This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.
― Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
There are always questions around the purpose and function of our work. Are we innovating enough? Too much? How do we know when an idea is good? How long should we invest in it?
Some are organisational questions; what’s the best way to foster an innovation culture and spread the word of our work? Are we even in the business of innovation? Who and what drives us?
Essentially, we know good business, and good teaching practice is built on good ideas, and sharing them.
In reading Atul Gawande’s New York Times provocation, Slow Ideas, on how we spread good ideas, I was also drawn to the work of Nilofer Merchant, a social era commentator and company director, Steven Johnson, author of ‘how good ideas spread’ and Futerra, a marketing firm working with the UNEP on reshaping communication of the sustainability message. There are some key learning for the Education space, primarily in how and why our good ideas and work can gain the traction we (and others) think it deserves.
There are a few considerations around judgement of ideas: Are ideas adopted quickly necessarily good? Often this is deemed the case. Inversely, are ideas that take time, poor ideas? Often not. It is in how they gain traction that requires a rethink. A classic example is The Internet. Tim Berners Lee took 10 years and countless hours in sharing of his spark of an idea for it to truly get the public traction of the familiar scope of a World Wide Web we know today.
In an age of rapid research, communication and action, there is much complexity. This can lead to error. Essentially individuals working within organisations, teams and indeed society need to realise “We can’t know it all or do it all ourselves”. We need to view this statement with a growth mindset an opportunity to connect with others and hone expertise, not a shame and deficit mindset. Once we get to this point, we begin to operate as pitcrews, rather than cowboys. Shifting from corralling cowboys to producing pit crews—is the great task we have before us.
Teachers, like doctors famously prize their autonomy as among their highest professional values. But improved outcomes also depend on teamwork.
A strong and productive ‘system’ or organisation is a collective of diverse people who authentically work together to direct their specialised capabilities toward common goals. They are coordinated by design. They are pit crews. To function this way, however, you must cultivate certain skills, and acknowledge the strengths of individuals in the team.
There is a critical need to recognise when we’ve succeeded and when we’ve failed for the end user. People in effective systems become interested in data sets. They put effort and resources into collecting them, refining them, understanding what they say about their performance.
It’s important though to recognise that failure is not a bad thing, not because mistakes are good, but because they are critical steps that one must go through in order to create something valuable. Avoiding failure at all cost is a costly stance. Failing fast and moving on to the next thing is a much better philosophy.
Acclaimed instructional coach, Jim Knight talks about the importance of a shared discourse or common language across our education landscape. When we have a shared narrative, we have a richer ability to collaborate and make meaning of the business of schools and education; which is essentially the business of a community. This collaboration can manifest practically, for example by collecting and analysing evidence of student learning, or learning artefacts, and designing together both proactive and reactive measures that foster the kind of accountability that has real impact. We can utilise the capacity of a range of stakeholders to make sense of learning analytics and big data that is commonly underutilised in the school setting. Forming and fostering networks of interest, deepening to communities of engagement support educators and schools to focus on their core business.
Multiple studies and conversations reveal that there are three things we must accomplish if we are to enrich and deepen learning:
1. increase the quality and depth of curricular content,
2. improve teacher knowledge and ability to apply what they know, and
3. increase students’ active engagement
There continues to be so much to learn from small, innovative teams in different professional fields, from medicine to music to software development, and it is already clear that sharing knowledge must be made easier in education too. Gawande shares the concepts of Jim Knight, stressing the importance of opening professional dialogue and publicising practice for critical feedback, leading to improved outcomes and experiences for students. There are clear opportunities and emerging projects to allow for the community to truly engage in the business of education, inviting networks working on the periphery of schools to support the emerging work of teachers, school leaders and students in deepening student engagement and learning experiences. In a networked education model, the premise is clearly that “everyone’s a learner, everyone’s a teacher.” As the interest and the involvement of the wider community in schools deepens, it is clear that students will benefit the most from the increased professional collaboration and networking (social capital) and knowledge and expertise of individuals (human capital) that is built as a result.
When inventive people aren’t aware of what others are working on, the pace of innovation slows. If we had better visibility into one another’s work, one suspects, we could collaborate more effectively or work more quickly or with greater insight. – Clive Thompson
In early 2010, Nike announced a new Web-based marketplace it called the GreenXchange, where it publicly released more than 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies. The marketplace was a kind of hybrid of commercial self-interest and civic good. By making its good ideas public, Nike made it possible for outside firms to improve on those innovations, creating new value that Nike itself might ultimately be able to put to use in its own products.
Great lessons and practices in a single classroom impact the students while they are in that classroom. Systematic succession planning for outstanding teaching practice requires a network of professional learners (on different peripheries externally, and also within the education space) who share their practices with one another so that innovation, best practice and concepts of next practice can be shared widely.
Once thinking is public, connections take over. Failed networks kill ideas, but successful ones trigger them. It’s by learning from other people’s ideas, or previous ideas of our own, that we come up with new ways of seeing the world. It’s a constant connection of innovation and success. Documenting our thought process will inform the development of our ideas. Sharing this documentation could grow the concept.
Openness is powerful, even catalytic. On a personal level, it not only allows us to share, but to co-create with speed. On an organisational level, it allows for more than collaboration, it enables communities. Nilofer Merchant
Essentially, the three key authors boil it down to this;
• People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change. Slow, sustained, supportive.
• Stakeholder engagement is conversational; trust and visibility are essential elements.
• To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.
• Conversations, not evaluations. Discoveries (“I really can do this and it really works”), not prescriptions (“Do this or else”).
• Model what you value
Understanding what motivates others is the ﬁrst step in knowing how to talk to them. Psychology teaches us some valuable lessons here:
People are motivated:
• To know and understand what is going on: they hate being disorientated or confused.
• To learn, discover and explore: they prefer acquiring information at their own pace and answering their own questions.
• To participate and play a role in what is going on around them: they hate feeling incompetent or helpless.
So how can good teaching ideas spread for the benefit of all learners, everywhere? Technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass and Social media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.
If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.