Disruptive Innovation: The Mirror and the Crystal Ball

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The other night on the #PubPriBridge Twitter chat we took on the topic of change in schools, and the conversation surfaced some pretty strong feelings on the point and purposes of change. Consensus, I feel comfortable saying, lay on the side of change, Heck, yes! but change without clear purpose or rationale, Hell, no! The veteran participants had all seen their share of fad-driven “innovation,” untethered from school missions, strategic vision, or—this above all—a clearly stated connection to the best interest of students.

Late in the game chatters were asked about their own skepticisms. I posed my own response, which was, in prime Twitter-speak, “Tired of ‘Innovate or die.’ Prefer, ‘Figure out who you are as a sch[oo]l & then work hard to BE it well.’”

This isn’t exactly an original sentiment. There is plenty that we need to be doing differently, from curriculum and pedagogy to the design of learning spaces to the cultures of schools themselves, but I think there is a more lofty and even more strategic way of framing this whole disruption thing, a framing that provides educators with an affirmative rationale for deeply interrogating practice and policy. “Figure out who you are as a school and then work hard to be it as well as you can” is my shorthand version.

Figuring out who you are ought to be an exercise not just in identity but in institutional confidence-building—just as in all those young adult sagas in which the young hero survives the ordeal to become a stronger, more prepared and sure adult. We read these stories every day in our schools without recognizing their possible value as parables for our institutions themselves.

Most independent schools extant today have at least some track record of success, and for most this hasn’t just always been a matter of good demographic luck. As we’ve observed here time and again, there is or was a compelling idea at the core of most schools, a notion of how kids can learn best.

What was it, or is it, that core idea, that mantra, that founder’s dream, that shining star of belief to which some little group of educators once hitched their wagon?

My advice to any school perched giddily on the precipice of some kind of innovative practice that sounds exciting, promises to upend things in some 21st-century way, and has a chorus of supporters chanting, “Jump! Jump!” is to take the time to examine its own identity.

I’ve written in other places about using the “authentic – relevant – differentiating” triad of acid tests for any policy or message, an exercise that—if done with honesty and real effort—gets to the fundamentals of what a school really is. This is the “figure out who you are” task that many schools often perform with outside assistance as part of either a branding or strategic planning process; well and good, but the product of the exercise ought to be something far more substantial than just a lively message or three more years of staff work.

Like the youthful questers in all those novels, schools probably need to experience some struggles in discovering and becoming who they are. Some of these struggles will indeed disrupt what we think we understand, and new ideas will appear and take root in the course of clarifying and then solidifying institutional identity and confidence. I guess this is disruptive innovation, but I would rather call it a case of growing pains—necessary but still tied to something at the institutional core.

And there’s a sobering little secret: Just as the coming-of-age novels leave out what every adult knows, namely that the quest to know and be yourself is never-ending, the process of being self-aware and acting on this awareness never ends for schools. We have keep looking just as hard into our mirrors as we do into our crystal balls.

If we’re insisting on dire language around all this, perhaps a better slogan ought to be something along the lines of, “The unexamined school is not worth keeping.” This gets right at the complacency the disruptors don’t like but frames the issue around what last night’s Twitter chatters clearly ranked as high and noble values—intentionality and articulated, mission-informed purpose.

In point of fact our crystal balls haven’t always worked so well when we’ve tried to envision the future of education, our schools, or even ourselves. Predicting what disruptive innovation will change things for the better has not proven to be an easy task, no matter what gurus, gadflies, or even Jeremiahs may say.

But our mirrors have worked and will continue to work just fine, as long as we have the nerve and the humility to examine what we see in fine detail and to acknowledge the weaknesses—as well as the potential—we see revealed there. Figuring out who we really are is about quests but it’s also about mirrors, and so, just as much, is being it, sustaining and building and adjusting that identity through whatever comes to pass.

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