“We are ready to innovate.  We’ll have to figure out how to get everyone on board and make sure it fits within our culture. And just so you know, there are a few things that we would never try…  My board is really pushing for this, but I’m starting to get excited now too.”  –Anonymous School Leader–

Assistant Superintendents of Innovation.  Innovation zones.  Innovation grants. Innovation competitions. Innovation conferences. i-Schools.  Innovation is running amok in K-12.

The good news: K-12 will benefit from significant innovation over the next two decades with technology as a catalyst.  The bad news: “innovative” initiatives in established organizations often don’t go anywhere.

When superintendents and CEOs of school systems ask how to get started in blended learning, I tell them to skim The Innovator’s Dilemma, which describes why — time and time again — established organizations miss out on new waves of innovation even when they see them coming from miles away. Think Blockbuster and Netflix, Borders and Amazon, Google and Facebook.  Google is an amazing company with massive resources and it routinely gets outflanked by scrappy, under-resourced start-ups.

It’s easy to pick on chronically under-performing, bureaucratic school districts, but successful school systems are equally at risk of facing the innovator’s dilemma.  If a successful school system can consistently open great schools in underserved neighborhoods, there is very little incentive to try something new and unproven.  The path of least resistance is to tweak what is already working, which is fine and worthwhile, but this strategy will not lead to transformative change and might ultimately put the organization at a disadvantage in the long-term.

Disruptive innovations often emerge in new organizations. I don’t think K-12 education and blended learning will be any different. Rocketship Education and Khan Academy have profoundly impacted education and both were founded in the last few years.  There are a number of school districts with the teaching talent and financial resources to create a Khan Academy, but it took an entrepreneur completely outside of the K-12 system to lead the innovation.

Fortunately, there is hope for existing, established organizations who want to innovate.  Apple was near bankruptcy and rebounded to revolutionize the music and mobile device industries.  Charles Schwab went from a full-service, bricks-and-mortar brokerage firm to an online trading powerhouse. In K-12, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School started as a traditional high school and re-invented itself as a pioneer in the nascent blended learning movement.

Here are a few steps established school systems can take to promote innovation.

Keep your innovation teams small and protected (from the rest of your organization).  One of the smartest things the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools did when it launched its blended learning initiative (BLAST) was create a separate unit with a small, two-person team that reported directly to the CEO.  No twenty person committees. No need to coordinate every move across the organizational matrix.  No office politics.  No industry experts.  In the best of worlds, the shiny, new initiative attracts a lot of well-intentioned interest from folks across the organization who want to be part of the action, share their expertise, and weigh in on key decisions.  It is tempting to let more people get involved in order to promote “buy-in,” but the end result is a large, unwieldy group that thinks in terms of the organizational status quo.  In the worst of all worlds, the rest of the organization will be outright hostile to new ways of doing things, particularly school systems driven largely by politics.  Politics are kryptonite to innovation.

There are a few strategies that established school systems can take to protect their innovation efforts, ordered from least to most aggressive.

  • Grant an individual school full autonomy to launch a new effort;
  • Create a new, autonomous department within the organization that separately manages innovation schools;
  • Launch a separate organization with separate branding that still falls under the same governance structure;
  • Spin out a new, independent organization.

Find a starting point, not the perfect idea.  The best school leaders I know are relentless and unapologetic about stealing “best practices;” this type of knowledge transfer has been essential to the proliferation of high-performing, no-excuses schools.  However, blending learning is in its infancy and there is no script to follow.  Today’s best practices will change tomorrow.  This nascent stage of development is uncomfortable for educators who just want to know where they can “go see it” in action.

Don’t look for the perfect model or solution.  Look for a starting point – a place to put a stake in the ground so the learning can really begin.  Most great innovations start out as simple, imperfect solutions that are frowned upon by industry experts (e.g., digital cameras entered the market with dramatically inferior picture quality).  Rocketship Education launched its learning lab model with a relatively modest implementation, but today the Learning Lab is becoming a hub for its face-to-face interventions and the launching point for specials like art and physical education.  Firstline Schools used the Rocketship learning lab model as its stake in the ground and, in an unforeseen development, began to find new ways to redeploy their special education staff in the lab.

There have been very few education environments that create authentic, individualized learning experiences for students, and most schools who are piloting blended learning are surprised by students doing amazing and unpredictable things when given the opportunity.  But you have to let the unpredictable happen first.  Only then can you begin to perfect your innovation.

Test, learn and iterate rapidly.  Teachers in blended classrooms are watching instructional practice evolve on the fly.  The questions that emerge are seemingly endless… How do you incorporate real-time student data in the classroom?   How do you train students to use a combination of teacher-led, peer-to-peer, and online resources to reach their learning goals?  Is a personalized school environment a better place to teach meaningful, authentic lessons about character, values and citizenship?

Promising blended learning schools are discussing how to improve instructional practice on a weekly and often daily basis.  Envision Schools modeled this process in an exemplary way when they documented their Khan Academy pilot experience on blendmylearning.com.  These iterations will improve dramatically as school systems begin to benefit from “big data.”  A small example: two hundred students in Summit Public Schools’ Khan pilots generated 352,000 pieces of data in just 6 weeks.

The most innovative organizations frequently test new ideas, learn from user feedback and rapidly iterate the product or service into something better.  Processes to promote innovation emerge to balance competing needs for smart, risk-taking and great execution.

Build a culture and language of innovation that the organization can understand and support.  Leaders trying to create the conditions for innovation need a vision for how the undertaking fits into the organization’s broader strategy; otherwise, uncertainty and resentment will build as the “cowboys” run around drawing a disproportionate share of resources and recognition.  The most effective leaders use the organization’s mission and values to drive the innovation.  For example, “the only way we can help students be college-ready is if we empower then to be deep thinkers and independent learners.  This is and always will be our mission.  Our new (blended) school model can help us by…” Aligning innovation with mission and values takes the attention away from technology and places the focus on the important things – serving students in better and better ways.

Finally, organizations will have to figure out how to measure success.  New things are only worth doing if they are significantly better than what exists; however, the journey can be bumpy and unpredictable.  Organizations need to figure out when to abandon dead-ends and when to double-down on promising results.  Balancing high expectations with risk-taking and a ruthless focus on greatness is a high-wire act for any organization.  But organizations give themselves a chance by clearly defining success along the way.

Today’s high-performing, established schools systems have tremendous advantages.  They are filled with smart, talented people, have great track records, and can access resources.  But the more successful they become, the harder it is to do new things.  Leaders who can create conditions for innovation will help their school systems rise up and move in powerful new directions.

* Charter School Growth Fund is an investor in Rocketship Education, Alliance BLAST, and Summit Public Schools.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools


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