Innovating When Winning

Emile HolbaWe’ve been working this week with teachers and senior leaders from a range of schools, across England, that have been  externally judged across the whole spectrum: from failing to outstanding. There’s no discernible difference in attitudes between them, and I don’t believe that senior leaders in failing schools care any less about their kids than those who lead highly successful schools. Nor, strangely, is there any difference in the reluctance to innovate at either ends of the spectrum. The struggling schools are worried about risk-taking, because they’re under significant imposed pressure, and the schools that are already at the top are worried that anything new that they introduce might lead to a drop in performance.

I’m lucky in that I get to see some great, innovative schools around the world and there’s one thing that I’ve noticed: I call it the Finnish Paradox. Just like the Finns did spectacularly well in the PISA international comparisons when they had their goals set elsewhere, the schools that innovate their way to success haven’t set their sights on some extrinsic measure of success – they had set their own yardsticks. The examples I used today -School of Communication Arts In London, High Tech High in San Diego, Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney, Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale from the world of education; 3M, Google, Valve from the corporate world – clearly march to the beat of a different drum. And I don’t think that’s coincidental.

What all of these examples have in common is that they’ve placed engagement (whether student, employee or customer) at the top of their priorities. The problem, it seems to me, is that we see engagement and achievement , especially in the world of education, as an either/or. That’s a false dichotomy: Google have shown that engaging employees (there’s a reason why Googlers call their place of work ‘the campus’) leads to great innovation, and great profitability.

It takes a leap across the knowing-doing gap, however, for school leaders to pursue engagement when there’s so much riding on exam results. But I do wish more school leaders could be a llittle bit inspired by the risk/reward strategies of companies like Google and 3M. Google have a 36% failure rate on new innovations; for 3M, over half of their inventions never make it to market. Innovating and failing doesn’t seem to bother them.

Yet, because of the ‘guinea pig’ syndrome, many schools worry that  a child’s life will be ruined if a single innovation fails.

Of course, it won’t. Indeed as one leader said today ‘Changing nothing isn’t going to do much to improve a school’s performance’, and as the Hawthorne effect suggests, doing anything will probably have a short-term positive impact on student performance. It’s a matter of degrees. Throw everything up in the air, and chaos ensues. Sadly, what usually happens in schools is that innovation is  tightly ‘enclosed’: Schools now have innovation units, schedules have ‘challenge weeks’ or ‘deep learning’ days/weeks. It’s great that they’re doing it, but it indicates a lack of confidence.

Shouldn’t every week be an innovation week, or a deep learning week? So, the challenge for schools is to move the slightly risky, innovative work that’s happening in the  margins into the mainstreams. I’ve heard fantastic examples this week of deeply engaging activities, taking place when no one – certainly not OFSTED – is watching. But it’s hard for teachers to scale up those experiments because of the scrutiny they’re under. And it’s  even harder for really successful schools to mess with the magic. They fear the wrath of parents if their experiment goes wrong.

I can understand their reluctance.But after 10 years of encouraging schools to take a few risks in order to better engage their kids, I can honestly say that no child’s education was ruined by the experiments that didn’t work. And OFSTED have clearly indicated that they want to see engaged learning. So, given the current freedoms in key stage three, what have schools got to lose?

We could learn a lot from two quotes from Franklin D. Roosevelt:  He could have been talking about schools when he said: ‘the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’. and  ‘It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

Here’s a bunch of inspirational, and successful, school leaders from the UK talking about  the need to try something:


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