Does The Leadership Innovation Trap Apply To Teacher Innovation?


In 2 previous posts I argued that principals get pinned. There are student/parent issues that most be handled. There are often a few new teachers that need heavy support (and, occasionally, to be let go).

And then there's a choice with remaining bandwidth: consistently go from room to room seeing teachers, or try to implement various changes, often figured out in July and August.

This may sound like I'm anti-innovation. No. I'm making a narrower claim. It's that the principal is generally the one who needs to drive a day-to-day obsession with execution of good, meat-and-potatoes teaching.

What about teachers? Is there an innovation trap that applies to them?

I'd loosely describe teachers with 2 questions. Do they:

a) Have a fairly complete curriculum, or spend a couple hours a day making stuff from scratch (and often frantically photocopying)


b) Are automatic in proactive/reactive classroom teacher moves and build kid/parent relationships easily, or still wrestle with these two areas, and therefore struggle with getting kids to be disciplined and focused?

Rookies generally have issues with a or b or both. So that should be their first line of focus. Execution, not innovation.

Some more experienced teachers are in good shape on curriculum and their classroom already hums. Those teachers should tinker. Tinker with how they teach, how they build relationships with kids and parents, what they teach, etc.

I believe not only is this critical for student gains, it's critical for teacher happiness. Without tinkering, teaching can get stale.

"Innovation" makes us think of big ideas. That's what we celebrate as a culture.

But I'd argue that skilled teachers frequently come up with little ideas. It's these that, taken together, are the most plausible path from good teacher to great teacher.

Steve Johnson of the Wall Street Journal has an essay about this sort of innovation:

In the year following the 2004 tsunami, the Indonesian city of Meulaboh received eight neonatal incubators from international relief organizations. Several years later, when an MIT fellow named Timothy Prestero visited the local hospital, all eight were out of order, the victim of power surges and tropical humidity, along with the hospital staff's inability to read the English repair manual.

Mr. Prestero and the organization he cofounded, Design That Matters, had been working for several years on a more reliable, and less expensive, incubator for the developing world. In 2008, they introduced a prototype called the NeoNurture.

It looked like a streamlined modern incubator, but its guts were automotive. Sealed-beam headlights supplied the crucial warmth; dashboard fans provided filtered air circulation; door chimes sounded alarms. You could power the device with an adapted cigarette lighter or a standard-issue motorcycle battery. Building the NeoNurture out of car parts was doubly efficient, because it tapped both the local supply of parts and the local knowledge of automobile repair. You didn't have to be a trained medical technician to fix the NeoNurture; you just needed to know how to replace a broken headlight.

The NeoNurture incubator is a fitting metaphor for the way that good ideas usually come into the world. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them.

We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition.

But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas.

We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

Rookie teachers should mostly focus on execution. Meanwhile, once teachers are reasonably skilled, they may need innovation, particularly micro-innovations that blend together, to become great.