THE BLOG
10/07/2014 08:59 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

#EdJourney: Producing a Culture of Education Innovation

In the fall of 2012, a man left his wife and home for 3 months, to travel across the country in his Prius, and visit more than 60 schools. He was interested in how they define innovation, their courses, obstacles, and victories. The man is Grant Lichtman, and his contribution to the world of education is beyond comparison. While other education innovators and reformers offer criticism and hyperbole, Lichtman offers a flexible approach any educator can benefit from, at any level. His solution to our educational crisis appears to be a method for moving learning to a more relevant and holistic process.

On his #EdJourney, Lichtman met many educators, and spoke with students too. He documented his journey on his blog, and also gave a talk about it at TEDxDenverTeachers. His book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, covers the ideas Lichtman is pioneering as a result of the journey:

Obstacles to innovating education.
In exploring the make up of modern students, society, and how schools address human needs, Lichtman identified obstacles to innovation. From leadership to time, professional development, and how educational organizations are structured, Lichtman's experience highlights alternatives to prevailing customs that are no longer conducive to human growth. He advocates for distributed authority, which allocates more power to students and teachers. From the many interviews he conducted, Lichtman learned that teachers feel most in need of time; time to learn and develop themselves, time for their students to ease into and reflect upon their learning, and time to collaborate. To these impediments, Lichtman found solutions in practice somewhere in the country.

Educational systems as a dynamic, creative, permeable, adaptable, relevant, and self-correcting macrocosm.
In his breadth of creativity, Lichtman uses questions, terms, and slogans to prompt change, thought, and new directions. One that is memorable to me is: "open doors, tear down walls." He credits Carrie Ann Gehringer with this one, but I remember the hoopla caused on Twitter when he promoted it as a universal mission statement for schools. In many ways, it captures his philosophy on education as a fluid process that requires creativity and flexibility to remain relevant. His model also includes a self-correcting feedback loop for educators and learners to engage in dialogue about the state of learning. Lichtman recommends mindful awareness, meditation, and reflection as methods to consider for self-correction and deepening learning.

Another aspect of his philosophy is similar to educational cities and community schools, where the value of students engaging others in the community is prioritized. Lichtman proposes value in widening the learning experience. This is where tearing down walls and opening doors literally connects students with the outside world, their communities, and in so doing creates relevant and organic learning exchanges.

Knowledge and learning as an ecosystem.
Before spending more than a decade as an educator at the prestigious independent Francis Parker School in San Diego, CA, Lichtman was a geologist. Having earned his degree at Stanford University, his education pedigree runs deep. It's his experience with the earth and its many facets though, that uniquely qualifies him to explore our new land of learning. He coined a term: cognitosphere, "...a vast multi-dimensional neural ecosystem of knowledge creation, consumption, and management that is accessible to anyone with a mobile computing device..." Influenced by Adrian Beljan's Constructal Law, Lichtman succinctly identifies the dimensions of our collective consciousness and how it pertains to knowledge and learning. What an amazing place to start re-imaging education, but one that offers a mental picture of the challenge at hand!

Design thinking for democratic and effective program development.
Design thinking is an area of integrated multidisciplinary, creative problem solving that has the potential to radically change education. One of Lichtman's calls for change lies in how subject matter is presented in schools. He refers to the different departments as "silos;" we teach students how to read and write in English class, math in math class, science in science class, etc... and rarely do areas of content intersect. Yet, the real world involves intersection of diverse disciplines at every corner. To promote the possibility of subject matter integration, Lichtman uses design thinking as a democratic method of determining the unique learning needs of each micro-community he works with. He takes an ethnographic approach to strategic development that is not only innovative, but also culturally sensitive. In a time when tensions among diverse groups run high, Lichtman offers a method for school design and pedagogy that respects differences and promotes individuals and communities reaching their potential.

"Schools are people places."
Lichtman is a courageous leader and change agent in a time of great inertia. He advocates for finding problems rather than solving them; which, in my opinion, requires far more bravery than problem solving. He sensitively appreciates that changing the prevailing methods of education also threatens teachers' identities. Lichtman neutralizes the threat technology has posed to teacher roles, by seeing it as but one "arrow in the quiver of education" innovation. Perhaps delicately and consciously identifying problems is key to facilitating his assertion that "leading change is everyone's job." After all, we need empowered teachers to create an empowered populace. Furthermore, Lichtman cherishes the relationships that occur between people in places of learning. For this reason, he says: "schools are people places." With empathy as a component of his approach, he elegantly assembles aspects of humanism with design thinking to produce scalable customized 21st century education programs. In his book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, he paints pictures of education innovation through stories about the people he met along his journey.

Being that he is also a gifted poet and author, Lichtman's book reads like lyrical prose. The stories, poems, and experiences he weaves throughout his book are, in and of themselves, great lessons and beautiful works of art. It is a privilege to encounter Grant Lichtman on the journey of life, because he truly embodies the essence of every lesson he offers.