Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why Innovators Don't Ask for Permission

A while back I wrote a post about the relationship between confidence and competence in teachers.  (You can find that post here).  I wrote about how when teachers feel confident, they tend to try different things and are more exploratory, but when their confidence is threatened, they go with the tried and (not necessarily) true and teach more by rote.  Safe. This particular post seemed to strike a chord with some of my colleagues and they told me how it matched their experience. 

Extrapolating from the teachers who feel confident and competent, I started to think of some of the innovative teachers I've met.  Not only did they feel competent when embarking on their particular innovation, but they tended not to seek permission or try to achieve consensus with the rest of the staff. 

One high school teacher put a big screen in his class and started a movie club at lunch time.  It gave kids a place to go instead of smoking or hanging out at the store.  He built this quiet community of kids who had a common experience with these films.  The teacher didn't ask; he just did it.

A middle school teacher created a classroom economy where students had to earn "money" by doing particular tasks and completing their assignments.  They used the money to pay for privileges and for necessities (e.g. rent for their desks).  The teacher didn't ask; she just figured it out.

A primary teacher had students record each other using digital cameras and iPods to document learning.  The learning went much deeper when she projected those pictures on the screen and the students discussed, reflected on and unpacked the learning that had taken place.  By making the internal process of learning visual and oral, the students were able to be metacognitive and used this experience as a springboard for future learning.  The teacher didn't ask permission or wait for the rest of the staff to get on board. 

I have these and more examples of innovative teaching practices on the Bright Ideas Gallery that I did a few years ago.  Most of these teachers did not ask permission (though some did consult their administration), nor did they form committees or try to get consensus on the right way to go.  Why didn't they?  Were they rebels?  Perhaps a little, but they had other reasons for not asking:

  1. Most of the innovative teachers I talked to did not have a real plan.  They were making it up as they went along and didn't know where they would end up or how long it would last.  It might not have even occurred for them to ask permission or include others.  Why bother if the idea fizzles or does not continue tomorrow?
  2. Some teachers just wanted to get going.  To research the idea intensively or to get others on board would take time or would have halted the momentum.  Think of the difference between sending an email and sending a letter.  I click a button and the email flies around the world in seconds.  With a letter, I have to: print the letter on paper which means finding paper, making sure the printer has toner and is plugged in, and that the cable is connected; then I have to find an envelope; then I have to write on the envelope; then I have to fold the letter, put it in the envelope, and lick that really gross glue; then I have to find a stamp, lick it, and put it on the envelope; then I have to find a mailbox.  The letter process usually takes me between a couple of hours and a week or so.  (It usually gets bogged down at the finding the stamp part).  The point is each one of the steps is an opportunity for the task to fail.  Compare the relatively simple task of mailing a letter with the incredibly complex task of getting your staff to agree on something as wacky as getting rid of all of your desks, and it is too daunting to even start. The innovators I talked to were really already on their way, and they wouldn't slow down, for anything. 
  3. The innovators were not excluding others; they just weren't ready to share yet.  They really wanted to work out some of the bugs before they presented the unusual ideas to others. 
  4. The innovators did not want to be asked to stop
Innovators are looking for a better way.  That way may not be obvious to others, and sometimes it is not obvious to the innovators.  It is a messy but fun process.  A lot of the innovators would get this grin or twinkle in their eyes when they talked about when they were getting started with their innovation.  There was something deliciously subversive in going against the "way we've always done it."  And what kind of fun would it be to get permission to be subversive?