09/03/2013 09:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ignore the Blame Game -- 5 Steps to Build a School Culture of Innovation

It's easy to blame. Just think back to childhood and the first time you did something you were ashamed of, like stealing some cotton candy. The gut-reaction? "He did it!"

You need a face to blame. Yet, when it comes to a problem as ambiguous as the school system, it's not okay to blame the system because the system doesn't have a face. Which explains why when one grows red in frustration at the faulty education system, it makes sense to blame teachers or school leaders or parents. What if, however, it's the system itself that's to blame?


Take teachers for example. Seth Godin teaches us that fear in the workplace drives the motivation of employees. No one wants to get fired because we have that mortgage to pay and food to put on the table for the children. Godin's research on fear, or as he calls it, "the lizard brain," ties in that like most people, teachers fear being fired. They want to respect their school leaders' protocol. That's proper manners, after all. 

Teaching is not much different from other white-collar work. Take a highly educated autonomous scholar and then slap on factory-like, systematic rules and you get a highly skilled test-preparer who needs the next paycheck to pay the mortgage and feed the newborn.

Can you now sense why teachers are frustrated? They too want change. As do their leaders. As do you.

So, where do we start?

School is one giant bureaucratic system and teachers are just one cog in the machine. To make change happen, teachers need to know what they can do to be the change they want to see in transforming education. Most teachers know that the system is no longer workingbecause we no longer live in an industrial economy and school runs on an industrial model.

Teachers, like school leaders, need a simple and poignant directive on how they can help be the shift. This could, of course, start with creating a workplace where innovation is accepted -- if not demanded. Force teachers to use their degrees without slapping down professional development packets that tell teachers what they do. Allow them to think for themselves and value this. Autonomy is humanity's greatest gift. Chip and Dan Heath, two Stanford professors, write extensively on this. To make change happen on a large-scale, you need a simple directive to move an emotional elephant. 

One not-so-simple step begins with creating a culture of innovation. Allow schools to become what they need to be -- a place where innovation and creative use of content drives personalized curriculum.

Here are five steps for school leaders to build this culture of innovation:

  1. Use positive reinforcement to share the success of faculty members who innovate. You could write a quick blog post (or have a student exemplar do it) that shares the "cool" thing a staff member is doing. Some examples include the science teacher who flipped his classroom to show videos of him spelunking after work, the art teacher who pulled grant funding to bring in college theatre students to model effective acting workshops or the gym teacher who ran his first triathlon over the weekend.
  2. Try something new yourself and ask your staff how you could better innovate your practice. Try a virtual faculty meeting or flip it and have teachers respond through your online learning management system. Wear a Steve Jobs-like jean and sportcoat outfit for casual Friday to look the part.
  3. Be specific and humble. It's hard to be humble. Tell your team that YOU TOO are trying. They will respect you for that, especially if something you try doesn't go so well. 
  4. You are highly educated and so is your staff. But, we all need reminders. So, here is me reminding you that you are brilliant. Your turn to tell your staff. 
  5. Introduce FedEx days. During professional development days, give 10 percent of the time to your staff and ask them to work on a problem they currently have in their job. Ask them to share their outcome by e-mailing you or see if they are interested in sharing their problem and solution with the staff.

There you go. Creating a culture of innovation is no easy task, especially in a school system that is run on the industrial model of school bells, periods and desks in rows. You can change this, of course, and that would be a big risk. So, start smaller -- bell by bell, step by step.