The Fork in the Road of Education: When Innovation Isn’t Enough

Follow these four principles to disrupt the norm and provide meaningful, lasting change.

Topics: Innovation, Principal Leadership

Have you ever wondered whether innovation is enough? School leaders often face a fork in the road as they seek to provide meaningful and lasting change. In one direction, a road of innovation; in the other, a disruptive path that comes with limitless possibility but risk and challenge along the way. The latter yields tremendous possibility to impact the culture of a building. The innovation journey means new ideas are presented to rethink an age-old way of doing something. While the disruption journey challenges the very nature and rationale for the age-old process. In schools, disruption is the point at which true innovation changes the cultural mindset.

School leaders can ignite new ways of thinking and spark a disruptive mindset by following these four principles:

Principle 1: Challenge the Status Quo

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try.” – Dr. Seuss

At some point, everything becomes status quo. Disruption is about identifying what is safe, familiar and routine and challenging it at every turn. Disruption can be, scratch that, disruption is a positive spark for cultural paradigm shifts. Disruption challenges old norms, ignites conversations, activates wider innovation and fosters new ways of thinking. To change the most sedentary routines and age old practices in schools, leaders need to challenge what we’ve all heard at some point, “That’s the way we have always done it.” If you only walk the road of innovation, you risk perpetuating the status quo. If you continue to innovate a system instead of asking if the system is truly needed or needs a complete re-think, you’ve only established a new status quo, not the disruptive change that shifts your culture.

Principle 2: Identify Rite of Passage Experiences

Live out of your imagination, not your history.” – Stephen Covey

Innovation alone, often lacks the momentum to shift the paradigm needed to challenge the rite of passage culture within our education system. Educational leaders need to stop and question the very being of the educational model; we need to challenge the processes and routines that we’ve always done. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of education, is the rite of passage experience. We perpetuate the experiences that we ourselves experienced when we were in school. The education field, by nature, attracts teachers who excelled at school; those who received good grades, participated in extracurricular activities and an overall positive experience in school. The teachers of today, intentionally or not, often go into education and default to the system they experienced (if it worked for them, it’ll work for all). The parents in our communities, often expect their schooling system to mirror their experiences. For example, many schools struggle making the transition to standards-based grading models because of parent and teacher push-back and the desire for a traditional model they can relate to. Simply, education programs often reinforce the instructional modeling its stakeholders have experienced in the past, thus creating a cycle of status quo teaching and learning. Disruptive leaders see rite of passage experience as opportunities to shift educational paradigms.

Principle 3: Dream Big and Give it Time

“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela

Cultivating lasting and authentic changes takes time and commitment. It is imperative that leaders model continuous risk-taking and create a culture of disruption.  Every chance you get, leaders need to ask themselves, “What is my true goal – can I do this more effectively?” It starts on opening day and continues in every interaction and experience in your school. Be patient, stay true and recognize the incremental milestones. Always remember, culture is the heart and soul of a building, it’s how we create change. When we approach our buildings with a disruptive mindset, we believe in the impossible and begin to truly transform the culture of our schools.

Principle 4: Own Your Story. Write Your Story. Share Your Story.

We are all innovators. We are all disruptors. A disruption mindset begins with identifying those innovations, ideas, and processes that have had lasting organizational change and impact—so-called paradigm shifts. Identify schools that have been disruptive. Find out how they did it. Reach out to them and build a collaborative network. These models and connections will help inspire your own creativity and confidence.

Disruption is all around us—in nonprofit, business, and government. Sometimes the most effective way to change how we think is to find inspiration outside of our educational comfort zone.

In the late 1990s, Apple rebranded itself around its core value—think differently—challenging the world to see it as more than just a company selling computer products. Apple understood it wasn’t just about marketing the innovation; it also was about marketing their paradigm shift—their disruption. They challenged the world to see them differently. And it worked. As school leaders, we need to challenge our communities, students, and teachers to see us differently, too.

Stories of disruption are powerful for our own organizations, but they are equally important to the wider discussion on education. When we tell our stories, we create lasting change in our culture, which shifts the entire educational paradigm.

The fork in the road is symbolic of the decisions school leaders face on a daily basis. Innovation and disruption are connected, yet each path takes us on a very different journey. The fork in the road is an opportunity to rethink the traditional road and completely reimagine how to best prepare students. What road will you choose?

Dr. James Roscoe is the principal of Grayslake North High School in Illinois.

Dr. Jeff Schagrin is the associate principal for Curriculum and Instruction at Grayslake North High School. Follow them at @DisruptionEDU on Twitter.