Do We Care Too Much About Our Students to Innovate?

One thing is clear, you care a lot about us. But I wonder if the amount you care is holding you back and holding us back.

These insights were shared by seventeen year old keynote listener at a recent meeting on innovation for sixty or so principals and school leaders.

This meeting was the second time that we invited students to observe us plan, challenge one another and engage with new ideas. Providing them with an opportunity to share their observations and feedback brought their voice to the school improvement process as insightful participants. Our student keynote listeners took in our words, observed our body language, and watched how and when we reacted with passion and energy. They debated with each other before presenting their feedback.

Meanwhile, we quickly forgot that they were there. The principals worked in groups to address definitions of innovation, areas of strength, opportunities and challenges they face, and possible solutions. They shared stories and advice with one another. Their collective knowledge is vast and their experience draws from decades of working at the forefront of education reform in countries and systems around the world.

Yet, innovation can feel elusive and threatening for schools. Will Richardson's March 23rd post, "Stop Innovating in Schools. Please.," pointed out that all too often innovation in schools involves doing the same things differently...and with new iPads. This is not lost on our principals.

When our principals speak, we can see that they care deeply about their students and school communities. The natural result of this is to be care-ful. We know that innovation requires a risk-taking mindset. Yet, we also know that taking risks with the education of children is very different from taking risks with money. Understanding this brings principals to a place of vulnerability - and an almost mama-bear like instinct to protect their cubs.

This was a surprising insight for our students. They have been led to believe that principals maintain order because that is their job. Through their experience as keynote listeners, our students learned that principals maintain order because they fear any child slipping through the cracks.

Our principals were surprised to see how much our students valued being invited to the table. All schools have a student government, but the structure of authority remains in place. The student government generates ideas (maybe even funding) and submits these to the school leadership who make decisions about what will or will not be implemented. This is an important process, but one that does little to yield empathy or form new perspectives.

With the keynote listeners, the tables were turned. I was personally called out for starting the meeting by talking about the limitations of space, time, and money. Talk about what does work, not what doesn't, they told me. Solve problems. They noticed how similar our conversations became, regardless of the question. When we invited outside guests, they noted the value of divergent perspectives.

We know that empathy sows the seeds for innovation through developing a deep understanding the human side of problems. And we need to truly listen to have any chance at building empathy. There is no clear cut answer to the paradox of care our student listener noticed. But its very recognition may be the first step towards change.