Can We Overcome Our Innovation Gap?

Our educational system is facing a multitude of “tipping points” in today’s landscape.  You might say it is both a very exciting and rather difficult and concerning time to be working in public education.

Our world has opened up and been condensed through the relentless advance of technology.  And with that technology, a plethora of research, strategies and ideas has been placed at our fingertips for us to utilize and implement for the benefit of our students.

Yet, even in the 21st century, we still struggle with large pockets of complacency and avoidance to the research and best practices. Often decisions are made in spite of knowledge to current research that not only hinders the progress and growth of the profession, but the very students who rely on us to prepare them for an unknown and quickly changing future.

In 2000, Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton released their seminal work dedicated to improving the ability of organizations to turn knowledge into action, known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” While touted as a business leadership book, their work speaks volumes to the various tipping points we are facing in moving our educational system forward into the 21st century. Let’s look at how their work with business organizations can shed light on factors that may be impeding ‘next steps’ to progress…

“Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished.  When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”  –The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton

A gathering of the world’s highest performing educational systems met in New York to discuss and determine how to best prepare teachers and school leaders for the 21st century. This International Summit focused on how to best improve the teaching profession and methods needed to develop and increase the ability of our school leaders and teachers to prepare our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

While discussions took on varied topics at the summit, a main theme that ran throughout was a focus on strong leadership and the key role that instructional leaders must play in creating and sustaining high performing education systems. Creating these high performing systems would require our instructional leaders to possess the necessary tools and ability to support, develop and evaluate teachers towards increased quality and effectiveness. Alongside leadership and teacher quality, themes such as equity, accountability and building a results-focused culture of commitment were central talking points at the summit. However, it appears that instructional leadership and teacher quality took center stage  in these discussions.

If this is true and leadership does play a central role in the success of our public educational system in preparing our students to thrive in the 21st century, then it is vital that our actions and initiatives match the rhetoric behind this monumental task.

As with any great system or organization, building a culture of commitment requires a foundation built upon and based on trust if it is to be both effective and sustained. If you want those in the system to be committed and results-focused, then it is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture where those themes can flourish. Otherwise, best case scenario, when leadership is lacking, you end up with a culture of compliance that seeps into your organization or system. And for these reasons, we have to determine if the culture we have constructed in education supports what teachers are being asked to accomplish.

What we are asking teachers to do is to be more innovative, integrate technology, equip our students with the skills necessary for them to be successful in a changing and growing global economy. To have a 21st century skill-set.

And in the same breath, we are sending our teachers an incongruent message by incorporating “new evaluation systems” aimed at eliminating ineffective teachers and implementing value-added initiatives that spotlight individual teacher progress for student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests.

So what is the message that is being heard by teachers?

Be innovative at your own risk.  There is no room for failure and/or learning from mistakes. Innovation and building new skill-sets is great, as long as your scores on high-stakes tests continue to increase each year.

While our rhetoric may focus on the importance of integrating technology and preparing our students with those necessary 21st century skills, our initiatives send what our teachers hear as the ‘real’ message. If your students don’t perform well on high-stakes standardized tests then you risk being labeled as ineffective, with the possibility of being terminated from your position.

Do not misread the message here, I am in no way against the use of assessments and assessment data to determine and monitor the progress and achievement of our students. Assessment and assessment data are incredibly valuable tools for determining the effectiveness of our instruction and the level of student learning achieved from that instruction.

Formative assessment is one of the best interventions available to teachers in the classroom for determining progress and next steps. However, as with all good tools, how you use them determines their overall effectiveness.

As instructional leaders, should we be the least bit surprised when we use assessment and assessment data as a hammer and/or evaluative tool and in the same breath demand teachers to be more innovative and wonder why change is limited or often non-existent?

Pfeffer and Sutton accurately point out in the opening quote’ “when people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”

If we continue to send the message that high-stakes standardized tests are the pinnacle of determining your effectiveness as a teacher, we will continue to see our classrooms shielded from new and innovative ways of teaching. The risk of job loss and being labeled as an ineffective instructor will keep teachers focused on “scoring high” and inhibit, rather than increase innovative methods of instruction and learning that prepare our students for the 21st century.

Beyond leadership and teacher evaluation, the summit engaged itself around methods to transform our classrooms and focused on;

  • complex ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and learning
  • complex ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communication technologies.

Once again, necessary skill sets for students heading out into a fierce and competitive global marketplace.

However, if we are going to transform education for the 21st century, it is the responsibility of our instructional leaders to incorporate and model those necessary skills in our educational system.

More creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration will be necessary if we are going to exact positive change for student success. We have to increase our understanding of change and change theory and processes if we are going to be more effective within the educational system. Comprehending that fear is a strong deterrent to change and change efforts is a great first place to start.

As Pfeffer and Sutton soundly express in The Knowing-Doing Gap, “it is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, in an atmosphere of trust and safety.  Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.”

If our students are to reap the benefits of graduating both college and career ready and appropriately equipped to thrive in a competitive global marketplace, the decision-making prowess of our instructional leaders must remain focused on developing and sustaining the conditions and cultures that will support and allow forward-thinking and innovative ideas and methods to grow and flourish in the system.


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