10 Reasons Why Innovation Isn't the Answer

I recently went through a dry spell in writing. Every idea I had sounded too much like a previous novel someone had already written. I grew anxious about it and I stopped writing fiction altogether. I had lost my original focus of having fun writing something that I, as a child, would have wanted to read. Suddenly, I had this filter and it was taking out everything that wasn't innovative and leaving me with very bare skeletons of stories that would never come to life.

When I think about my most creative work (Ditch that Word blog, Living Facebook, Adventures in Pencil Integration, goofy cartoons, a superhero memoir), these happened, not because I deliberately tried to be different, creative or innovative; but because I was intrigued by an idea. I had an impulse to write or to sketch or to create because I found enjoyment in the process and in the product.

I have come to the conclusion that creativity and innovation work only when I am not deliberately trying to be either. In my own experience, innovation happens because of true relevance and relevance happens because of meaning. If I am consumed by meaning, I will find creative ways to get there.

The following is a list of reasons why innovation isn't the answer:

  1. Chasing the Trendy: Remember how lazer discs were going to save education? Remember how revolutionary WebQuests once were? Chasing after trendy new ideas often leads to a superficiality that places novelty above quality. It's hard to believe this, most almost every app that people gush about will be forgettable in a year or two.
  2. Missing the Vintage: Some of the best ideas are vintage, but you wouldn't guess that in a culture experiencing historical amnesia. When I read about the "next best thing," I am often reminded that this idea had its roots in Dewey or Piaget or even earlier. Local community centers, multi-age learning, mentoring / apprenticeship programs, open dialogue - these ideas have their roots in guys like Jefferson or Socrates or Jesus or Erasmus. 
  3. Killing Creativity: When I try hard to be creative, I fail to be creative. However, when I strive to be meaningful and to consider what is best, I am often creative in the process. When teachers screen their actions through a lens of innovation, they often become less innovative than if they simply tried to do what was meaningful, ethical and best for children.
  4. Groupthink: I once went to a concert with a bunch of hipsters. Everyone was trying so hard to be different and ironic that no one was ironic. Or maybe they were, in the subtle irony that in being un-ironic they were collectively ironic. I think the same thing happens with creativity. I experienced this with #pencilchat, where I noticed many people (myself included) saying essentially the same thing with a different phrasing. The more I tried to sound different, the more I sounded the same.
  5. Overly Cautious: This feels really counter-intuitive, but the more a teacher tries to be creative, the more that teacher self-censors. Over time, the creative teacher might have a few really different ideas, but spends so much more time being risk-averse in fear that he or she isn't being creative. I see this less with teachers and more with writers and bloggers who throw up their hands and say, "I'm not saying anything anyone else hasn't already said." Then, in the process, they sacrifice their own voice.
  6. Losing Identity: I've gone through various phases where I tried to be innovative in some area - in writing, in teaching, in art, on Twitter. I wanted to be different. So, I invented a personna and I donned a mask and I wasn't honest or vulnerable. It is the vulnerable, humble, human element that makes someone innovative. Jesus was an innovative teacher, not because he said something different, but because he spoke boldly and he shared what really mattered. 
  7. Irrelevance: I understand that outliers change the world. I get it. Fringe people move the middle toward a more radical area. And yet, there is a danger in any system, of simply speaking outside of it and becoming entirely irrelevant. We become the Ron Pauls of the teaching profession. True innovation is much more quiet and subversive. It often involves interaction that looks much more traditional than it really is. 
  8. Missing Sustainability: Innovation often falls into the trap of trying to fix a current problem while failing to predict what this particular issue will look like given the trajectory of the current context. In the process, long-term, meaningful, sustainable solutions are often ignored in the tyranny of the now. 
  9. Too Critical: When I try to be innovative, I begin with a presupposition that the present is inherently bad and needs to be changed. I start with this mindset of "everything is a problem" and then I hammer away at what is broken rather than chiseling down to what is already working. I get this way sometimes on blogs and on Twitter. I place myself above the fray, being the lone innovator judging all things traditional. Yet, watch a group that is pushing hard for innovation and notice the sheer number of poorly constructed metaphors, the loaded language, the straw men they tear down and the name-calling they engage in. 
  10. Little Mastery: It's been hard for me to admit that I need to edit my work. I need to re-teach a few lessons. I need to work on mastering what I have already done. When I am consumed by the need to be innovative, I automatically discount former projects in the insatiable thirst for novelty. However, there is a subtle stagnation in constantly starting something new. Long-term mastery has its place. A quality work takes time. I miss that when I am obsessed with creativity and innovation. It took a long time for me to realize this in blogging. I changed the name of this blog probably twenty times. I couldn't settle down. I couldn't stick with anything. I was so scared of getting stagnant that I didn't allow people to find continuity in my writing. 

You Can't Break That Equation

"Hey dad, I know I shouldn't be afraid of the dark, but I still am."

"I know."

"But Micah's not. For real, he's not." I can tell it really bothers him that his younger brother isn't scared, but he is.

"I know," I say.

"He's not pretending, dad. The room can be dark and he knows that it's the same as it was when it was light. I wish I could do that."

"Joel, sometimes I go on a long run at night and there's no moon out and I get scared."


"It's not that I think anything is going to happen to me. But that part of me that was scared of the dark. The thing is that it never went away entirely."


Micah comes back and asks if we can have all the lights out. I tell him that we'll keep the nightlight on and he pouts.

It has me thinking about darkness and fear.

I used to think kids sort-of grew out of being afraid of the dark, but I'm not sure it's that at all. Some people face the dark and then embrace the dark. Others learn to pretend that darkness isn't there. When I look at my own journey, I'm not sure where I'm at. On some days, I think it's the latter. Other times, I think it's the former.

photo credit: Yuri Samoilov

You Can't Break That Equation

A girl taps her pencil and stares at the paper. In another year, I might read this as indifference. After all, she has a blank stare, bordering on boredom and badass and when she sighs, it's loud enough for half the class to hear. But I know that look. I see that mask. It's the one that I wore when I was too scared and confused to make a mistake.

I pull up a chair next to her and ask where she's stuck.

"I don't get it," she says.

"Get what?"

"All of it."

"Where did you get stuck?"

"Right here," she points.

"What is the goal?"

"I don't know."

"What are you trying to do?"

"Solve for x."

"And what is x?" I ask.

She shrugs her shoulders.

"X is the independent variable. X is that thing that we get to decide in life. X is how many hours you work or tacos you buy or how fast you're driving on the way to San Diego." This isn't my classroom and I'm not sure if I should be doing this, but I plow forward.

"So, you're trying to figure out the meaning behind what you can control. You're trying to solve something. And here's the beauty of it: you can't break an equation."

"What do you mean?"

"You can always plug it in and if it's wrong, you can go back to the first level and try again."

"Like a video game?" she asks.

"Exactly. It's like baseball with as many strikes as you want. So go forward and backwards. Make mistakes. Then when it doesn't work, ask yourself why it didn't work and then go back to the first level."

"So, I can mess up?"

"Yeah, you should be messing up. If you don't mess up on anything, you need to ask for harder problems to solve."

"That makes sense."

She goes back to her paper and messes it up, confusing negative and positive integers and forgetting that 7/7 or 9/9 or 5/5 all equal one. But as she talks through it conceptually, she doesn't run out of lives. There is no Game Over. She doesn't strike out. The journey doesn't stop.

And regardless of the mixed metaphors and the confusing, meandering points I tried to make, she doesn't look so scared to tackle the algorithm.

Messiah: What Others Think I Do Meme

I created this about two weeks ago when I saw the first meme (an IT one). I didn't post it, because I was afraid it might be offensive. 

What I Mean by Autonomy

Today at the PLC Conference, Richard DuFour mocked teacher autonomy. The audience chuckled along with him as he labeled the need for autonomy an excuse. It was telling when he chose the metaphor of a pilot who must listen to the Air Traffic Control tower rather than steering the plane in any specific direction. The thing is that I don't fly planes. I teach kids. Enough of the world runs on auto-pilot. Is that really what we want for our schools?

William Glasser defined autonomy as one of the basic human drives. It is not an excuse when someone says, "What about autonomy?" The truth is that teachers are watching our professional autonomy slip away because of the work of corporate reformers and slick politicians. When we snarl at those who mock this need, it is not because we love snarling, but because we've lost too much already.

In many places, teachers are forced into scripted curriculum in a push toward test prep. They are forced to have word walls, grammar walls, lesson plans in a set format, a standardized gradebook, a specific set of curriculum that they cannot deviate from, a discipline matrix that they must adhere to (even if research doesn't support the system of punishments and rewards), etc.

If a teacher asks, "What about teacher autonomy?" the solution (if it were to grow on a tree) might be to explain very clearly how a specific system will enhance teacher autonomy. If the "professional" means anything in the Professional Learning Community, spell it out for teachers.

The truth is that I became a better teacher when I was finally given autonomy. It's not an excuse. It's the impetus for innovation. When I have creative control and the freedom to experiment, some of the best lessons occur. Last year, I was able to use a tech-integrated framework, move away from traditional grades, go with a project-based and problem-based approach and teach thematic units. I also had some of the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.

All of that required a hefty dose of teacher autonomy. Although we were a PLC, the principal was flexible enough to say, "Try this and compare the results with your team." He never mocked my need for autonomy, but actually embraced it instead.

The Paradox
Tonight my son jumped over a larger ice chest. I wrestled with whether I should allow him to assert his will or if I should step in for his safety. I don't pretent to have it figured out. Total autonomy is anarchy. Being involved in any social system (family, religion, work) requires a sacrifice of some of one's rights for the protection of social cohesion.  

The school is a civic institution. I still believe it is vital for the success of a democracy. However, every  democracy requires a social contract. The will of the individual is protected by rights and also restricted by laws, rules and regulations. These are often held in tension out of the dual needs for safety and freedom.

In most Professional Learning Communities there is talk of the "loose" and "tights." A good principal will respect teacher identity and allow for the freedom to teach within the confines of a few "tights" about what is best for students. It gets murky sometimes. I get that. Much of what passes for "teacher complaining" or even "school politics" is simply very different paradigms and philosophies about what students need.

However, ultimately that's where autonomy matters. The will of the organization can be imposed upon the individual through coercion. However, meaningful change occurs only when the individual is able to make a paradigm shift. It takes more time to empower teachers, but at a cultural level, that is how schools change.

A Humble Answer

I readily admit that I attacked Solution Tree without remembering that there were people behind the organization. I called them the Tree Party and Delusion Tree. Clever, perhaps. Snarky, for sure. But also arrogant. My words were so extreme that dialogue wasn't possible in the moment. I became the very thing that I was railing against.

However, teacher autonomy still matters. The anger I felt inside of me comes from the sense of being beat down, shamed and told to "shut up, because it's for the kids." Teachers are already under attack from so many different angles. If we seem skittish, it's because we've been bludgeoned in the name of "what works."

Instead of mocking teacher autonomy, a better solution might be the recognize it as a real human need, define it as "the freedom to do what's best for students," discuss the nuances and paradox of staff unity and individual autonomy and then get into why a PLC might actually allow for more teacher autonomy.

A Letter to the 14-Year Old Me

Dear John,

So about school. I know you feel like a failure, but you're doing better than you think. You sometimes feel guilty about hating school while liking your teachers. Sometimes you even do the assignment just because you feel bad for teachers who internalize your apathy and think it's their fault. Don't beat yourself up over this. You think that FOIL is irrelevant to your life? You're right. You feel that the Periodic Table of Elements won't change how you live? Again, you're onto something. On most days you get frustrated and ask the question, "How will this help me live better?" Don't let school beat that question out of you.

Don't think that you suck at math simply because you don't memorize algorithms. Math is more than memorizing. Don't assume that science isn't your thing, just because you don't like to rip apart an animal in class. Some day when you have your own children you'll rekindle your love of science and realize it was never really all that dormant in the first place. Your penchant for staring at the sunsets or walking barefoot in the moonlight will never cease.

One of the greatest insights you have into life is that it's a vapor. I think you've always had it, but Lynn's suicide certainly drove that point home. I know you're squirming right now in the fact that I mention it. You want to brush it off with, "well she wasn't a close friend and really I'm okay." But I've seen you crying at night and I want you to know that there really was nothing you could do to save her.

You yearn for something real. The bad news is that you'll only get it in bits and pieces along the way, but when you do, you'll be amazed. You'll have some of the most life-changing teachers who speak truth into your soul in ways that others can't. You're deeply existential and sensitive and I know that feels like a curse right now, but it's a beautiful thing.

Beauty. You still cringe at that word. You still keep your poetry secret. That's fine, I guess. That solitude is how you will refine your craft. But there's nothing wrong with loving language. Being poetic isn't unmanly. Un-macho, perhaps, but not unmanly. Real men are warriors and poets who dream and act and listen. Embrace your desire to write. I know, I know, it feels like you're wasting your time reading books and writing stories, but these will serve you well in ways that you cannot predict.

With regards to being geeky, I can't help you. I know it seems like the girls aren't that into you and it's true. They prefer assholes at this age. For what it's worth, you've ignored some amazing geeky girls as well. Quit trying to learn how to throw a ball through the hoop. You and I both know they were lying to you when they said, "You can be anything you want to be." You're never going to be a star basketball player. But you know that sheer sense of joy you feel when you are almost floating on air in mile 7 of a long run? Someday you'll feel that on mile 19 as well.

The good news is that someday character will matter more than brawn and your acne will clear up and you'll find someone who is beautiful and intelligent and intriguing. You'll wake up next to her every morning and feel like the luckiest man in the world. And, yes, I know your junior high brain; you'll have plenty of sex and yes, it's all that it's made out to be. You won't call it sex, though. You'll call it making love and none of that will make since until you find that woman who will change your world.

In terms of your emotions, they never go away. You have moments when you lose your temper and you get frustrated with how easily you are hurt. You can't escape that. It is a part of who you are. Except, here's the neat part: they are redeemed somehow. I'd say God is a part of the process, but I remember what you were like in the eighth grade. That agnostic part of you laughs at the idea of God and for now that will do just fine. But someday that will be shaken. It's what happens when you ask too many questions.

Your anger will transform into this strong sense of social justice and you'll fight for what you believe in. Your sensitivity will move from something self-centered to others-centered and you'll find that your ability to listen and to empathize will make you a great dad and husband and teacher (permission to laugh at this - I know you can't believe you'll ever want to go back to school when it's over).

I know that life feels pretty awful. The cliques seem cruel. The kids seem fake. The subjects seem irrelevant. Trust me, even at thirty-one, I cannot look back on fourteen nostalgically. But I understand your hope that things will get better and I want you to know that your hope isn't wrong. Things get better. Way better. By the time you're my age, you'll spend most days feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.

I won't end with a trite phrase like "be true to yourself" or whatever. I just want you to know that you'll be okay, John. You'll be okay. It really does get better.


Ten Thoughts on Photo Prompts

For the last few years, I've used photo prompts with my students. I've been updating them and adding them to a new Photo Prompts Tumblr. I readily admit that the idea of turning it into a Tumblr is based upon the brilliant writing prompts on the Writing Prompts Tumblr. Here are a few things I've learned about photo prompts:

Idea #1
Photo prompts don't have to be tied down to language arts. I have asked students to observe a picture of a natural phenomenon and ask inquiry questions. I have given students a context and asked them to develop math questions (who knew a child would wonder how much it would cost to fill up a pyramid with Jell-O?) The following was a very strange math prompt that got students thinking about days, months, years, ratios, etc.

Idea #2
Photo prompts allow for a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. If you look at the prompt to the left, the students have to study the visual in order to make sense out of the abstract.

Idea #3
The most successful prompts are thought-provoking in both the visual and the questioning. I have asked questions like, "Are companies more powerful than nations" and students offer great answers. But push a kid to look at Facebook as a nation and the concept of globalization changes:

Idea #4:
Sometimes the best photo prompts are driven by the picture. Some of my favorite ones involved simply, "Tell the story" or "create a question." 

Idea #5
Let kids develop their own photo prompts. Students were really into the idea of the one-sentence story accompanied by the picture (as seen below). While it might seem like a shallow writing piece, it got them thinking about the notion of character, theme and conflict that are central to a story. 

Idea #6
In an effort to make things applicable to the "real world" we fail to engage in the fantastical, the whimsical, the playful and the ridiculous. So, when we go over persuasive techniques, I don't mind asking my students to convince me to buy canned unicorn meat:

Idea #7
Be intentional. I'm beginning to see that most creativity comes from the desire of intentionality. Not every picture works. Not every question pushes students to think deeper.  However, I've noticed that when I'm unintentional, I go for the same questions all the time. Thus, for functional text, I always do, "Choose an activity you love to do and describe how to do it." However, when asking them to take an opposite approach to a familiar story, students had a new audience for the functional text:

Idea #8
Photo prompts can be a chance to reinforce difficult vocabulary and grammar with ELL students. The following sentence seems pretty easy, but the sentence structure is long and the verb tense is difficult. It is not the visual that gives it away, though. That's not the idea. The point is to provide one longer, difficult sentence that students wrestle with linguistically.

Idea #9
It's a journey. Some of the prompts fail miserably. I really thought this one would work and it simply didn't pan out at all. The students wanted to talk about the real "Arab Spring" and were edgy about attacking the implied totalitarianism of their childhood heroes and heroines.

Idea #10
Ultimately, it's all about relevance. However, relevance isn't simply about going with what kids are interested in. It's not about stacking it full of pop culture. It's about choosing questions that connect to the students' lives and to their world. It's about adding context to math and pushing students philosophically and even adding a healthy dose of technology criticism. Regardless of the picture, students want to discuss, "Are we too connected?"

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