What is better than a solution to a problem? The answer is an elegant solution.
Matthew E. May, author of the Change This Manifesto titled Elegant Solutions: Breakthrough Thinking The Toyota Way explains that, “An elegant solution is one in which the optimal outcome is achieved with the minimal expenditure of effort and expense.”
Each day educators confront a myriad of problems. The increasing complexity of the world around seems to create ever increasingly complex problems, be it problems of teaching, learning, curriculum, pedagogy, behavior, finances, collaboration, technology, etc., educators must create solutions to complicated problems every day.
Clearly, we need and want solutions. According to Matthew, “And when it comes to solutions, simple is better. Elegant is better still.”
“Elegant solutions embrace the overarching philosophy of doing far more with much less.” Education certainly has been called upon to do far more with less in recent years. The elegant solution is about finding that wonderful solution within the restrictions of our resources.
The problem, as Matthew points out is, “…elegant solutions aren’t obvious, except, of course, in retrospect.”
So what to do then? The answer is to make your classroom, your Professional Learning Community, your school, and your district more innovative.
Now innovation is a powerful word that elicits all sorts of ideas and reactions. Many believe that innovation is the realm of inventors, research and development departments, technology companies, or lone geniuses. While that may be the image, it is not the reality.
David Neeleman, founde of Jet Blue says, “Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.”
Read that carefully. He didn’t say we must do it better, but that we must try to do it better. Innovation in this way is a process, not a destination. Every educator I know is capable of trying to figure out how to do something better than its ever been done before. Most educators are constantly tinkering with their instruction methods, plans, etc. They are innovating. Professional Learning Communities try to do things better. Schools try to do things better. Doing things better provides solutions to problems.
Matthew says, “…when I refer to innovation, I mean solving the problem of how to something better than ever.”
It is important to remind ourselves that innovation, doing something better than its ever been done before, is susceptible to a few “big traps.”
According to Matthew there are 3 big traps to avoid on our way to finding elegant solutions.
1. Swinging for fences
“This is the ‘homerun or bust’ trap, which invariably destroys a strong batting average over time. It carries with it huge risk, usually accompanied by high cost.”
Education has seen this trap time and time again. Instead of changing how we deliver curriculum, we scrap the entire curriculum and buy new curriculum, spending thousands of dollars and causing a ton of frustration in the process. Instead of figuring out who is actually using technology, we buy dozens of laptops and LCD projectors. We keep swinging for the fences.
2. Getting too clever
“This is the ‘bells and whistles’ trap, which can easily get out of control in an effort to outdo competitors. It carries with it the danger of complexity and customer alienation.”
Teachers are notorious for trying to come up with the next great project, the one that outdoes the teacher next door and gets their picture in the paper. Too often, what happens is parents get upset at all the work they end up doing, students are confused, and administrators get frustrated.
Administrators love to create the next big “program” that is going to take learning to the next level. Schedules are created, new curriculum purchased, complicated plans and procedures developed, meetings are scheduled, etc. They get so clever, they outwit themselves, and the students don’t benefit.
3. Solving problems frivolously
“This is the ‘brainstorm’ trap, which is misguided creativity far afield from company direction. It’s a symptom of poorly defined work, and fraught with waste. There’s a reason we call it an organization.”
Sounds like the ultra-new behavior management and tracking program, which includes staff development, new forms, and a computer database to solve a student behavior problem that doesn’t really exist. Solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
Maybe it’s the new 8-step purchasing request process, when the teachers could simply just shoot an email or ask the principal in person. What problem did we solve?
So now that we know what traps to avoid, what are the key principles for creating or discovering and elegant solution?
Matthew explains there are 3: ingenuity in craft, pursuit of perfection, and fit with society.
1. Ingenuity in craft
Ingenuity in craft means that we accept limitations. Education is filled with limitations, rules, regulations, laws, bureaucratic thinking, corrosive or inflexible cultures, limited resources, etc. We use limitations to our advantage by viewing it as a challenge to overcome and a problem to solve. “No challenge, no creativity.” Limitations challenge our minds to find the elegant solution, without challenges what motivation would we have?
It also means we, “…pursue the simple question that drives the thinking behind every breakthrough, big or small: Is there a better way?”
2. The pursuit of perfection
“If ingenuity is the starting point, perfection is the vector. Approached as a process, it can drive breakthroughs. Approached as a goal, it can actually block innovation.”
It’s all about the chase. The mantra should be, “No best, only better.”
We need to embrace the twin wins of ideate and initiate.
3. Fit with society
The goal of innovation and the pursuit of the elegant solution is meaningless if it doesn’t fit with what your school needs. The solutions need to fit within the larger system of the school’s needs and function.
Does the innovation solve a problem in the context of the classroom, the professional learning community, or the school? A great idea that doesn’t fit within the context of the school is going nowhere.
These three principles are the signposts that guide creative and innovative thinking and energy toward the pursuit of elegant solutions. Being careful to avoid the 3 big traps, educators can discover solutions to problems that are optimal for the context with minimal expenditures of valuable effort, time, and expense. Any solution that can do that in education is definitely elegant.
During a recent conversation with my #ecosys Twitter friends, the topic turned to a recent BBC article about how Danish students were being allowed to use the Internet during exams. Danish pupils use web in exams
What followed was a thoughtful conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of allowing students access to the Internet during exams and if this amounted to cheating or plagiarism.
Phil notes that, “People now have access to levels of knowledge that was inconceivable 20 years ago. Rather than having to carry thousands of facts around in one’s head, what is needed today is an understanding of the context in which the question is being asked and being able to place the answers within that context.”
In terms of cheating during an exam Phil clearly points out that, “So when we see somebody ‘cheating’ in an exam, what are they doing? They are taking information from another source, in this case a fellow assessee. Is it legitimate to do so? Probably not, but … accessing the Internet with the correct question and being able to use the resulting answers when responding to an exam question requires an understanding of the context. In other words: “How well is the assessee able to remember the context (and everything that goes into making a context) rather than being able to merely regurgitate facts?”
I agree with Phil’s points and conclusions.
But beyond having access to the internet to answer test questions is the the larger question of taking existing ideas, research, work and “pirating” it into other “improved” or “reinvented” works.
Is if this is an actual skill that should be developed and encouraged in our students?
Is it piracy and plagiarism, or is it creativity and innovation?
Which do you suppose we should be teaching our students to do?
We live in an age where anybody can produce, mix, or re-purpose information and ideas.
When we pirate information and ideas, we may just be innovating new ideas and creating new ways of doing things.
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and musicians viewed it as piracy. He was pirating their music, recording it, and selling it. They feared the end of live performances, instead an entire industry was born, the music industry.
MP3 players existed prior to the iPod, but the iPod pirated that technology and created it’s own phenomena. Music lovers, wanting to share music with each other without paying, created digital music sites like Napster. They were pirating their way around and outside of what the music industry existed to do. Steve Jobs figured out that to beat the pirates he had to compete with them and built iTunes. The pirates ideas had become mainstream and put old music sellers out of business. It is piracy or innovation? Is it plagiarism or creativity?
The iPod itself is just a combination of pre-existing ideas; the battery, operating system, hard drive, screen, MP3 technology, etc.
Reggae, Disco, and Hip-hop music demonstrate that we can repurpose music into something new. The pirate old songs and create new and innovative versions. These versions become so popular that they create entirely new music genres. It is piracy or creativity?
Moviemakers, not wanting to pay high fees in New York pirates their way around the system by setting up studios in California. Today we call it Hollywood.
India reverse engineers drugs for the poor pirating what they themselves could not afford to do. Drug companies, sensing the good public relations they can benefit from, begin selling their drugs at huge discounts an in some cases giving them away. They respond to the pirates by creating an entirely new approach of serving the poor of the world. Piracy or creativity?
Teachers pirate great lesson plans and instructional ideas from other teacher all the time. It helps them to be more effective and learn new ways of instructing their students.
So, is piracy and plagiarism just another way of being creative and innovative? Are they a source of new ideas, methods, and models? Are there links to each other or are they mutually exclusive?
A senior business executive needing the most current research on a company or economic trend asks his junior executive to find the best and most current information. The junior executive doesn’t start his or her own research project, rather he or she Googles the information looking for the most current research on the topic that has already been done by the most respected and knowledgeable experts. He or she copies it, rips it, digitizes it, scans it, re-purposes it, integrates it, synthesizes it, and puts into a usable document to give the senior executive. This is what we call good research.
In the classroom we call plagiarism. So, it is plagiarism or creativity?
Most of the examples I shared, which come from Matt Mason, would be examples of plagiarism and cheating if they happened inside a classroom.
Doesn't there seem to be a disconnect from what we do in the classroom and what the real world expects of them? I know most of you are saying it's about the process. But if that is true, then why do we spend so much time evaluating and grading the result?
If it really is about process then Pat Dixon has an idea;
In what ways could you re-purpose your research report assignments to develop real world skills that focus on the process, the correctness, the authoritativeness, and uniqueness of synthesis?
What might that look like in your classroom or school?
How does your current understanding of technology, business, and innovation impact your thoughts?
How might your students be better served with the assignments they work on?
In what ways have you been successful in the past in adjusting assignments to meet the changing needs of the students and the world they live in? How might you draw upon that experience?
In what ways does the discussion of plagiarism and pirating vs. creativity and innovation force you to think in new ways?
What are the underlying principles at work in this discussion and how does it/they impact your approach to education?
What if you were to reverse the process and have students examine existing reports and determine how well they meet the criteria for a good research report?
Which assignments could you substitute with these new ideas?
Umair Haque shares these thought on Harvard Business School blog.
"As economics changes, so must strategy. What was “strategic” yesterday is less and less strategic today.
"And that requires us to have strategic imagination: to be able to imagine fundamentally new possibilities for truly strategic behaviour.
"Now, that’s hard work. Very few companies are able to tap – let alone master – strategic imagination.
"Why not? Strategic imagination is tremendously difficult because it requires us to put aside yesterday’s tired assumptions and orthodoxies, and begin to actively rethink from scratch the way value can be, should be, must be, will be created.
"The surest, most lethal killer of strategic imagination is being reined in by orthodoxy: thinking that tomorrow must be like yesterday."
Jeff says, "This is the definitive explanation of what is wrong with strategic planning in any form: it is grounded in the belief that tomorrow must be like yesterday. Above all else, it is this deep-seated assumption that has made strategic planning an enduring feature of the association landscape. The vast majority of leaders in our community are terrified by the prospect of imagining a future that looks radically different from a past many still revere and a present they find disquieting but familiar. Associations have always been more comfortable with incrementalism, despite the fact that it is a total mismatch with the times, and thus threatens our community’s future prospects."
Jeff address a common problem for any organization. Education is no different. But we should be. We spend all day with students who have amazing imaginations. Who better than the kids we teach each day to come up with the most wild and fantastic stories. Who better than our kids to imagine some of the most outlandish ideas, machines, inventions, and situations.
We spend all day teaching students, but the time has come to take a lesson from our students.
It is the educator, who above all, should be able to imagine a new future, a new tomorrow. It is the educator, the one who encourages the imagination of students everyday, who should encourage the imaginations of each other to embrace a new strategy. It is we who teach students how to think, who should be able to think about what it is we will have to do in the future to be successful for our students.
Maybe we aren't experts at strategic planning, but we should be the experts of strategic imagination.
No organization should be better at learning than the organizations that teach people how to learn. Therefore, it would follow that education should be the best organization in terms of learning ability of capability.
On this post (Innovation = Learning) on his blog, Keith Sawyer discusses an article in the Fall 2007 issue of Sloan Management Review, by Joaquín Alegre and Ricardo Chiva. They studied organizations high in organizational learning capability (OLC) and identified five core features of high OLC companies:
2. Risk taking
3. Interaction with the external environment
5. Participative decision making.
Keith shares some of his thoughts from his research on each of the five core features.
“Experimentation as defined by these authors, produces a flow of new ideas that challenge the established order.”
Does education tend to toward challenging the established order or supporting the established order?
(2) Risk taking:
“Risk taking is just what it sounds like: the tolerance for ambiguity and errors. And as I’ve found, innovative organizations foster idea generation and tolerate failure.”
Does education posses a tolerance for ambiguity and errors. Does education foster idea generation and in what ways does it to do this. How about tolerating failure? Where does education fall on the spectrum or encouraging or discouraging ideas with the potential to fail?
(3) Interaction with the external environment:
“Interaction with the external environment is what I call “collaborating with customers” and is associated with innovative networks that I call collaborative webs in my book Group Genius. Deborah Ancona, in her 2007 book X-Teams, has likewise discovered that successful teams have an outward focus, and strong social network ties with people outside of their team.”
Has education developed an outward focus? In what ways has education collaborated with its “customer base?” How has education fostered strong social networks with people outside of their classrooms, schools, and districts?
(4) Dialogue and (5) participative decision making:
“Dialogue and participative decision making are what I call improvisation–a style of communication and an organizational culture that is egalitarian, open to flows across status levels. Improvisational organizations excel at a type of dialogue that opens up possibilities, a style of conversation in which new and unexpected ideas emerge.”
In what ways has education embraced dialogue and participative decision making? How could education benefit from a greater use of dialogue and participative decision making? Does education encourage idea sharing across job functions and management levels?
Keith concludes by saying, “I firmly believe that organizations high in learning ability are more likely to be innovative organizations, and I’m delighted to read of this fascinating study confirming the link.”
I too hope that education has developed a high learning ability because we need all the innovation we can get. I think the jury is still out whether we who are high in teaching ability are also high in learning ability. I would like to to think we are.
It also makes me wonder if we are giving students enough opportunities to experiment, take risks, interact with the external (outside of school) environment, dialogue, and participate in decision making. Certainly these skills are going to be necessary in the organizations that our students will one enter into, but shouldn't they be necessary right now in our classrooms?
Back in 2002 in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution Howard Rheingold predicted that, “The ‘killer apps’ of tomorrow’s mobile infocom industry won’t be hardware devices or software program but social practices. The most far reaching changes will come, as they often do, from the kinds of relationships, enterprises, communities, and markets that the infrastructure makes possible.”
The prediction, as we now know, was spot dead on. (Nothing new for Howard) The technology has transformed our relationships, how we are able to collaborate, how we now define communities, and what kinds of work we are able to do.
This get to the very heart of the Professional Networked Learning Collaborative (PNLC) No longer is the work of educational teams limited to face-to-face over the table collaboration. No longer is email viewed as the technology of choice for collaboration. No longer are teams limited by geography.
The true difference in the Professional Networked Learning Collaborative does not lie in the technology. First, the technology enables different types of relationships. Virtual relationships are now possible and have become commonplace outside of educational settings. Networks of all sorts (Facbebook, Ning, Twitter, etc.) webcams, etc. have changed the very definition of presence.
Second, technology has changed who is part of the team. Team members can now be virtual. Members no longer tied to geographic limitation can provide input, ideas, and collaborate in real-time for any location on the globe. The Professional Learning Community succeeded because it viewed its membership of the grade level/subject matter and the school. The Professional Networked Learning Collaborative enabled through technology expands the ring of membership to include specialist, consultants, district staff, etc as part of the team.
Further, each member of the PNLC will have his or her own developed Personal Learning Network from which to draw on. As each PNLC member’s PLN network overlaps with other team members it becomes much different from the local context of a community. It Overlapping Personal Learning Networks form a collaborative that is a normal functioning part of the Professional Networked Learning Collaborative. We have moved from face-to-face community of physical space to the technology enabled virtual and physical space collaborative.
Third, the very enterprise of the typical grade level or subject matter team will be different as technology enables networks to allows for new levels of data analysis, planning, lesson design, etc. The reality is that what grade levels or subject matter teams will be able to do compared with what they do right will not just more or better… it will be different.
Finally, the PNLC model it not going to be limited to the technology that currently exists for two reasons.
First, the Professional Networked Learning Collaborative is what I call a “Change is Normal Organization”(CiNO). It is designed to change and adapt. The values of the PNLC of ICE3:Imagination, Innovation, Inquiry, Collaboration, Creativity, Curiosity, Exploration, Experimentation, and Entrepreneurship ensure the PNLC will change.
Second, the technology that we now use to collaborate virtually or network on is going to change. But, the hardware we use to access these platforms is going to move off of the desktop or laptop on to our phones. I describe this as the 4th Way. As Howard Rheingold so presciently foretold in 2002, “These devices will help people coordinate actions with others around the world—and, perhaps more importantly, with people nearby. Groups of people using these tools will gain new forms of social power, new ways to organize their interactions and exchanges just in time and just in place.”
He asks, “How will human behavior shift when the appliances we hold in our hands, carry in our pockets, or wear in our clothing become supercomputers that talk to each other through a wireless mega-Internet?”
Howard provides an answer. He says, “They will enable people to act together in new ways and in situations where collective action was not possible before.”
The PNLC is not just better…it’s totally different. It's the "killer app."
What do you get when you combine the ideas of John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison, Seth Godin, and Michael Michalko? Into the Education Innovation blender they go. The result-- Educational Edgecraft
Let's talk about edges.
Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison, authors of The Power of Pull,
defines edges this way.
are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn new
unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk
takers. Edges therefore become significant drivers or knowledge create and
economic growth, challenging and ultimately transforming traditional
arrangements and approaches.”
Seth Godin, author of Free Prize Inside, defines edgecraft this way.
is a methodical, measurable process that allows individuals and teams to
inexorably identify the soft innovation that live on the edges of what already
So in one sense the “edge” is that place where what you do in education meets ideas, knowledge, and needs of what others do outside education transforming the core of your school or classroom. In another sense, the “edge” is an innovation of what you are already doing in your school or classroom that is so far from the current reality that it becomes remarkable.
from outside and or remarkable innovations from inside can be, as the author of ThinkerToys creativity
Michalko would advise, “SCAMPERed” (Substituted,
Combined, Adapted, Modified, Put to other purpose, Eliminated, or Rearranged)
into powerful ideas and innovations.
Chart inspired from Seth Godin
||KWOK- Know What Others Know
Share what you know with others. Learn what you can from others. Get outside of education and bring back ideas that will work in education. Understand the power of the network to bring new ideas from outside in. Become the Twitter of schools.
|Ergonomics and Design
||Change the look of the school and or classroom. Put couches or bean bags in your lounge. Use special paint so students and teachers can write on the walls. Change your office to better suit parents. Rearrange the desks in the classroom to create more collaboration. Think about the ergonomics and design of your school. Be the Herman Miller or IDEO of schools.
|Make It Noticeable
||Make everything a work of art the tells the world who you are. Show off the learning. Put it online, podcast it, videocast it, or SlideShare it. Make the learning noticeable and people will notice you. Become the Etsy of schools.
||Display something beautiful or thought provoking, make the school smell good, bring food that tastes good, put on some great music, use some furniture that feels good. Hook into the senses. Become the Starbucks of schools.
||Manipulate time. Add time here and take it away from there. Give the gift of time to a teacher. Turn your staff meeting into a speed dating meeting for ideas. Find some creative ways to "waste time." Give teachers an entire staff meeting to choose a problem of their choice and work on it. Become the Google of schools.
||Hook emotion into your work. Make someone laugh. Surprise and thrill someone. Make them angry to take action. Empathize. Inspire someone. Just do it. Become the Nike of schools.
||Use technology that makes work easier to share, collaborate, and communicate with others. Prepare for and begin discussing the technology that will be, not what is. It's about the user not the hardware. Make technology simple. Become the Apple of schools.
||Learn how to "sell" ideas by making them memorable. Learn how to connect through ideas. Make your ideas "stick." Become the Chip and Dan Heath of schools.
||Make things safer than people would expect. Become the Qantas Airlines of schools.
||Give student, teacher, and parent just what they need in the way they need it. Customize the school. Become the "Amazon Recommends" of schools.
||Change the system, modify the system, or adapt new ideas and technologies to the system. You can change how you deliver instruction in a way that people will demand and expect from then on. Become the Netflix of schools.
||Involve parents in ways they never expected. Involve students in ways they never expected. Give them immediate feedback so changes can be made immediately. Give them a say. Become the Threadless of schools.
||Do more by doing less. Let parents and students do more. Let the district do more. Let volunteers do more. Empower others to do for themselves and the school. Become the Salvation Army of schools.
|Change the "Who"
||Bring the office manager into the classroom to work with the students. Have a teacher run the school for a day. Let the student teach the lesson. Involve others in new ways. Change who does what and you will change their perspectives. Become the Wikipedia of schools
|Fix What Is Broken
||Don't ignore it, fix it. Be willing to spend time on fixing even the little things. Little things can make a big difference. Believe you can do it. Use soft innovation. Become the Seth Godin of schools.
|Make It Cheaper
||Drive down the "costs" by becoming uber-recyclers. Reuse- adapt it. Think of better ways to use what already exists. Become the First Solar of schools.
|Focus On The Tough Problems
||Create a school culture that loves the challenge of solving the tough problems. Let the other schools do the easy stuff. Work on the things that no one is doing because they think it is to hard. Become the Novartis of schools.
The mash-up of these three concepts provides Lateral Wisdom and Lateral Wisdom is Education Innovation.
define difficult work as the stuff that takes guts or insight. It’s not
particularly dependent on how big your budget is or where you got a degree.
Designing the profile for the Chrysler Building was difficult. Building it was
Hard work is about the process.
is about the innovation.
|Designing comprehensive standards based lesson plans
||Deciding what the student needs isn't in the curriculum or the standards and then doing something about it
|Taking time to attend grade level meetings
||Having meaningful, challenging, questioning conversations about student needs and teaching behaviors
||Convincing your peers it is necessary element that should be embedded across the curriculum.
||Getting students to take accountability for their own learning
|Teaching students the right answer
||Teaching students to figure out the right question
|Letting the principal do all the leadership
||Taking responsibility to become a leader
|Teaching with the curriculum and materials you are given
||Creating the curriculum and materials students need and sharing it with others
|Coming up with great ideas and solutions
||Being brave enough to take the lead to implement those ideas and solutions
|Teaching 30 students in the classroom
||Tearing down the wall and teaching 30 students online
|Process, skill, best practices, implement
||Insight, guts, empathy, innovation, challenge
|Hard work can be done poorly
Difficult work can be skipped all together