How do you lead innovation in schools? Step 1: Unlearn some old stuff & Step 2: Learn some new stuff

School leaders – here’s a quick quiz

  • Are you prepared for disruption, mess and opposing viewpoints?
  • Do you think you can successfully challenge the status quo?
  • Can you throw out conventional approaches to leadership?
  • Will you stick to it for the long haul?

Yes? Then read on.

FullSizeRender (1)Making It Mobile is the SCIL signature workshop for educators coming up in a few weeks, held at our school in Sydney. In the practitioner strand the focus is on “teachers as designers”. Alongside this, I am facilitating a parallel workshop for leaders, but I am troubled. What if these amazing passionate teachers are inspired and are keen to innovate in their schools, only to return to the same-old leadership, where innovation needs to fit in a pre-defined box? These teachers will become discouraged and disillusioned. A new leadership paradigm is essential.

On my drive to work this morning I listened to the TEDx talk by Linda Hill: How to manage for collective creativity (Sept 2014). Linda is the professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. She opened her talk:

FullSizeRenderI have a confession to make. I’m a business professor whose ambition has been to help people to lead. But recently, I’ve discovered that what many of us think of as great leadership does not work when it comes to leading innovation….
If we want to build organisations [schools] that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership.

These “conventional notions of leadership” are spelt out in the plethora of leadership literature on our actual or virtual bookshelves published over many decades. They tell us that leadership starts with a vision, it rises and falls on the leader to execute strategy and, as many leaders can testify, it is a lonely and stressful business. The prevailing culture is that “the people” look to “the leader” to tell them what to do.

There seems to be two long held beliefs that need to be challenged:

  1. The absolute leader – knows all and tells all
  2. The lowly minion – has no ideas and does what they are told by the absolute leader

Companies like Pixar and Google understand that successful innovation is not about the solo genius, in the same way leading an innovative school or organisation requires a complementary team-based approach. The innovative school needs an innovative leader who creates the environment where:

  • collaboration is the culture
  • problems are opportunities
  • team is the prevailing structure
  • the talents and passions of ‘the many’ can be unleashed
  • diversity and conflict co-exist
  • there is a village or a community

The journey of innovation has an unknown tomorrow, but it starts today with complex and compelling problems that need an answer. To navigate this future the first thing we must do is embark on that journey of unlearning.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can not read or write, but those who can not unlearn, learn and relearn – Alvin Toffler


Making it Mobile – 2 day workshop
30 April – 1 May
Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney Australia

Debating the lecture: If so, how long should teachers talk?

The Lecture: The process by which the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either*

The term ‘lecture’, generally relates to university, where high level concepts are poured into empty vessels on a regular basis. However, for this discussion it also applies to any learning context where information/knowledge is transferred by the voice of one person to the ears of many.

How long should lecture be? The rise of the TED talk is interesting to think about.

There is definitely a place for expert knowledge and ideas to be shared in a one-to-many context and the TED-people are very smart at packaging thought-provoking and challenging ideas in an entertaining way (that’s what the ‘E’ in TED stands for). As a result, millions of people find out about a topic, from a knowledgeable expert in a 20 minute presentation.

TED talks cover a vast array of social, scientific, educational, spiritual and news-worthy topics. Friends and colleagues are regularly referring to and recommending TED talks on a whole range of subjects. These talks shape thinking and shake mindsets, all in 20 minutes.

Think about Ken Robinson’s talk. His first one from 2006 ‘…schools kill creativity’ is the most watched, to date, with well-over 8 million viewings on the TED site. It has shaped and inspired educators around the world, I repeat, all in 20 minutes. The increased impact of these lectures, is that they are not just in one place at one time, but are online and available for viewing at any time.

In researching this subject I stumbled across an interesting post by a writer and ‘lecturer’ on calculus from the University of Illinois, J. J Uhl, entitled: Why (and how) I teach without long lectures, He writes:

Simply put, today’s students do not get much out of long lectures, no matter how well they are constructed. The material comes too fast and does not sink in well. The students of the past responded by becoming quiet scribes. Today’s students demand more action and accountability.

So if a good lecture is 20 minutes long and you have an hour, what should you do?

  1. Realise that the transference of knowledge in the lecture has limited capacity, so plan the time carefully
  2. Get the people talking, engaging with each other and grappling with the ideas presented, this is when the deep learning really occurs
  3. Understand that the role of the teacher is changing

On this last point, there is a much deeper matter to think about, the place of the subject-specialist teacher in today’s education. Many teachers feel deeply that their value is in their own content expertise, yet there are so many places where students can now access knowledge. Where does this leave the subject-specialist teacher. The important thing to acknowledge is that even though the role of the teacher is changing, their input into the lives of young people is even more important, but it’s a little different in the 21stC.

The more I think about the place of the lecture in today’s education, the more I am convinced that access to good lectures that are short and delivered by engaging presenters have important value for learning, but by ‘access’ I mean not necessarily in the same room and they are definitely only one part of the learning process.


Courage is at the heart of leadership. Vulnerability is scary. Both are necessary for 21stC leaders

In an earlier post I asked: What skills and attributes does a principal need?
I answered my own question, listing things like vision, endurance and the last one was courage.

A tweet came back: “courage” is a key one.

How often is the ‘courage’ of leadership raised?

I watched a TED talk recently on vulnerability. Brene Brown, a qualitative researcher, emphasised the power in being vulnerable and the courage of vulnerability.

A city is vulnerable to attack, my home may be vulnerable to crime and a body vulnerable to infection. These statements convey negative impressions. So why, then, is being vulnerable important and worthwhile?

Through a journey that was personally painful, Brown looked at ‘How the whole-hearted live’. They lived with courage and vulnerability. The ‘whole-hearted’ have a strong sense of love and belonging and believe they are worthy of this. These people fully embrace what made them vulnerable and this also made them beautiful. This is not comfortable.

Vulnerability is essential to wholeheartedness and a wholehearted leader is the best kind of leader. Why? Because leadership is about people and people hurt and are hurt. We talk about the soft-skills of leadership, when they are really the tough skills of leadership.

I guess the term ‘soft’ emerged as a descriptor of a less tangible set of skills that focus on people, rather than task. In a sense, however, the term ‘soft’ underplays their significance. More and more the leader today is working alongside a team of people, charged to bring out their best as a means of achieving corporate or collective goals. The command-and-control method is no longer as effective.

A team  needs a leader who knows them, understands them, appreciates them and, dare I say, loves them. This isn’t a one way street. The leader also wants to be known, understood, appreciated and, dare I say, loved. This kind of relationship can only work with vulnerability

Vulnerability cannot occur without courage.

Being vulnerable means ‘capable of being wounded or hurt’. In a war zone, the soldier goes into battle, knowing that he or she is capable of being wounded or hurt, but they go anyway. The soldier shows courage, but courage and fear are not mutually exclusive.

Courage, and perhaps fear, are at the heart of leadership.

The derivation of the word courage is ‘heart’, a Middle English word from Old French corage, and from Latin cor ‘heart’, denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings. Vulnerability takes courage, because it is placing myself, with chinks in  my armour into the fray. Because of this I am more likely to show my authentic self, and I am real.

Brene Brown’s in depth investigation of vulnerability led to an unexpected consequence, what her therapist called a ‘spiritual awakening’, Brown called a breakdown, as it revealed elements of herself she needed to address.

The journey to vulnerability is not an easy nor comfortable one, but it will make us better leaders if we are courageous enough to take it.