Charles Leadbeater recently came to Vancouver and presented at the BC School Superintendents’ Association conference. I very much enjoyed his discussions of disruptive innovation. The purpose of this post is to try to weave a common thread through what I heard and to consider what implications might be taken from Leadbeater’s talk.
In addition to a main session, I had the benefit of spending an additional half day with Leadbeater. At a local metro version of his presentation, about 130 participants including teachers and administrators got to hear his message of how do you sow the seeds of innovation. After listing to him twice, what I took from Leadbeater is that in order to set the stage for innovation, you need to spend adequate time defining the problem. Once you have adequately orchestrated a conversation to explore/identify the problem, then you need to embark upon a novel solution. The novel solution is the opportunity for innovation. These innovations, if they are founded upon leveraging/exploring networks of individuals or groups, will be scalable. A fairly easy to follow theme rooted in incredible complexity when you consider developing innovative solutions to public institutions and overlaying the obstacles embedded in wide scale systemic change.
Leadbeater suggested that we could have solution for a low investment that will provide a high impact in our education system. He argued that simply providing “more” or “better” of the same solutions to our existing educational challenges will not take us to the next level. We require a “different” framework. The BC Education Plan proposes that different framework is a personalized learning agenda. Leadbeater sees the BC Plan as a step in the right direction, arguing that if we continue to pursue our current agenda within our same framework, we could put in a significant amount of resources and not see a huge improvement. He outlines his vision in his paper “Learning from the Extremes.”
From Improvement to Innovation
To make learning effective in the future, to teach the skills children will need, on the scale they will be needed (especially in the developing world), will require disruptive innovation to create new low-cost, mass models for learning. Even relying on good schools will not be enough.
This means there will have to be a wholesale shift of emphasis in education policies.
School improvement is still a vital goal. But more emphasis will need to be put on innovation that supplements school, reinvents it, and transforms learning by making it available in new ways, often using technology.
The chief policy aim in the 20th century was to spread access to and improve the quality of schooling. In the future it will be vital to encourage entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation in education, to find new and more effective approaches to learning.
Learning from the Extremes
That kind of disruptive innovation may well not come from the best schools. It is much more likely to come from social entrepreneurs often seeking to meet huge need but without the resources for traditional solutions: teachers, text books, and schools. Disruptive innovation invariably starts in the margins rather than the mainstream.
Governments should continue to look to the very best school systems to guide improvement strategies. But increasingly they should also look to social entrepreneurs working at the extremes who may well create the lowcost, mass, participatory models of learning that will be needed in the future.
Taking his presentation to heart, we would be advised not to look to our very best schools as models, but to teacher entrepreneurs who are working in the margins. In your buildings and districts, perhaps existing examples of personalized learning are widespread but hidden…drowning in the mainstream so to speak. Leadbetter suggests that if we want to have those solid examples of personalized learning result in scalable models, then we need to establish social networks that connect teachers.
Once again, we hear a common theme that a major role that a powerful leader can play is to identify exemplary practice and then to work with your colleagues to develop structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Only if we manage to develop and foster such opportunities can we help these pockets of innovation become webs of collaboration.