What compels people to pursue more radical innovations in education? It has now been almost two decades since I started to more seriously and systematically study innovations in education and innovative learning organizations. Many of the musings about that show up in the chapters of my book on Missional Moonshots (not to mention the many articles on this blog), but since my exploration started, I can’t think of a single day that has passed without some thought experiment or reflection about educational innovation. In that sense, it has become a consuming passion for me because I see educational innovation as an important social good, and I have immense respect for those who tap into the courage, creativity and hard work necessary to pursue revolutionary or radical innovations in education.
As such, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about what compels people to pursue such innovations. What is it that happens inside or outside of people that draws, drives or inspires them to get off the paved roads of legacy education models and frameworks and do the hard work of helping to create completely new roadways? Under what conditions is this more likely to happen for a person? While some of this has to do with how people are wired (both genetically wired and wired through a longstanding set of life experiences), there are other aspects at work as well. That is what leads me to start to put into words some of what I’ve seen. Amid many observations, conversations, formal and informal interviews, and my study of educational innovators and entrepreneurs, the following six consistently show up as conditions that often catapult people into trying something more radical in the education space.
When there is nothing to lose or you have little stake or loyalty to the established system.
This doesn’t need to be an objective statement. You might, from many perspectives, have a great deal to lose. What matters, however, is that you believe that you have little to lose, or perhaps that you do not have a strong sense of loyalty to the existing system. You might (or might not) be extremely loyal to the broader mission or goals, but not necessarily the system or current methods. Perhaps the system failed you. Perhaps it was never that important to you. Perhaps you are coming from outside of the system and looking at it with fresh eyes. Regardless, this is a significant entry point for some who pursue what others might consider more radical or revolutionary innovations.
While some critique educational innovators who don’t have longstanding experience in the classroom, it is sometimes this outsider-ness that allows them to think and act in what others might consider more radical ways. In fact, some don’t even see or think that their innovation is all that radical. Feeling like an outsider might be unpleasant for some of us or a source of pride for others. Either way, it can drive us to look at the context from a unique (or at least less common) perspective. We are willing and able to consider possibilities censored or disregarded by insiders. We are open to possibilities that others reject because they would have too much to lose by such possibilities.
When there is no other option but the mission is still important to you.
“Necessity is the mother of invention”, right? Or, as John Kotter points out in much of his work, a “sense of urgency” can be a powerful lever for change and innovation. If there is no other option and you lack a compelling mission, innovation is less likely. Or, if you have mistakenly glued the mission and your current practices together, no longer able to see that they are indeed separate elements, you may rather shut down, learn to live in persistent failure, or use denial to avoid the intense pain of current failure instead of looking for alternatives and innovations. Yet, when one sees that the mission is compelling and separate from what is currently being done, and the option of staying the course is no longer an option, this is enough to move some people to lead or embrace revolutionary innovations in education.
When you experience a compelling alternative.
Sometimes people are stuck in educational ruts simply because they are not aware of the alternatives. Yet, when they see them, when they experience them firsthand and work through some of their doubts and questions, this is enough for some to venture into more radical changes. It is why I advocate so strongly that people at least take the time to get informed about the possibilities, even if they don’t choose to embrace any of them.
When your passion for the goal and/or mission far exceeds your fear of loss, discomfort or failure.
There are plenty of us who have many radical or more revolutionary ideas. It is just that our fear keeps us in check, we are not willing to take the associated risks, or the pain and discomfort associated with the change is not tolerable to us at the time. Yet, for many who do embrace a more radical educational pathway, it happens when their passion for the goal or mission grows to such a level that it overshadows these others. Or, we find ourselves in a life circumstance where we’ve been able to minimize some of these risks enough that we are then willing to venture out into the less knoswn or unknown.
When you are deeply connected to or convinced of the minority opinion, situation or a specific need.
There are winners and losers in the dominant education system. When you are connected to those in the system who are on the losing end and you care deeply about those people, this can be enough to move to you to bold and new actions. It is not a coincidence that many parents are active innovators in the charter school system throughout the United States. Interview founders of innovative charters and independent schools and you will find compelling stories, often about their own children. Love and concern for another person (family member or not) is a fuel for more radical innovations in education.
When the vision or dream is too strong to deny or delay.
I’ve heard from this from many educational innovators. They sometimes thought, planned and dreamed for years or decades. Finally, at some point, the conditions were right but they also got to a point where they just could not wait. They had invested so much of themselves into the idea that they just had to do something about it. So they acted. Sometimes they have a vision for the impending doom if we continue down the standard path and they’ve reached a point where it is so urgent (internally), that they just need to do something. In other cases, it is just that they want it to happen so much and all the years of thought and emotion create a tipping point toward action.
Interview innovators in education, and you are likely to find one or more of these six answers at work. There are many others as well, but these six are among the more common and transparent. These are the kind of things that compel people to what the rest might consider more radical innovations in education.