Growth and Collaborative Commitment: The Innovation Equation

Growth and Collaborative Commitment: The Innovation Equation  

“Here we go again. Another Superintendent’s Conference Day! “More professional development! Wonder what they will tell us today?”  If you are a teacher or know a teacher, I guarantee you’ve heard these comments before. Unfortunately, many professional development efforts around the country continue to fall short as they focus on the “initiative” and not enough on collective commitment to growth and collaborative practices that ultimately unleash professional capital. And, while many suggest we are limited by time, I’ll advance we are limited by our design and thinking.

Michael Fullan states, “Most everyone espouses that ‘all kids can learn,’ but are less ready to say ‘all teachers can learn.” As school administrators we often expect teachers to teach the “whole child,” but do we “walk-the-walk” when it comes to educating the “whole teacher” or leading the “whole school”?

To be fair, in the factory model we inherited, schools were never about tapping and nurturing the human spirit or growing educators. Now, through the combined powers of connected learning, a systems thinking approach to leading, and cultivating the “whole school” we are seeing opportunities to accelerate organizational intelligence. But, how do school leaders reclaim and reshape the vision for professional learning?  How do school leaders connect with teachers and begin to tap the latent energy within our organizations and build this momentum for change.  

As the Lead Innovator (Respectful Disruptor) in Farmingdale Schools, I do a lot of work with teachers and school administrators in building an innovation mindset for our organization. Our learning events at Farmingdale have attracted our teachers, principals, directors, central office personnel and the board, as well as many other educators from other districts.   Focus is rarely ever on  “drive-by trainings,” yet is on group engagement and building strong peer networks that transform culture through ongoing collaboration, perspective building and risk-taking.  Having principal support and active engagement has amplified this experience.  As principals and teachers are given the autonomy to learn, they’ve taken charge of professional learning and we’ve seen more leaders emerge and share their learning with their PLCs.   

Below, I share some of our high leverage areas for leading professional learning aimed at unleashing professional capital. Call it a holistic, organic or even a “whole school” approach, our techniques are deeply rooted in the belief that all teachers and administrators continually seek their potential as educators, but need the structure and space to turn over old mindsets.  Our approach is echoed in this quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Unless the development of the mind and body goes hand in hand with a corresponding awakening of the soul, the former alone would prove to be a poor lopsided affair.”

Chip Away at Old Mental Models
Throughout our journey we’ve learned that to move beyond incremental change we need to create more opportunities to surface our personal and professional views and perspectives.  The focus of our work resonates with what Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman examine in their book Got Data? Now What? “The real work of change begins with having open conversations about our mental models and assumptions” (Lipton & Wellman, 2012).

It’s been two years now that we’ve offered our Summer Tech and Learning Camp in Farmingdale. The first day of camp is about developing personal commitments to action and recalibrating our mindsets for the journey ahead. In these events, the group becomes the focus of change and as facilitator I’m attentive to group interactions, the energy, and cumulative learning being produced and shared. These enlightening experiences put aside technology and lesson plans, allowing time and structure for teacher and administrators to reflect on their purpose and role in leading and learning. Our success has been measured not just in the shifting mindsets, but in how engagement has created more natural leaders and system thinkers.

Less Change, More Momentum
What if we thought of our organizations as a mass of energy that either maximizes the use of system resources or fails to tap the potential energy stored in the system?  Similar to an object in motion, organizations also display momentum.  In 2014, I shared my thoughts and ideas for why Farmingdale created and hosted Long Island Connected Educators Meet-up.  It was at that point that I developed the innovation equation, a key framework for building the energy needed to sustain the innovation mindset in your school.  It begins by looking at the Mass (or carrying capacity of our organization to learn/un-learn) times the Velocity (or engagement in learning). In Farmingdale, we started to host a number of informal learning events aimed at building a healthy leadership ecology.  The emergence of new natural leaders has also created a resurgence of followers. As I reflect back and look at this through the lens of diffusion of innovation, I caution school leaders to show restraint and follow the advice of Fullan who says, “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, and that may mean allowing momentum to build from those ready to lead.”  
Leverage Leaders, Change the Conversation 
All across New York, there are teachers in every school who are dedicated to constant improvement. What remains is figuring out how to get all teachers and school leaders to spread that degree of collective responsibility and professional capital. Our efforts over the last three years aim to “disrupt” our thinking and have that thinking spread through the school.  Again, our energy is focused on building momentum with those ready to lead and finding new creative ways to spread that energy has been our focus. To that end, we’ve hosted learning camps, informal meet-ups and begun restructuring our traditional learning events all aimed at creating more system thinkers and natural leaders in action in Farmingdale.  By making our camps, meet-ups and other learning events informal and driven by teacher interest, we are identifying leaders at all levels who naturally interact with larger parts of the system.  In this way, our capacity to learn grows as a result of improved engagement.  
As we begin the 2014/15 school year, our principals have assumed the role of lead learners and system thinkers. Efforts have been on creating environments where teachers need to learn to participate and new norms for learning are routed in self-organization and are intrinsically motivated.  
Social Intelligence and Integration 
In Farmingdale, our teachers and administrators continue to see the power of Twitter and other social tools.  In fact, given the widespread adoption of our “social mindset” we’ve seen momentum become accelerated and as knowledge flows in and out of our organization we tap the wisdom of the collectives. Our work this year has been about supporting those teachers already committed to connected learning, while simultaneously leveraging their learning with their peers.  Principals who connect with other principals have also started to integrate ideas like Tech Tuesday’s, collaborative documents, professional portfolios, which has created new channels for storytelling, technical assistance, sharing of materials and strategies, as well as other online/offline endeavors of teacher joint work/planning.

As I reflect back on the last three years, one theme emerges for us.  It’s about tapping and developing the deeper intelligences of self, others, and the collective system at a time when we really need them. I think more and more educators see the huge potential synergy here to reinvent professional learning. With a deeper understanding of systems thinking, grounded in mindfulness and creating an energetic and spirited learning organization, faculty and staff are becoming the agents of change. This new ecology represents an exciting and relevantly new dimension of the whole learning organization.  As lead innovator, I love watching how teachers’ and administrators’ learning is recalibrating and reorienting our organization to better cultivate the needs of our stakeholders – the children. As we forge new connections via our connected learners and see more natural leaders emerge, I am anxiously watching for the “turning point” and the key opportunities for our school to disrupt itself.  

Author: Dr. Bill Brennan (@DrBillBrennan) is lead innovator in Farmingdale Public Schools. A graduate of Fordham University’s Doctoral program in Educational Leadership, Bill led a National Study of School Principals, Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning. Dr. Brennan continues to teach, write and speak on building digital age learning organizations. He challenges school leaders to re-design organizations to better cultivate human and social capital.