Becoming a Competent 21st Century Leader of Innovation in Your School or District from The 21st Century Principal by J. Robinson

“If a company is not nimble enough to rethink its strategy while it still has the assets and strength to change and adapt, it is doomed to wither or die.”  Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman
Blockbuster, Borders, and Circuit City are examples of companies that failed to be “nimble enough” to rethink how they do business in the face of change around them. Each of these companies withered and died because they did not change and adapt while they still had the resources and strength to do so. Now public schools are in similar circumstances, and they might not have what it takes to survive.

In the end, Blockbuster did not see and react fast enough to streaming video. It failed to see the revolution in a new way to deliver video to customers because its leaders were perhaps not open to new ideas and new approaches to video delivery. Borders failed to respond in a timely manner to the reality of e-readers and e-books brought on by Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Perhaps their leaders still saw a bookstore in a physical location as the primary way people can and will purchase books. Circuit City failed to see, first of all, the "electronics superstore” model brought forth by Best Buy, and secondly, the inroads of online electronic retailers such as Amazon in their retail business. Perhaps their leadership failed to be open to new ideas on how to sell electronics to customers. Each of these businesses failed, not because they couldn't do what they had been doing well, but because leadership was shortsighted. Their leaders were not open to new ideas and novel approaches to do business until it was too late. 

Today, I fear that too many school leaders and their schools are following the path these business leaders and their companies trod. These school leaders are not open to new ideas and new approaches to teaching and learning. They still see standardization, testing, textbooks, and traditional schooling as the only means to educate all students, so they spend inordinate amounts of time and effort perfecting and trying to make these work. They are not open to entirely new ideas and novel approaches to teaching and learning, unless those new ideas of teaching and learning only allow their schools to continue operate as they always have. Then, they scratch their heads because too many of our kids still fail, drop out, or graduate unable to be productive. What they need is a mind that is open to the new and novel that will allow them see the things that could revolutionize teaching and learning.

What can school leaders do right now to demonstrate what Goleman calls the competence of "innovation" or the ability to be open to the novel and new? How can they demonstrate they are open and actively seeking new ideas and novel approaches to education? Borrowing from Goleman, here's 4 things school leaders can do to open up to innovation.
  • “Seek out fresh ideas from a wide variety of sources.” In the information age this should not be a problem for school leaders. Fresh ideas and new sources of information are just a “Tweet” away for those school leaders willing to wade into social media. RSS feeds and RSS readers can help with the gathering of potential resources and ideas, and web tools like Diigo, Evernote, and Pocket can help with archiving and sharing. Finally, there are explosions of print materials available too. Personally, for me, the Kindle and Nook apps on my iPad make it possible for me to carry around 20 to 50 books and resources at one time, so that I can engage in a quick read at a moment's notice. If 21st century school leaders want to be open to innovation, they must seek out new ideas and resources wherever they can find them.
  • “Entertain original solutions to problems.” In public schools, there’s still too much of “We've gotta do it this way because we've always done it this way.” Try to change something radically, and you are immediately put in your place with, "You can't do that." As 21st century school leaders we need to look for original, out-of-the-box solutions to our problems, instead of doing the same old kinds of things and hoping things turn out different. We see so little innovation in schools or districts often because no one looks for original solutions; they revamp and tweak old solutions. They either do what they always have done, or they do what everyone else is doing, both of which do not work. If 21st century school leaders want to be open to innovation, they must be alert and willing to engage in original solutions to the problems their schools or districts face.
  • “Generate new ideas.” Twenty-first century school leaders need to purposefully find ways to generate new ideas. They can turn their schools into incubators of innovation by engaging staff, and themselves, in techniques and tools that foster original thinking and ideas. They can create a culture where “no-idea-is-too-dumb" and original thinking is welcomed. If 21st century school leaders want to foster original thinking and new ideas, they need to demand and accept originality, unconventionality, and non-conformity as a rule.
  • “Take fresh perspectives and risks in their thinking.” School leaders who want to be open to innovation have to stop seeing education through the eyes of bureaucrats and policymakers and see education through the eyes of teachers, students and their parents. They need to do whatever is necessary to see teaching, learning, and schooling with the eyes of those engaged in those activities. And to take risks in thinking, they need to be willing to try things that no one else is trying and need to stop being risk-averse. If 21st century school leaders want to be open to innovation, they must view teaching and learning through new perspectives and be willing to take risks, and encourage others to do so as well.
If our public schools are ever going to be nimble enough to survive the massive changes occurring around them, they are going to need both school leaders and teachers willing to be open to “novel ideas and approaches” instead of simply trying to preserve things the way they are.

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