A Great Disconnect

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Joe Dsilva

I love to read about the ways that people are pushing boundaries and I do not limit that reading to the education realm. I believe so much can be learned from every other domain, be it business, the arts, etc. that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to focusing our learning from education minds alone.

My brilliant friend Paul Genge (follow him on twitter, he is doing amazing work in curriculum redesign) turned me on to the book Open by David Price which I am finding really quite interesting, as it talks about all the changes our new open knowledge culture will have on our global community in all realms – education, business, culture. While his commentary on the changes education will have to undertake to align itself with this new culture are fascinating, it was in a section on the changing world of business that I found inspiration:

If a business is simply buying in knowledge, as and when it’s needed, how is it going to grow its own bank of knowledge and expertise?  (Price, 2013)

Addressing just how easy it is becoming to outsource work, and to access freelance workers all over the planet, Price addresses the idea that by doing so, a business builds less and less intellectual capital within their company and amongst their own talented workers.

Immediately my mind went to the topic of research and development in education, a topic I have written about before, including my last post. In that post, I put forth this quote from research I had read in my recent masters coursework:

Advances in educational know-how are likely to remain slow and uncertain until educational institutions follow suit and devote funds to supporting their role in the production of educational PPK (Principled Practical Knowledge). (Bereiter, 2014)

Bereiter advocates innovation from within, and I have imagined this as our own funded and supported R&D departments, most likely at a divisional level, pushing practice and driving systemic change. When I honestly look at what that would mean, logistically and financially, I see the minimum commitment being no less than three professionals, and when including research, professional development and a working space, the cost would probably end up being close to half a million dollars. Working in a relatively small school division, the chances of this happening are probably very small. So what is the answer?

In a study done for Strategy & Business magazine entitled Making Ideas Work, Jaruzelski, Loehr and Holman looked at the research and development budgets of some of the world’s most innovative companies and measured that up against the success each company had, and the feedback the company itself gave about their own level of innovation. While their study presented companies with R&D budgets in the billions, and names like Apple, Google and Toyota, I found this finding the most interesting:

As our study has consistently shown over the past eight years, there is no long-term correlation between the amount of money a company spends on its innovation efforts and its overall financial performance; instead, what matters is how companies use that money and other resources, as well as the quality of their talent, processes, and decision making. Those are the things that determine their ability to execute their innovation agendas. (Jaruzelski, Loehr & Holman, 2012)

The “quality of their talent”, I would imagine this is a key indicator of success in any industry. So you need talented people. Of course. And you need to spend your money effectively. Yep. Nothing earth shattering in that, but when you think of the talent your educational organization has, and you think about what David Price talks about when he illustrated a key pitfall that occurs when businesses look outside their walls with freelance work and outsourcing, I find myself forced to reflect on our current practices. How much money is spent in an educational organization to bring in talent to guide us on our way? What would happen to the intellectual capital and level of talent/ability in an educational organization if that money was directed towards individuals within the organization to develop knowledge and guide the way from within?

So we probably aren’t ready to shell out half a million to set up an R&D department in most school divisions, but there has to be another way to develop ideas from within while developing ability within our organization at the same time. What about R&D teams? What about an R&D team of educators who come together periodically to work on an idea? Let’s say 4-6 educators, meeting 8 days of each school year and doing so for a 2 year cycle? The division provides a space to meet, sub coverage for the educators and support in the way of required materials and/or PD. The whole thing could probably be done for under $30,000 over a two year cycle. Hmmmm, now we are getting closer to numbers that are pretty reasonable.

Hypothetically, we put together a pilot group to tackle the idea of mindfulness in schools. We bring in 4- 6 educators, they review research and publications, they attend a conference or two, they use their time together to plan ways to bring the research to life in buildings, and at the end of two years they present the findings to the division, and hopefully to the rest of the educators so that the seed can spread, the practice take root and systemic change can occur.

The two-year cycle idea came from this great article that I read today about Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team, and how Google pushes the team by creating a firm two year delivery date for their team projects and reminding them that every week they are 1% closer to the deadline. I think the constraint of a two year deadline is a key factor in the innovation, if you don’t put a delivery date on it, there is always a chance the work could keep spiralling without ever finishing – Seth Godin has a great video on the “Shipping” of innovative ideas. Since the teams would be on two-year cycles, this would by no means be a career change, there would be no need for permanent positions to be set up. It could be a lot like the way Regina Dugan, Google ATAP leader, puts it in this quote:

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.

A great disconnect I see is that we talk about innovation and building the capacity within our organizations but then we spend money to bring in outside experts to show us the way and to be the innovators. A lot of times, the topics  or areas covered are not beyond us, but out of convenience we pay them to come and lead sessions. If we looked within our organizations I am sure we often have the talent to lead in this area, or at the very least, a small group of passionate educators willing to learn more about it. If a goal for the professional learning of our organizations started first with a goal of building the knowledge and abilities of our educators we would be purposeful in the way we directed resources to ensure that we weren’t simply adopting someone else’s “best practices” but instead developing our own. The question should not be “Who should we bring in to be the expert?” it should be “who can become our expert?”.

6 thoughts on “A Great Disconnect

  1. Great post Jesse…I think there are a lot of things to look at it what you shared.

    First of all, there is always a possibility to bring people in to do what you are saying. It already exists in many school divisions in other capacities. The reality of what you are saying is not necessarily money, but it is priority. If there is no (or little) money allocated, it is not a priority. This isn’t just resources, but people.

    The other element of your post is about building capacity. It is essential that every school division look to build within, but it is also important that outsiders are bring in to share what you don’t know. Too much of one or the other is bad. If you only focus on developing and sharing ideas within, you can quickly see that the same things get done over and over again; it is tough to know any better. If you bring experts in too much, you are not honouring the people you have hired and it is bad on culture, as well as budget. The best way I have seen about bringing in “experts” is through a critical friend model where the same person is brought in several times because they give you that outsider view while also developing a rapport with any group they work with. You are not always starting from zero. Too many districts bring in one person this month, another person another month, etc. Lots of ideas with little action. There has to be a balance.

    Unfortunately a lot of the model that you are sharing sounds a lot like the AISI model that Alberta had and pushed our province a great deal. Unfortunately, it was cut from funding with little protest from anyone other than educators because so much of the research was “hidden” within divisions or shared with a small audience. If it was more widely known what had been done with that work, and that people like Andy Hargreaves pointed to it in their own research on innovative districts, we might still have at least some of that money back. In a time where the province is asking us to be more innovative than other, it seems they are putting less money into actually making that happen. It doesn’t really work when someone says, “go be innovative”. There has to be plans in place (like what you are proposing) that can make these things happen. It is going to take thoughtful and courageous leadership to make the things you are saying a reality in schools all over our province and in Canada.

    Great ideas and I love your pushing them. This is not something we can do later. I appreciate all of your thoughts and the work you put into making it happen.

    • Thanks for commenting George, I agree and guess I should have been more clear. We don’t want to become an organization in isolation. We need to allow the diversity of ideas to come in and help us move beyond what we generate from within. I would also suggest that living in this new “open” world provides us ample, and free, opportunities to hear and see diverse ideas and ensure that we don’t become limited in our perspectives and views.

      I would also suggest that I am speaking of the “flavour of the month” type PD facilitation and not about research-driven, cutting edge whole-system thinkers that help us move forward. Having seen Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, Pasi Sahlberg and Ewan McIntosh all at PD sessions, I by no means suggest that all brought-in PD is something that we can easily replace.

      I think if in our division we employed a few of these R&D teams for a two year cycle we could really see great things come from it.

      Thanks again for commenting,


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  3. Great post, Jesse! Thought provoking to say the least…

    Thanks for the mention. The “Open” book was shared with me by @laurelbeaton who is incredibly knowledgeable about a long list of educational topic…

    I certainly love the idea of R & D teams across boards. Everything makes so much sense in how you have organized it. The only hold back is the money and how making it happen is outside of our control. I would look for a free or “next to free” version or iteration of the idea. Your post reminds me of this Clay Shirky video from a talk he did at Harvard https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIijk9k7rV4 (from 16:00 to 20:00) where he talks about low cost collaboration and how easy it is to connect with other institutions and fields for free.

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