Educational Innovation That Moves Mountains

Ben Franklin wrote, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”

I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography almost every year, so when Ken Robinson mentioned this Franklin quote in the last chapter of Creative Schools, I took notice. Robinson applied this quote to education, providing important insights about educational innovation, change management and education reform. I thought I’d build on his ideas, putting an autobiographical spin on them.

“The Immovable”

These are the people who are largely set in their ways. They ignore, don’t see or resist the need for change. Robinson refers to them as boulders in a stream that the water rushes around. He suggest that we not invest our time in trying to move these boulders. Change is constant and they will, unfortunately, be left behind.

As a consultant for organizations grappling with change, this is sage advice, but sometimes more complex in practice. What if the boulder is the person in charge or the one who holds the purse strings? What if the boulders are parents who resist or deny the need for change because it is not like what they have experienced? What if there are wonderfully gifted and impactful boulders? What if the boulders are the policy-makers and regulators? What if there is a seemingly impenetrable row of boulders in your way? Or, sometimes people can be part boulder. They are open to and embracing of change in some areas but entrenched in others.

It is not always apparent which people are the boulders. I’ve seen wonderfully gifted people be labeled as boulders by one group seeking change in a certain direction, and then embraced as a true mover and change agent when working with a different group, seeking to bring about a very different change. Even in my own large and wonderfully complex organization, it is not uncommon to have two groups, each of which are embracing a bold and noble vision, clash with one another, and labeling the other as less noble or even immovable. As such, this labeling of someone as immovable should not be taken lightly or pursued flippantly. This is work that calls for ample discernment, even more humility. We must recognize that there are wildly different personalities in the world, some that will clash and conflict, but they each can have something tremendous to contribute to a noble mission.

“The Movable”

There are the people who see that change is coming. They might even recognize the need to do things differently, but they are not likely the ones to lead the way. As Michael Crow wrote about many Universities stuck in the “industrial age”, they are desperately in need of exemplars. These are people who, with help and support, can participate in bringing about the necessary changes.

While some of the most passionate and impactful education leaders that I’ve met are quick to dismiss those whom they deemed “immovable”, “movable” is the default category for me when I think about others. I live by the quote often credited to Martin Luther, “everything that is done in the world is done by hope” and for better or worse, I have a persistent hope that people are movable, that they are willing to be reasonable, even supportive…given the right conditions. It is just that fear, love, uncertainty, confidence or a myriad of thoughts and emotions make it difficult for them. It was a tremendously humbling thing for me to experience, for the first time in my life, a panic attack in my late 30s. I had no idea what was happening and it was incredible how the associated fear limited my ability to think creatively, imagine possibilities, and embrace change. There was a short time where I despaired. What do you do with a man who has lived and breathed educational innovation for years, but he suddenly experiences fear at the slightest change? It took months to work through this, but I now consider it an extraordinary gift. That experience provided me with a level of empathy that I could have never imagined before. It also gave me this wondrous hope for even the most seemingly immovable people. As a teacher reminded me over twenty-five years ago when I was going through a difficult time early in life, “This too will pass.”

People can change, and sometimes it is possible to have the honor of helping them embrace an important educational reform. At the same time, there is a limit to this. Ultimately, education is about the learning and the learners, and someone who persistently resists needed change can’t be prioritized above these other two. I don’t want to go to a hospital that tolerates doctors who resist current and research-based practices in lieu of preferences and an insistence on using flawed and outdated practices. The same is true in education (although what is “best practice” is sometimes more debatable in education, I suppose).

At some point, we need to leave the dock in pursuit of the vision, bringing along those who are willing to join us. This means leaving others behind and recognizing that still others will opt to take their own ship on a different journey. As Thomas Edison is credited as saying, “vision without action is hallucination.” There comes a time to act and time will not stand still or wait for us.

“Those that Move”

These are leaders, innovators, “change agents”, people who have a vision for a better future and act to make their vision a reality. As Robinson wrote, these people, “know that they don’t always need permission.” He explained that these are the people who, collectively, are capable of bringing about a much-needed educational revolution.

Not everyone is going to be a “mover.” In fact, I tend to think that most organizations and communities can benefit by having a variety of people on this spectrum. At the same time, if you have ever had the privilege of witnessing or participating in a group or community of movers fixated on the same vision, well-resources, and hard at work; you understand what I mean when I say that it is a truly powerful force…strong enough to move a mountain of boulders.