Educational Innovation & Building a Plane in the Air

Is making educational change like building an airplane in the air? Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase before. The more I think about it, the more I see it as having some useful lessons for thinking about managing change in learning organizations.

I had the privilege of helping with a recent boot camp for a select group of schools chosen to get help working toward a school-wide make-over, with a focus upon moving toward a blended learning model that amplifies their core values. The goal was to help these schools be successful with this innovation while also developing promising practices to share and replicate elsewhere.

We started the first day with a critical conversation about the compelling why behind theirs school and having non-negotiable school-shaping concepts through which they sift new programs, projects, ideas, policies, and practices. Without such groundwork, it is far too easy to make blended learning about chasing the next shiny thing. Coming up with your school-shaping concepts, and making them truly non-negotiable is a key to what I call mission-minded educational innovation that pops, that has a distinct and compelling identity and that results in a high-impact learning organization.

At the end of that first day, we debriefed, and I was struck and excited by one of the questions.

I see how you can do this if you are starting a new school are doing a re-start, but some of us are not in a position to do that. How do we make changes now, while we are still teaching students and working through many of the identity questions.

It is true. There are many benefits to starting from scratch, and engaging in school-wide educational innovations in existing organizations calls for a different approach. It calls for change management and developing the knowledge and skill to know when, what, how, and how much you can adjust at any given time. You are building (or at least updating) an airplane in the air, as represented by the following video.

This playful representation of managing change for existing, living, moving organizations provides a little comic relief to the familiar pain and challenges of leaders who have tried to do such a thing. It also highlights the risks associated with such an effort and draws our attention to some guiding principles.

1. Changing Course

Sometimes it isn’t as if you are building or rebuilding the concept of school. You are just adjusting or changing course. That is not uncommon in the air. We often need to adapt to the circumstances, and that is why things like curriculum require constant review and adjustment. That isn’t necessarily like building a new plane as much as making the adjustments necessary by a good pilot.

2. Major Changes are Done on the Ground, When People are Not Present

That is true for schools as well. Major changes typically happen between school years. You might plan for it during one school year, but launch it the next. There are exceptions to this, but there are still the exceptions. Even in the video you don’t see them building the engine in the air. Some things can be worked on as you go, but it just isn’t possible or advisable to make core changes in the air.

3. Building and Rebuilding Requires Care & Skill

Whether it is on the ground or in the air, it takes time, skill, and special attention to do this well, and in a way that does no harm. It requires knowing the difference between a major change and a minor adjustment; and having the wisdom to choose the best strategy to achieve the goals/changes.

4. A Compelling Why Makes a Huge Difference.

Maybe the comments in the video were over the top and full of cliché, but educational innovation can quickly fizzle under difficulty or pressure if there is not a compelling why to justify the time, effort, challenge, and risk. This is also critical for nurturing shared ownership or buy-in from the different stakeholders.

5. This is not a one person task.

If you have a small and simple enough team or organization, some changes can be led and managed by a single person, but most learning organizations don’t work that way. There are many parts to leading a successful educational innovation, and a committed, cooperative, core team is going to be necessary.

While these may seem simple, I’ve seen plenty of examples where innovations or attempted changes failed because lessons like these were ignored. Lone range efforts rarely work in complex learning organizations. Changes without a clear goal and compelling why often don’t have what it takes to persist or last. There is usually a learning curve and the need to develop or tap special expertise to make these changes a reality. And it is important to assess what can we done “in the air” and what needs to wait for us to be back on the ground. Pay attention to these five lessons and you’ve greatly increased your changes for a successful rebuild.