Virtually There: NAIS Annual Conference 2016, day two

February 25, 2016 by Bill Ivey

One of the things I love about the NAIS Annual Conference is the effort they make to reach out to those of us who have remained back home with our kids. In between classes and meetings, and once I’m home for the night, I look forward to checking in and seeing what people are talking about, what ideas are out there, what inspirational mind-shifts await me.

Thus, in between Humanities 7 and lunch, I found myself wishing I could attend the session “Ahead of the Curve: Growing a Culture of Innovation at your School” with Karen Blumberg, Liz B. Davis, and Kim Sivick, with all of whom I happen to be friends on Twitter. They shared their slides which posed some key questions and laid out a road map for the session. I decided to do some brainstorming in parallel, and to check out the Google Doc being filled out during the session once I was done.

The opening question was, “What is an innovator?” Well. “Good question,” I thought to myself. I always refuse to let my students look up such words in the dictionary until after we’ve attempted to define them on our own, so… I’ve come to think there are different kinds of innovation which may or may not look the same on the surface, depending in part on the life experience of the person perceiving the potential innovation, and which may differ in surprising ways below the surface.

There’s the obvious innovation which is finding a completely new way of doing or looking at things. The heliocentric solar system would be a great example of its day. More currently, I’ve seen persuasive analyses of the current U.S. president election suggesting that the ability to use and manipulate social media has completely transformed and undermined the role and power of formal political party structures, enabling people who once would have been fringe outsiders to create and seize their own mainstream.

There’s also a sort of pseudo-innovation that results when people decide to move beyond the “why” and focus on the “why not?” Progressive schools that put into practice principles that are over a century old now might fall into this category because what we call “traditional” schooling is so dominant and widespread, challenging that paradigm seems innovative even if you’re following principles that have been proven, reproven, and re-reproven for decades even as they have been shaped and fine-tuned by newer research and more recent experience.

An innovator, then, might be a person who, individually or collaboratively, enables those results to take place, both the major paradigm shifts and the more subtly courageous adoption of practices and ideas generally dismissed despite their proven effectiveness. People have called me innovative. Well… maybe a pseudo-innovator. I look at what research tells me kids need, what parents tell me kids need, and what the kids tell me they need. I look at models that act on that information and try to put them unflinchingly into practice. And I stand firmly, gratefully, and unapologetically on the shoulders of those giants, some well known, some less well known. John Dewey. John Lounsbury. Alfie Kohn. Stephen Krashen. Nancie Atwell. Nancy Doda. Mark Springer. Rick Wormeli. Jean-Pierre Berwald. John Byron. Florence Dmytryk. Among others.

The next foundational question was, “What is culture?" To me, culture is the stew of principles, values, routines, and actions that give form to a community. Of course, we come from and reside in intersecting cultures (based in part on our individual intersecting identities), but nonetheless, in the aggregate, most cultures can at least agree on what the ingredients are for their specific stew if not always which ones are the most flavourful.

The session went on to look at five topics: growing a culture that is welcome to innovators, avoiding the plateau and/or the slide, attracting innovators, sustaining and supporting innovators, and staying ahead of the curve. Surveying these topics, I found myself wondering how an explicit search for diversity might help foster an innovative culture quite apart from the many other benefits. I also found myself reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of trying to stay ahead of the curve. To what extent is that beneficial as an explicit goal? Would simply seeking to grow continually help create a mindset where not only are you more effective with each passing year but also you are more likely to stumble into a really cool idea that no one has ever had before?

I don’t want to leave you with questions (well, actually, I do, but anyway…), so I’ll end by noting that Ms. Davis also retweeted out later in the day a graphic shared by Grant Lichtman showing the “stairway of successful innovation.” It showed the eight elements necessary for success, and what might happen if any one of the given elements is missing. As I look at it, I think “timeline” is perhaps the area where I struggle most. So that gives me something more to think about.

Speaking of which… it’s about time to plunge back into the #naisac Twitter stream. I wonder what I’ll find next?!

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: NAIS, Innovation, Education, NAISAC, naisac2016