Exploring Innovation - Steve Barkley

Exploring Innovation

While working on an innovation in leadership project with the Near East South Asia Office of Overseas Schools (NESA) I had the opportunity to connect with Tim Fish, The Chief Innovation Officer at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Tim agreed to join me on a podcast following the conference to share his insights around the topic of innovation.

For a starting point, I asked Tim for a definition for innovation.

Tim: So, you were so kind to send that question to me ahead of time, and I started thinking, what definition would I use? And so, like everyone else right now, I went and asked ChatGPT, “what’s the definition of innovation?”

ChatGPT responded, “Innovation is a process of introducing a new idea, product, service, or process that creates value and improves upon an existing solution. It involves identifying a problem or opportunity and developing and implementing a novel solution that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, or society as a whole.”

Tim: There’s things in that that I think absolutely connect to my definition of innovation. Number one is, often when we try to do something new, the key element of innovation is responding to a challenge. There’s something that you’re up against and you’re responding to it. The other piece for me that I think is really interesting is this idea that it builds value, that it creates value. Value in our classroom, value for the work we’re doing.

 As educators, we often come to our work through a supply side, through our experience and knowledge about education, curriculum, and pedagogy. It’s important to also have another view, a demand side, a view of the learner, a view of the family, a view of the school community, and what they need and what I’m designing. How does that align with what they need and how they see the progress they’re trying to make?

I think innovation is a blend. It’s a blend of both what we know as teachers and educators, as how we design our supply side, and also taking into account what others need, the demand side. If I were to really boil it down, what I often speak about with innovation is that it’s a disposition. It’s a way of behaving. It’s a way of seeing ourselves and seeing the world. And it’s aligning that with our challenges and the progress we’re trying to make.

Steve– Tim, listening to you, I think I am hearing that innovation requires having a vision.

Tim: It absolutely requires having a vision.  I talk a lot about the deep relationship between the mission of the school, and the mission of a teacher. What’s our purpose? Why do we fundamentally do this work? Once we understand our mission, then our vision is what I call the public story we tell about the future we want to see.  The vision gives way to the strategy, the choices and bets you’re going to make on how to achieve that future.

 Strategy’s a lot about trade-offs. You can’t do it all. You have to decide that you are going to be more about this and less about that.  Innovation, I believe, is downstream of strategy and vision.  If we don’t have vision and strategy, what we end up with is what I call random acts of innovation. That’s where we get into chasing the latest and greatest, the bright and shiny objects, the latest tech. Innovation for innovation’s sake. When innovation is disconnected from vision and strategy is when it gets a bad name.

Tim’s comments about trade-offs were reinforced in a blog by Catlin Tucker titled, “Could Doing Less in Education Give Everyone More?,” Catlin points to research by Dr. Leidy Klotz about the power of subtraction.  How removing, streamlining, and simplifying can lead to positive change. However, humans have an innate drive to innovate, and innovation often leads to creating more or adding to what already exists. This trend is evident in most school districts and classrooms. School leaders identify priorities and adopt new initiatives without dedicating equal time and energy to identifying things that can be removed or eliminated. Can we look at subtracting some things as innovation on its own, as well as making space for an innovation to fit?

I asked Tim about the learning environment and skill sets that students need to practice in becoming innovators. He suggested that they were the same conditions and skills that teachers needed to be innovators. Both need to work in the role of designers in an agency rich environment.

Tim: I think we do a great job as educators of seeing and knowing our students. What I don’t know that we do such a great job of is having them feel needed in our classrooms. When I taught seventh grade math, I think my students were seen and known. I think I did that. I actually do. I probably could have done it better, but I think I did it. What I didn’t do – they weren’t needed in my math class, and when they weren’t there, math went on. What does it look like to design a math class or a history classroom or a fourth- grade classroom where the students are needed in the space?

Steve: That’s why the kids do the extracurricular.

Tim:  Yes. Because that’s where they’re needed. Whether it be robotics, athletics, band, or theater, they’re needed in that environment. Yes, you’re missed. So, what does it look like to create a classroom, where if you are not there, you’re missed? I’ve been thinking about that one quite a bit. I don’t have a perfect answer to it, but I think it’s a great question.

What does it look like when we’re innovating? What are the conditions we want? The ability to collaborate, the ability to prototype, the ability to try and fail quickly, the ability to get yourself into deep focus, deal with deep ambiguity and challenge. These are the kinds of skills and dispositions that we need. What does the lived daily experience of the student need to be from the moment they get off the bus to the moment they get back on the bus? What does it need to look like if those are the things we’re trying to create?  What do we need to do more of and what do we need to do less of?

You can listen to the whole podcast with Tim here.

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