Category Archives: innovation in education

Change happens. You can either do it, or it will be done to you.

Someone asked me a question similar to this; “What do we do about kids that are distracted by devices in the classroom?”

My response was, “Maybe we have to be less boring?”

Although this is obviously not that simple or black and white, it is something that we have to think about.

Do not think the expectation only has gone up for teachers in the classroom.  Look around your staff meetings; how many educators (paid to be there) are disinterested?  Sometimes they go to their devices, and sometimes they bring in their marking to get done during that time.  Sometimes they are multitasking, but sometimes they have a singular focus; it’s just not on what is happening in the room.

When I start many of my talks or sessions, I encourage people to go to devices and provide them spaces either through hashtags on Twitter or Google Docs.  This isn’t someone saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”  This is understanding that there is an insane amount of opportunity in bringing these devices into the fold to further learning during, after, and sometimes even before the face-to-face learning happens.

Do I believe that people are 100% into my sessions at all times? Nope.

What this is understanding that if I were to teach the way I taught several years ago and ignore what exists in our world now, the problem isn’t solely placed on the learner.  I have to take advantage of these opportunities.

If you teach the way you taught pre-devices, pre-google, and pre-social media, and then introduce devices into the classroom, the majority of us are going to have a hard time staying “engaged”. We have to rethink our teaching.

I do not know much about this Michigan high school that recently banned devices (July 2016) in their classrooms, but my questions would be the following:

  • Tell me about the opportunities you see with your own learning using devices.
  • How have you implemented opportunities for learning with devices in your own professional learning?
  • What opportunities do these devices bring into the classroom that didn’t exist before?

These articles used to really bother me, but what I have learned is that I never know the whole story. There is always more to any article or tweet you read online.  That being said, here is one part that bothered me:

The decision regarding the new cell phone policy was made after several discussions with the high school advisory committee, made up of teachers and support staff, and with the parent advisory committee, Bohl said.

Notice anything missing? Me too.

Change happens.  You can either do it, or it will be done to you.

Either way it will happen and I am doing my best to embrace the former than the latter.

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Curious about…?

In Amanda Lang’s book, “The Power Of Why: Simple Questions That Lead to Success”, she talks about the importance of curiosity and it’s connection to intelligence:

Curiosity is, therefore, strongly correlated with intelligence. For instance, one longitudinal study of 1,795 kids measured intelligence and curiosity when they were three years old, and then again eight years later. Researchers found that kids who had been equally intelligent at age three were, at eleven, no longer equal. The ones who’d been more curious at three were now also more intelligent, which isn’t terribly surprising when you consider how curiosity drives the acquisition of knowledge. The more interested and alert and engaged you are, the more you’re likely to learn and retain. In fact, highly curious kids scored a full twelve points higher on IQ tests than less curious kids did.

As I was reading this book, here were two things that came to my mind:

And then…

Ian Hecht shared this tweet with me:

This is getting kids to be “curious about history”, which will definitely help students to flourish in other areas.

You will hear lots of people push the thinking (paraphrased), “Our students shouldn’t ‘do’ math, but try to think like mathematicians.”  I can’t remember where I saw it, but I do remember someone challenging this notion suggesting that a “mathematician”  is not something you become simply because you are trying to think that way.  It takes years of dedication and work to become a “mathematician”, “scientist”, or “writer”.  That made sense to me.  But what if we promoted the notion that we want to encourage kids to become “curious” about these disciplines?  Is this not a step towards that path, while also encouraging students to find their own ways?

Asking questions, not regurgitating answers, is the first step towards innovation and creativity.  Promoting curiosity, and having students thirst for knowledge, no matter the discipline, is a much more powerful path than simply learning the “stuff”.  It ensures that spark is lit long after their time in any single classroom or school.

What if our goal in school was to inspire curiosity, especially, since in many cases, we actually negate it. I believe the learning that could happen would be something that we create tremendous growth both in schools and society.

Innovation starts not by providing answers, but by asking questions.

The Innovator’s Mindset (Book Study)

It has almost been one year since I committed to writing “The Innovator’s Mindset”, and decided to go with Shelley and Dave Burgess, and I couldn’t be more grateful. The response has been overwhelming, and my hope of this book starting conversations instead of ending them, has been something that has come to life.  My hope was to make people think differently about the possibilities for education, within the “box” that we work inside.

I was overwhelmed when I saw this tweet just the other day:

Seriously humbling.

People like Mandy Froehlich have been using it for book studies for pre-service teachers, many schools have coordinated group talks, some innovative leaders in Ontario coordinated a book study with it, and many others. Brandon Timm is doing a series sharing his thinking with his wife Jo, and making YouTube channels for each chapter (love it!).  I have done my best to jump into these conversations as much as possible, to use this to connect and learn from others. It has been an awesome experience.

This weekend, Bethany Ligon shared this book study resource that she used with her own district, and has graciously shared it with me for others to use, modify, and remix it, for their own purposes.  This was my hope and it is awesome to see it come to life.

I have also been updating resources on the blog for people to use and modify as well, with links to videos, books, articles, and anything else that I can find, relative to the book.  Please feel free to use it how you see fit.

Heather Campbell shared this picture that she created from the book the other day:

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As more changes happen in my life, I had to remind myself of this quote above. I just wanted to write this post to acknowledge all of those who have not only supported this work, but have pushed my thinking. The twitter chats, the voxer groups, the “skypes” with schools, and all of the face-to-face conversations,have been awesome.  I am looking forward to the continued journey.


Embracing Meaningful Change at All Levels

One of the conversations that you will here from school districts is the idea that they want people to embrace change.  One of the things that I believe in is that change solely for the sake of change, is not a good idea. It has to be meaningful change. Change does not necessarily equal meaningful change.  For this to happen, you can not only outline the what and how, you need to also clearly articulate the why.

This is crucial.

Yet something that I have seen are many people in these leadership positions, are really open to pushing change, yet struggle mightily when having change thrust upon them. If people in leadership positions are not open to being challenged on ideas that are happening in schools, especially when those ideas impact kids and teachers, why would people be open to embracing change? It needs to be modelled at all levels.

For example, if the initiatives that are pushed from a central office, and often IT departments,  that are not necessarily “what is best for kids”, is the decision that is ultimately made steering your organization into the best direction?  The needs of students and educators should lead how decisions are being made from administrative positions.

If we are to really promote and help others embrace meaningful change, these things are crucial:

  1. We need to start with the question “what is best for learners?”, and work backwards from there.
  2. We need to be open to pushback, and in fact, encourage it.  If we can’t defend and articulate why we are doing what we are doing, it might not be worth doing.
  3. We need to create a vision for education together, not just push our vision onto others.
  4. Understand that when we say people should be “flexible”, that doesn’t really mean people should be “compliant”. Being flexible is about working together, not being open to do exactly what one is told to do.  Shared solutions are the ones that are most often implemented.

The higher we go up in any organization, the more people we serve, not the other way around.  If you are in a leadership position, always remember this.

The need to encourage others to embrace meaningful change, needs to be modelled at all levels, especially from the top.  We expect teachers to not only teach, but to be willing to “learn”. Modelling their willingness to learn is a crucial example for students to learn from. “Leaders” should not only be willing to lead, but to be led.

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The Policies In Your Head

Working with educators and trying to help challenge the traditional notion of schooling, many of them will come to me privately and say, “I would love to do some of this stuff, but our policies won’t allow us.”  When I talk to their principals though and ask them about those same policies, they will tell you that they don’t exist.

Sometimes we create something in our head as a barrier, or we hold onto something from years previously.

At a session with a group of teachers in Winnipeg that I am working with, one of the comments was that they were reluctant to go on Twitter because “the union wouldn’t allow it”.  Serendipitously over lunch, the following tweet was sent by the same union:

The barrier was either in their own mind, or no longer existed.

I know people will always say, “Ask for forgiveness instead of permission”, but I have never been in that mindset. I like not getting into trouble.  One thing that I would always say to my teachers as a principal is that “I cannot solve problems that I don’t know exist.”

Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the pursuit of doing what is best for kids. Otherwise, the thing that might be holding you back is your own thinking, and nothing else.

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What are the “absolutes” in education?

I saw a video the other day, and one of the statements kind of irked me.  It stated that every student should be able to __________ by the time that they are finished school.  I would let your imagination wander in what that thing was, but it got me thinking about how often we talk in absolutes.  Often, those absolutes are based on our own interests or passions as educators, not necessarily what is essential for our students.  Sometimes they are connected, but sometimes it is what we are passionate about.  There are things that I did in school that I use in no way in my life now, and there are things that I learned that I still use daily.

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The responses were not all necessarily serious (you can read the majority of them under the original tweet), but many of them were.  They didn’t have the words “coding” or “social media” in the time of writing this post, yet those words are often thrown around in the circle of absolutes.

I think a great activity that could be done with your staff or community is to ask this very question, and then discuss the answers, and how are you (or aren’t) making them come to reality.

What are you education absolutes? What would your students say?  What are you doing to get there?

Checklist or Art Form?


As I was watching a video on “professional learning” this morning, the speaker was discussing the importance of our time to increase results, and something kind of dawned upon me.  There seems to be two “camps” on education “reform” that I have noticed on somewhat polar opposite sides of the spectrum.

  1. Group 1 that focuses on “improving test scores” (better equals improvement in traditional measures).
  2. Group 2 that thinks we should totally start over again and school should look nothing like it does now.

If you asked me, which way I lean, I would go to “Group 2”, but I also know it is not a reality.  Schools that are publicly funded will always demand some type of accountability, and I can change what I do, but not necessarily what politicians or districts dictate.  I hate to say this, but I am somewhere in the middle, which is why I am always big on the idea of “innovating inside of the box“. In education, we work in a box and we can either do what we can within it, or ignore it and be in jeopardy of losing our livelihood.  This is a reality.

Sometimes I think what is being taught in the curriculum is not going to be relevant to our students by the time they leave school (example…students are still tested on writing a “newspaper” article while the industry is dying in many areas of the world), but I can’t tell a group of teachers “ignore the curriculum” and teach what you think is best.  First of all, they could lose their jobs for not meeting the requirements of the job, but I also think, not all teachers think the same. What they believe kids will need in the future, can greatly depend on so many factors and biases.  I am not saying it is wrong, but I am saying it is more complicated than what we first perceive.

In a workshop recently in Manitoba, I asked educators what their “big question” was, and one question that came up several times in their results was the idea of being “innovative” and how it would be hard to do within the curriculum. So as the group was out for lunch, I googled the Manitoba curriculum standards, and the first link I saw was “Social Studies”. I clicked on it, and just randomly chose the Grade 5 standards.  After looking at it, I found a section based on the “Fur Trade”, which is something that I learned about when I was in school in the 80’s, but honestly, couldn’t tell you much about now.

One of the suggested activities to learn about the fur trade (for grade 5 students) was to, “listen to songs about the fur trade”.  I thought to myself, that listening to songs about the fur trade might not be the most “engaging” activity for grade 5 students, and when I shared this with the group, they agreed.  After this, I shared some ideas on ways to empower students through this process, and asking them ways that they could create and research this topic, and share music they created, a website, oral presentation, etc., or they could come up with ideas on how they share their own learning, that would be much more powerful and develop a deeper understanding of the “fur trade” while building on other skills such as communication, literacy (not just reading and writing, but how we communicate in today’s world), or even digital citizenship, if students were to think about posting their work online. Questions such as why did you share what you chose to share, and how could an audience interpret your work?

Why did I pick this topic and curriculum objective? Because it was the first one that I saw and I wanted to prove a point that teaching goes way beyond curriculum objectives.  What we teach is not really as important as how we teach. In my first years of education, those suggested activities were my lifeline. I needed them because I thought of teaching as more of a checklist, than an art form.  “If I do this, then I will be able to say that I taught this objective.”  But the other element of this is that here is where I see this middle ground.  The art form should still help kids do better on any “test” because if they feel engaged AND empowered in their learning, they will know the subject as well as develop skills that will last them long past my time with them as their teacher.

If we only try to “engage” students, will they become dependent upon us for their learning?  When we focus on empowering their learning, they will thrive after us as learners.  That’s what the best teachers do.  You will eventually not need them because you have learned to learn, not just what to learn.

Is my suggestion the best way to teach the fur trade?  Probably not.  But I know that I think of teaching more of an art form in how to really get students learning more than how I teach. I am not sure you can do this with every curriculum objective, but I do know that it is easy to say “we can’t” because of the system we are a part of, and in reality, is not changing any time soon. Instead, I want to figure out how to make something so much better out of our realities than simply treating education as a checklist on how to get better test scores.

We often wish change for others, but do not think of what we can change ourselves.  Just a reminder, how we teach is so much more important than what we teach.  That will make the impact that lasts much longer than any one curriculum objective.

How you teach is an art, not a checklist.

How Quickly Things Change

If you have never seen the “Blockbuster Offers a Glimpse of Movie Renting Past”, it is a great (and funny) piece that promotes some great conversations on how quickly things can become obsolete:

It is a great video to discuss how quickly things change in our world today. Although this was “best practice” only a few years ago, it is already outdated and the company closed the last of it’s stores in 2014.

I wrote about this specifically in “The Innovator’s Mindset“;

It was only a few years ago that video rental stores like Blockbuster were the best way
for people to watch movies in the comfort of their own home. In some places around the world, these stores still exist. But in the Western world, cheaper and more convenient options (no travel required) have put most neighborhood video stores out of business.

The Internet completely changed the movie rental industry. Companies that took advantage of new technology, like Netflix with its DVD-by-mail and online streaming options, are thriving. Meanwhile, companies, like Blockbuster, that refuse to let go of outdated business models experience a slow, painful death.

Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix a few times, but declined. And by the time it attempted to start its own DVD-by-mail program, the company had lost its place as an industry leader. The hard lesson that Blockbuster and its fellow neighborhood movie rental
businesses failed to heed is this: innovate or die.

This reality hit me hard recently at a parent evening the other night when I shared this video. As parents and adults in the room laughed, I noticed one child who was probably around eight or nine years old, looking around and wondering what was going on.  After the video played, I asked him if he could talk about what was going on and he had no clue.  When I tried to explain about going to a store to rent movies, he looked at me like I was crazy.  He had never known this reality, and never would, yet this was our reality, not his.  If he was four, it would make more sense, but he wasn’t.

I often think about what we will be laughing at or shaking our head at ten or twenty years from now, but if we do not understand that we need to change, maybe we won’t have the chance to laugh at all.  You either create change, or change will happen to you.  In all other industries, different and better options are either being offered by current organizations, or by new ones coming in.  We should never take for granted the continuous need for all organizations to get better.  Education not excluded.


Finding the Good Problems

Working with a group of administrators in a workshop, the participants seemed to be evenly split into districts that were either “1 to 1” (1 laptop/tablet per students) and those that weren’t.  I was asked by one of the administrators from a “1 to 1” district, “How do you address educators that believe they do not have enough professional learning to effectively use these devices?”

Before I answered the question, I stopped and asked the group without a device per child, what was the most common complaint amongst educators in their district regarding technology. Their response?  That those teachers didn’t have devices.

So in one district with the devices, they didn’t have the professional learning, and in the other district, they wanted the devices.  No matter what side you are on, there is something to complain about.

There are a few things that are important here.  First of all, how we look at the world really matters.

But sometimes we have to call this out publicly.  I didn’t go back and answer the question to the first group, because they knew that they were blessed to have this opportunity and that this was a good problem to have, one that many wish they had.  What about the group without the devices?  The way I would look at it is that there is a tremendous opportunity to provide the professional learning where educators REALLY want those devices in the hands of the kids, and can see the power in using them to do something new and better for kids.

The other thing is that I think great leaders look for both the opportunities and obstacles in each opportunity, to try to understand how to move forward.  For example, I am very comfortable with technology and if I was to lead this with my staff, people might say, “Well that is a ‘George thing’ because he is really good with tech.”  That might not help them move forward. Maybe they need someone who is not as far as long so that they feel more comfortable going on their own journey.  Nothing is only positive or negative, but leaders need to try and understand both sides.

But here is what I truly believe and has been pushing my thinking a lot lately.

If you see obstacles, you will surely find them in front of you. Same goes for opportunities. What do you choose to see?

If you see obstacles, you will surely find them in front of you. Same goes for opportunities. What do you choose to see-

Endless Opportunities to Teach and Learn

“You don’t need technology to learn.”

I have heard this statement a ton from educators, and although there is truth to it, we have to realize that technology brings in opportunities for learning that we never had as kids.

For example…living in a small town in Canada, if I wanted to learn to play the violin as a kid, it was imperative that we would have a violin teacher living in the area. If I was adamant about it, we could have driven 75-90 minutes to the nearest city, and found a teacher.  Adding not only the time it would have taken to get back and forth, but the money to not only have these lessons, but for gas and time off work for my parents, this would have been an opportunity afforded to only a few with the necessary resources to make it happen. To be honest, this wouldn’t have been something I would have even thought of as a child, because the opportunity wouldn’t have been there.

But now if I wanted to play the violin, I could just go on YouTube, or do a Google Hangout with someone who was a violin teacher, or someone who just loved playing and sharing how to play the violin.  Or even better, these same kids can start teaching others around the world. One of my favourite quotes on education is from Joseph Joubert, who says, “to teach, is to learn twice.”  The ability to teach others, will only further my own knowledge and skill-set.

These opportunities did not exist when I was a child.

When an educator says, “I don’t use technology because it’s not really my thing”, my response?

“It’s not about you.”

We can no longer ignore the opportunities that exist for our learners today.  Our job is to create an education system that is better than the one we grew up in, as will be the duty of the next generation of educators.  We must embrace what is right in front of us.



Here is a short video on some of these “Global Possibilities for Learning” from the “LearnTeachLead” site:

George Couros – Global Possibilities for Learning from LearnTeachLead on Vimeo.