better prepare for the future rather than the past, they’re going to continue to lose students to other learning opportunities. The range of opportunities families have to choose from today is vastly greater than five, 10, and certainly 15 years ago. Because of that choice, families who understand that the traditional method of learning is not preparing students for the world they’re going to inherit will make other choices.
Also, we are trapped in this existential discourse between the role and importance of standards-based learning versus what we could call a more progressive learning style. I do not believe the Common Core de facto is an inhibitor of deeper learning. In fact, I think if people view Common Core as a foundation upon which to build, much of what it outlines allows for these sorts of innovative learning conditions. I think regions, states, and areas that view the Common Core or any set of standards as so vital and so important that they require teachers to take on an ever more rigid, test-focused set of activities in the classroom, are on the wrong side of history.
Lichtman says he’s frequently asked to name the most innovative schools he visited. On his list of exemplary schools are these two public institutions:
- Science Leadership Academy (SLA), Philadelphia: SLA is a public magnet school that faces the same challenges as other schools in Philadelphia’s system, including poverty and funding. Yet the school, which follows a project-based philosophy, boasts that 90 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges.
Among the many assets that make SLA successful, Lichtman points to the agility and speed with which the school makes decisions. SLA founder and principal Chris Lehmann told Lichtman, “We iterate fast and we are not afraid of ideas. But we also ‘problematize’ well. We consider the worst and negative consequences of our best ideas, and we do all of this quickly.”
Lehmann does not rely solely on senior administrators to make decisions about innovation. “When we have someone new to the school, we often have to coach them up to this level of decisional empowerment so they will just go and make things happen,” he said.
- Denver Green School (DGS): DGS is a choice school operated under Denver’s Board of Education.Lichtman says the school has “the most intentional system of distributed authority” of any school he visited. Seven partners (master teachers, of sorts) founded the school and act as the leadership team. They’ll continue to add partners as teachers become interested and committed. With a growing mass of partners, they hope these leaders can then start their own schools with this same management structure.
Lichtman says this innovative management style works because it alleviates the problem of placing a single individual at the top. If that one weak link fails, Lichtman notes, the whole organization is at risk. But with distributed authority, the school has a better shot at long-term success.
Photo Credit: Julie Lichtman