Tag Archives: innovation

How To Be An Edu-Pirate

5 Mar

There was a lot of talk about pirates in the early days of Apple Computers. Steve Jobs encouraged Apple’s development teams to be like pirates, to be rebellious and to “think different”. The Macintosh development group at “Bandley 3” famously worked under a pirate flag (with an Apple logo for the eye patch) while developing the breakthrough Macintosh Computer. It helped them to “…preserve our original (rebellious) spirit even as we were growing more like the Navy every day”.

Why pirates? In What Would Steve Jobs Do? author Peter Sanders explains that Apple teams that thought like pirates were “…more likely to embrace change and challenge convention.” Jobs wanted Apple to innovate and change the computer industry, and a key part of that was working outside the system, like “pirates”. This important element of Apple’s early rebellious culture was captured in the biopic “Pirates of Silicon Valley”.

There’s a growing emphasis on innovation in education. Educators are searching for new ideas and practices that will make a difference and push student learning to a new level. A key asset in this effort is the work of Edu-Pirates, educators who are willing to “embrace change and challenge convention” within our educational institutions.

The culture of education is famously resistant to change and local school boards and districts are much more “navy” than “Black Pearl”. To promote innovation in education we need to nurture and recruit “Edu-Pirates”. But first, we must agree what they are.

Portuguese buccaneer Bartolomeu Portuguê the first “Pirate’s Code” in the late 1660’s. In the same spirit I offer:

The Edu-Pirates Code

  1. Students First: No matter what education policy requires or dictates, student learning comes first. It may be something as small as choosing to connect with students rather than immediately taking attendance or something as big as refusing to administer a harmful standardized test. To an Edu-Pirate student welfare and learning matter most and they will gladly suffer ‘the slings and arrows of annoyed administrators’ to honor that.
  2. Be Passionate:Edu-Pirates are 100% committed to the idea that education matters. Education isn’t just a job, it’s a life or death mission. A quest. To borrow a phrase, Edu-Pirates teach like their hair’s on fire.
  3. Sail With a Crew: It takes a collective effort to hijack a large, slow-moving vessel like education. Edu-Pirates see the value of efforts to affect change in all areas and support them. They share ideas, discuss, move other projects along and look for common ground with others.
  4. Never, Ever Quit: Edu-Pirates are rarely appreciated within education and battles are often long and difficult. An Edu-Pirate abides. They remain committed and creative no matter what. Perseverance is all for an Edu-Pirate. They may lose the battle but remain focused on winning the war.
  5. Fortune Favours The Bold: Operating outside a bureaucracy is liberating. Problems are solved quickly. No need to stop and check the rules to see if you’re allowed to do something. An Edu-Pirate takes initiative, acts in the best interest of students and would always rather “ask for forgiveness than permission”.
  6. Discretion is the Better Part of Valour: It’s good to be bold but know your limits. You can’t help your crew if you get thrown in the brig. Take risks but carefully consider the consequences. Make sure you’re serving the bigger vision and the needs of your students. There’s a difference between being bold and foolhardy.
  7. Hide in Plain Sight: A good Edu-Pirate is practiced at operating ‘under the radar’. To a casual observer they may look and act like other educators. But a closer look shows that they think and act differently than those around them.
  8. Share Your Treasure: Steve Jobs believed that a good pirate needed to bring interests and experiences from other fields into their work. A wide range of other interests makes your work richer. His interest in Zen Buddhism, travel and calligraphy influenced how Jobs saw technology and gave him a unique perspective. Edu-Pirates have rich interests and good stories to tell. They bring those experiences and interests into their education work.

So what do you say mateys? Do you have what it takes to sail under a skull and crossed #2 pencils? Do you agree with Steve Jobs that “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy”? If so you may want to sign up for a tour of duty as an Edu-Pirate. There’s a crew setting sail every morning in classrooms everywhere. Welcome aboard!


Where’s the Innovation in Schools?

29 Jan

This post originally appeared on the CEA Blog series on innovation. You can see it in that form here.

A colleague returned from her son’s parent-teacher interview frustrated. Her children attend a “well-off” school, with community support, that serves a large number of middle-income families. In contrast, the school she teaches at serves many low-income families.

She complained that her children’s school was too ‘safe’. They weren’t striving to be better but instead choosing to maintain the status quo. Students used computers one/week to do only word processing, literacy strategies were 5-10 years out of date and nowhere in their program were they ‘cutting edge’.

To the casual observer, this was an exemplary school. Test scores were high, students learned, parents were happy and highly engaged. Her frustration wasn’t with performance but the loss of potential. She knew they could be doing so much more, but weren’t. This was a school that could try new things, take some chances and excel, but instead they stayed safe. She didn’t understand it.

It’s a common refrain heard in education. Why don’t things change faster? Where is the innovation in schools? Last week a parent complained that schools are only willing to innovate about things that don’t really matter (e.g. balanced school day). Where are the new approaches to teaching and learning?
Fortunately, innovation is a highly discussed topic. Experts explain  how to enhance innovation and agreed that to foster innovation we need to create an “innovation culture“.

There are many elements in creating an ‘innovation culture’ but chief among them is encouraging “…risk taking, challenging the status quo, and freedom of expression”. This runs counter to the current “best practices” philosophy common in education. When educators should be innovating and discovering their own solutions they are told to follow dictates from board and ministry offices written by people who “know better”.

As Dr. Robert Langer, head of the highly innovative and creative Langer Lab at MIT said “Very often when you are going for real innovation you have to go against prevailing wisdom”. Best practices mean that Canadian educators are discouraged, and in some cases forbidden, from going against prevailing wisdom. Curriculum gurus insist they know best, and tell educators what to do in classes they’ve never seen and are thousands of miles away.

Innovation often flourishes at the edges of large systems, not as part of the mainstream. Skunkworks projects are prime examples as small, loosely structured groups of people, research and develop projects outside of their main responsibilities. This model started with Lockheed Martin in 1943 and persists today with many other innovative companies. The research that happened at Xerox PARC, which led to the development of Apple and the personal computer, is another example.

Google, one of the world’s most innovative organizations, supports a culture of innovation in a couple of ways:

  1. They give researchers “20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally“. Google’s workers feel free to look into something that interests them and able to try something new without the fear of it failing affecting their career.
  2. Google created “Google X” a completely separate organization that is free to chase “shoot-for-the-stars ideas“.

The question we must answer is how can we create a culture of innovation in Canadian schools? How do we encourage innovation in an education system that is increasingly conformist, politicized and risk averse?

Here are three places where the seeds of innovation exist and where, if supported and nourished, educators can develop new ideas that, once proven, can be safely transferred to the educational mainstream. Places where mainstream education can go looking for practices and approaches that work better than what we are currently doing:

  1. Independent Schools: I am not referring to traditional conservative private schools (e.g. Upper Canada College) but schools organized around a pedagogy or philosophy. Montessori methods have survived and grown in independent schools and are now entering the mainstream. Schools such as Calgary Science School  or Quest University are current examples of independent schools that are innovative leaders.
  2. First Nations Schools: A system in crisis that sits outside of provincial oversight  is perfectly positioned to innovate. The existence of a separate native culture justifies ‘challenging the prevailing wisdom’ about education, and educators in remote locations should have the freedom to try new approaches. Chief Mathews Elementary in British Columbia is a great example of this in action.
  3. Low Performing Schools: Schools where traditional methods aren’t working because of poverty or culture, where students aren’t learning, are prime breeding grounds for innovation. Educators who want to innovate should be flocking to these schools to try new approaches. A great example of this is an approach taken at Inner City High in Edmonton using rapping to educate disengaged students. There are lots of other examples.