Stupski_NM-Summit-Aug09_stripI’m just back from helping facilitate an incredible event: 240 talented educators passionate about building the next generation of K-12 learning. Some of the innovation models and discussions are universal and applicable to any organization; I’ll comment on those in a moment.

First, I’d just like to applaud the Knowledge Alliance, Stupski Foundation, and West Wind Education Policy for convening and delivering an incredible summit. Attendance was by invitation and there was a rich mix of private, social, and government sector representatives, many involved in innovative initiatives. Together, they spent three days exploring ways to combine and focus their efforts. [KnowledgeGarage repository]

Doblin’s Larry Keeley offered the keynote on Innovating by Design. Here are the three big ideas he discussed:

1. “Innovation is a set of skills, an everyday thing and not an event or a turn in the road.” Of course, I won’t be doing Strategy | Innovation | Facilitation if I didn’t believe that! Yet how many organizations have any consistent structure or systems for innovating?

2. Larry presented Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation model. It’s a model I’ve used in my consulting for years because it dramatically broadens thinking beyond new and better products and services. This graphic comes from an online article by Larry summarizing the model.


3. His presentation concluded with a set of tips for fostering innovation (copied here from the session notes):

  • Think big and stand in the future…Focusing too tightly on the status quo will force failures
  • Prototype a compelling model solution…Not because you will get it right, but instead because it is a shared idea
  • Co-construct, co-construct, co-construct…All of us are smarter than any of us; don’t be exclusionary
  • Avoid central control…It doesn’t work, it is woefully out of date, modern systems don’t need it
  • Start with what you have now…You will not ever have perfect conditions, so be adaptive and modular
  • Foster integrated platforms, not products…not just what we do, but how we do it, so that many independent participants can participate in the solution

Here are a few of my own observations about innovation in K-12 education, most of which are easily extrapolated to other arenas:

1. Standing in the future dramatically clarifies strategic thinking. Someone once said if you’re having trouble solving a problem, make it bigger. While the present (actually the near-future) often seems muddy and contradictory, many things about the more distant future have a high degree of confidence: for example, minority students will comprise a majority of our school-age population within two decades; mobile computing will be more powerful and accessible, and the 5% per year increase in per capita cost of education is unsustainable. Accordingly, I submit it’s easier to envision the shape of U.S. education twenty years from now than it is five years from now.

2. I loved Larry’s admonition to look for a “profound case of stupidity” at the core of any system. In education, it’s our age-graded assembly line system operating in the face of growing dissimilarity in student needs. We need to study/innovate other systems for personalizing learning that produce better results at sustainable cost levels.

great-teachers-sm3. I wrote in my notes, “Find and study the fastest moving organisms.” There are teachers and principals who are innovating new models and having success. There’s lots of research on their successes (see our Turnaround Challenge and Karin Chenoweth’s research for starters), but what’s missing is a systematic effort to identity, adapt, and adopt. In my view, these pioneers (or “lead users”) are the key to education innovation. Eric von Hippel, Director of the MIT Innovation Lab, has spent much of his career researching the vital role of lead users as the fundamental driver of innovation. He has a series of short video tutorials about lead user innovation. This bottom-up lead user innovation model needs to be married to Doblin’s top-down model if innovation in education is to have success.

4. In education, innovation is inhibited by dominant design forces that perpetuate our existing K-12 model in the same way they do the QWERTY keyboard, Microsoft Windows, the internal combustion engine, and other industry standards. James Utterback studied these forces in Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation:

User acceptance of the dominant design of the original innovation created certain boundaries within which subsequent waves of innovation wisely developed….For example, we will see in the next chapter how the displacement of gas lighting by incandescent lighting was advanced by Edison’s running wires through the very same pipes that once brought illuminating gas into consumers’ homes. […]

The lesson for technology managers and business strategists is straightforward: understand the constraints of systems, user learning, habits, and collateral assets already imposed by the existing dominant design. [p51]

I love that image of Edison running wires through repurposed gas pipes! It’s quite an analogy for K-12 education innovation, given that the current dominant design is reinforced by so many levels of standardized systems and regulations, stakeholder expectations and habits, physical infrastructure, and teacher capability! Can we be smart enough to design effective innovation from within?

5. “Careful there!” Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould might have said. Dominant design principles exist in the natural world as well and beneficial mutations are often eradicated by genetic dilution despite their benefit to the mutated organism. Gould noted that many, many evolutionary adaptations spread and gain superiority in small, fringe populations before migrating into larger populations. To apply this principle to education, Gould might point out that within traditional schools innovative methods developed by cutting edge teachers rarely propagate far from their source. Meanwhile, charter schools are small, fringe worlds where innovation is more common, yet there is no effective migration path back into the larger dominant design schools.

6. Thus, we are confronting what we might call the Gravitational Paradox of Education Innovation. If we attempt to foster innovation, as Utterback suggests, in full recognition of the boundaries of the dominant design, we run the risk that the gravitation forces of the existing model will crush progress. On the other hand, if we foster innovation in places sufficiently protected from those forces, we run the risk they will burn up trying to re-enter the dominant design atmosphere. Where then to position our innovation camp?

7. I digress here to comment: on the core task of educating high-poverty students for productive lives, we have a ton of knowledge about how to do so if we were starting with a clean slate! It’s not an easy thing, for sure, but it’s the lesser innovation challenge compared to the institutional complexity of changing the K-12 industry itself. Typing_Fingers_sm(Similarly, we know the DVORAK keyboard is 16 times easier to use than the QWERTY, but the unsolved innovation challenge is how to migrate from one model to the other.)

8. So how do we tackle the Gravitational Paradox? Where do we position our innovation camp? I’ve thought a lot about this since the summit and I wonder if the Linux/Open Source model might not offer promise. In 1984, Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation launched the GNU project to create a free version of the Unix operating system as an alternative to the dominant, proprietary systems of the time. In the early 90s, Finnish grad student Linus Torvalds extended this work, proving to be adept at enrolling different organizations and programmers, coordinating self-interested development projects, promulgating standards, and slowly nurturing an entire Linux industry around a collaborative, global, largely volunteer effort.

9. Urban education, in my view, needs the same three things that made Linux work:

  • A clear mission and mandate to develop an alternative to the dominant design.
  • A means of enrolling and coordinating local innovators (typically lead users) to build that alternative.
  • The ability to perfect and protect a rigorous, yet customizable, system with reliable, replicable performance and supported by a sustainable, professional industry.

Despite the many differences between software and education, Linux successfully solved the paradox faced by education innovators. Committing to an “Open/Urban” model could pull lead user innovators into a national coalition, focus R & D, accelerate dissemination of successful innovations, and stimulate the formation of supporting institutions and professionals.

I look forward to comments!


One Response to “Facilitating at the National Education Innovation Summit”

  1. Hiya Dave. Tim O’Reilly agrees with the exploration of the Linux model in his discussion of “government as a platform.” The important things to take from that approach is that control is limited to a single kernel. From there users, system administrators, webmasters, and programmers tailor, apply, and republish the code.

    His design principles for “government as a platform” (relevant but insufficient for our needs) include:
    * Embrace open standards – they encourage innovation and grow the market
    * Build a simple system – let it evolve
    * Set the right defaults
    * Design for cooperation
    * Learn from your users, especially ones who do what you don’t expect
    * Lower barriers to experimentation
    * Build a culture of measurement
    * Throw open the doors to partners

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