Monday, January 1, 2018

How can we truly innovate in our schools? An Overview of the Popular Book 'The Innovator’s Mindset' by George Couros

by George Couros (purchase from Amazon, sign up for Couros’ “The Principal of Change” newsletter, and learn from him on Twitter - @gcouros) *The thoughts in this post merely scratch the surface of the contents of the book.

Innovation has been a buzzword in education for quite some time now, but as Dr. George Couros sees it we often don’t have a clear definition of what “innovation” means prior to declaring that we are ‘innovative’. He rightly emphasizes that using technology is not innovation and, argues that we need to question what we do and why, and in this context, we’re talking about what we’re doing in our schools and with education in general. (without limiting the discussion to technology) Couros draws our attention to the visual (on the right) you may have seen before, which is credited to Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), stressing the point.

George Couros gives us a great example of how education can stifle innovation. For those who haven't heard the story, the demise of Blockbuster Video (or the old VHS / DVD rental shops) still teaches us heaps. Blockbuster missed its chance to innovate and paid the price. The Onion had a ‘mocumentary’ online as far back as 2008, a telling example of the importance of innovation in any field or industry. (see the hilarious video here)

Fixed vs growth Mindsets. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Couros discusses the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and the need for educators and curriculums to accommodate student failure to foster success. However, he stretches this thinking further, challenging us to move beyond the simple idea that “failure is good”, and explains the need to help learners develop an unwillingness to give up. (in his words, resilience, and grit) *Following Dr. Couros' lead, I'm including several excellent Sylvia Duckworth sketches found in the book and elsewhere. 
The Iceberg Illusion is a great visual showing us
what kind of commitment success requires
Couros cites Dr. Carol Dweck’s own innovative discussions on growth mindsets. You can learn more from this short YouTube video by John Spencer that shares Dweck’s ideas on fixed vs growth mindsets. (I quite liked this one from Better Than Yesterday as well)

The growth mindset discussion left me questioning what I was doing about my own professional growth: Would I want to be a learner in my own class? Truthfully, not always. How can I challenge myself to be a more innovative teacher? How can I adapt the tools to build better learning? Couros again has a great visual produced by Sylvia Duckworth. (@sylviaduckworth) See the visual below and a deeper explanation of each of the following characteristics here

  • Empathetic
  • Problem Finders
  • Risk-Takers
  • Networked
  • Observant
  • Creators
  • Resilient
  • Reflective

A key section of the book addresses a critical factor in adaptive, innovative schools: leadership. The emphasis is on relationships leading to innovation. In this, he shares a scenario in which a good idea is killed off due to a fear of the implications for the entire organization. Another area in which Couros points out relationships are crucial for innovative schools is that amoung teachers, with reference to the sharing economy. He compares “the classroom teacher” vs “the school teacher”. A school culture in which people share resources and ideas will inevitably lead to better learning, more interaction, and most likely a greater pool of well-developed ideas. (and that a non-sharing teacher may be a great teacher in the classroom, but doesn’t amount to much help beyond their four classroom walls) For school leaders he suggests:

  • Spending time with smaller groups of people and asking what they want to learn (students, teachers, staff)
  • Shadow students
  • Manage things, lead people (which Couros quotes from Steven Covey)

Couros outlines the characteristics of the innovative leader as:

  • Visionary
  • Empathetic
  • Models Learning
  • Open Risk Taker
  • Networked 
  • Observant
  • Team Builder
  • Always Focused on Relationships

See his ideas in more detail here and another Duckworth sketch below.
Are you this kind of leader? Keep in mind, leadership isn't simply school administration
We are all leaders in some capacity.
Creating a culture of innovation will require some debate, discussion, and inevitable disagreement. Speaking of cultures, and referencing Devorah Heitner (author of ‘Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World’ - see her website Raising Digital Natives for great advice and her highly engaging book) Dr. Couros notes how a culture of compliance in schools limits us in our ability to help students learn to be curious, self-directed, and engaged. Conversely, we can empower our students by allowing them to do things, which will lead to greater engagement. Achieving this kind of environment or school culture has to be a shared vision throughout the process. Leaders should be focusing on the strengths of their constituents to build confidence (by fitting jobs around skill sets), and then work on the weaknesses. This makes complete sense. When leaders ignore their people, their people will be disengaged. (I have personal experience with this, which led me to leave a school and take my skills elsewhere to a place in which I could contribute as well as develop my teaching craft) An incredibly important point is the need to demonstrate a genuine concern for your staff. What are their interests? Their goals? Their hopes for their professional future? A leader likely does not know what their people want and what they are thinking, so they should be asking. Couros notes that, ultimately, leaders must model and mentor. So what should a leader (and a teacher) be looking for in classrooms?

  • Voice
  • Choice
  • Time for Reflection
  • Opportunities for Innovation
  • Critical Thinkers
  • Problem Solvers/Finders
  • Self-Assessment
  • Connected Learning

See Dr. Couros’ more detailed explanation here and yet another excellent Duckworth visual.


Asking and answering the question "Is this obvious in my classroom?" for each area
intimidated me, but I have clear ideas for improvement.
The technology piece comes back into play later in the book, with a philosophy that reminds me of a Google for Education t-shirt I once received which reads “Less tech-ing, more teaching”. I love the statement. (not to mention laughing out loud when I read “Are your school devices really just $1000 pencils?” in the book) It directly suggests that technology are tools, but we need a plan for it. This is what George Couros is saying about technology. He goes deeper to point out that the technology tools available to us today can transform and personalize learning. Schools do need to carefully plan how technology is used, as well as what technology is used. This plan should include finding, developing and celebrating in-house to district level talent to help develop the skill sets of the wider teaching community. Couros goes into greater detail, but essentially, we have to ask ourselves what is best for students and how is learning improved with the technology being employed.

More is Less. In this section, we are given a bit of a crash course in building a culture of innovation. Many teachers will no doubt appreciate his argument that we need more depth and breadth of what we do, rather than check too many curriculum boxes. Don’t read into that statement too deeply - Dr. Couros does not undervalue the importance of curriculum. Rather, he is stating that fewer and well-focused initiatives will more likely lead to effective change. (and fewer initiatives will be less likely to burn out your faculty and keep the team on the same game plan) More time and freedom to explore will lead to new and better ideas. He breaks the levels of ability into three stages:

  • Literate = can use the tool or device
  • Adaptive = technology can be used to replace “low tech”
  • Transformative = you can do something you haven’t done before

In the process, he suggests that leaders allow faculty to seek out and explore tools that may be useful for learning. Moreover, he comes back to an earlier point and reminds us that innovation isn’t limited to technology; we should also be thinking about structures and direction in learning.

The final parts of the book is an appeal to educators to join the sharing economy. Innovation comes from ideas being shared, reused, and revised. (but give credit where it’s due, as George Couros does consistently throughout The Innovator’s Mindset)

Embracing an Open Culture means that we as educators can't isolate ourselves from a connected world. It’s already here and has been for a while. It can be overwhelming, but hiding from it will limit the effectiveness of the 21st-century educator. Couros points to Chris Anderson on TED. He gave a popular TED Talk, "How web video powers global innovation”, that is well worth a look.  A sharing economy will allow us to self-teach and innovate. George Couros offers these insights to sharing:

  • The bigger the group, the more potential for innovation
  • There is visibility to see what other people are doing
  • There is a desire to change, grow, and improve

Some final (and insightful) thoughts from Dr. George Couros:


Dr. Couros leaves us with another great visual (below), this one developed by himself, called The Networked Teacher. You can see it on his website which comes with a detailed explanation of how it can be interpreted.

*You can subscribe to Dr. George Couros’ blog "The Principal of Change” at https://georgecouros.ca/. Learn from him on Twitter (@gcouros).

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