Saturday, October 27, 2012

Innovation and a Hard Head

Last night, I was flipping through the channels and happened across the movie Moneyball.  I had seen the movie before, and in fact had written a blog about it several months ago called Moneyball and Education. However, I tend to watch movies more than once, and even though it was about half way through, I decided to tune in for the last 45 minutes.

Near the conclusion of the movie, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is being interviewed by Tom Werner, one of the owners of the Boston RedSox. Werner is trying to woo Beane to Boston:  he believed that the revolutionary (and highly controversial and opposed) way that Billy Beane was using statistical research rather the more traditional 'eye of the talent scout' and 'gut feeling' approach taken in the past. While the clip starts out with a bit of a tour of Fenway Park (which is of special interest to me), the part that really struck me begins right around the two minute mark:

Specifically, the piece where Tom Werner refers to the struggles that Beane was having with the traditionalists in Baseball and says:

"I know you're taking it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall....he ALWAYS gets bloody.  It's a threat.  Not only to the way of doing business, but a threat to the game.  Which ultimately is a threat to their livelihood.  Their jobs.  They way that they do things."

Over the past six years that I have been at my school, we have made numerous changes.  We have changed our timetable.  We have introduced collaborative time for our teachers.  We have created invitational tutorial time.  We have made directive intervention time. We have confronted and changed grading practices, and provide students with multiple opportunities to meet learning outcomes.  We have changed the way we approach school improvement plans.  We have created free wi-fi.  We have unblocked social media sites.  We encourage BYOD.  We are changing faculty and leadership team meetings.  We are changing our library to a learning hub.  And there are still more things that we will look at in the future.

Some would believe that these changes are for the better.  Some would think that the changes have had little impact on our school.  And some would think that these changes have made our school sub-standard in comparison to what it was in the past.  But regardless of the perceptions of the impact of these changes, one thing is for sure: change is not easy, especially if there are not instant results to help ameliorate some of the challenges come with change. Examining and confronting 'the way we do things around here' can cause a great deal of angst and dyspepsia, even for highly supportive people in our organization. And I have seen it first hand.

As much as I am proud of the changes that we have made, I look back at the way that I went about engineering some of those changes early on in my time at our school with regret.  I could have done things differently, and more specifically, I could have done things better.  I could have went slower.  I could have done a more thorough job of creating meaning and a sense of urgency.  I could have involved more people.  I could have listened more and spoken less.  Hindsight has provided me endless opportunities to fret about and reflect upon what I could have done better.  To borrow from Tom Werner, I might not have went 'first', but I went through the wall early with some of the things we did.  I took it in the teeth whenever there was a negative that could be attributed to the changes that were made.  I definitely got bloody. 

But that's change, isn't it?  I have read more books and articles on change than I care to remember.  Different ideas from theoreticians and practitioners, from colleagues and from my PLN.  Building trust.  Developing relationships.  Engaging stakeholders.  Creating urgency.  Pressure and support.  There are so many phrases that go along with change.

But at the end of the day, I find change to be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  But then it happens, and we adapt. And as much as I wish that I could have done a number of things differently, over the last 6 years we have changed.  And I believe in the changes that we have made, because our students are more successful than they ever have been.  Our high achieving students still achieve at a high level, and our promising learners are more engaged and successful than they ever have been.  And I believe that as a staff, we have grown together through the changes.  I know that I have learned much from our teachers--I always learn from our teachers.

In the end, I guess what I appreciate about Billy Beane and the concepts of sabermetrics that he took from Bill James and adopted for his team is that he knew it would be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  He got bloody.  But in the end, he stuck with it, his team adapted, and now, so has all of baseball.  Because it was the right thing to do.

Change is difficult, but if we stay focused on the idea that the innovation that we are advancing is sound in its rationale and research and ultimately the right thing to do, I think it makes our collective foreheads a little bit harder for when we hit that wall similar to the one that Beane did in Moneyball.


  1. Change is good and I think that the changes being made at SKSS are definitely in the right direction and necessary for keeping up with our ever changing student population. Keep up the good work....if only we could change our gym in the near future :)

    1. huh? Your gym doesn't have a change room? We have two. One for boys and one for girls plus all the broken furniture.

  2. Thanks for the honest, reflective post! You have articulated what I believe many focused on the potential to improve student learning have experienced during the past several years of rapid change. I too, and I suspect many of us, reflect on things we could have done differently and better; going slower, doing a more thorough job of creating meaning and a sense of urgency, involving more people, listening more and speaking less. I wonder about what we have learned from our experiences; taking it in the teeth and getting bloody, adapting and moving forward. I am in many ways a different principal, learner and leader than I was several years ago as a result of the experiences; hoping I am doing things differently and better, recognizing the process of change remains messy and controversial, seeing how we have adapted and grown. I am also looking over the horizon at the work yet to be done; planning for ways of doing it better. I look forward to the ongoing conversation as so many continue this journey!

  3. It's easier to follow the first guy through the wall than to be that first guy. Your post reminds me to follow ad support an innovative administrator and to tune out the status quo that is oh so comfortable with where things are at. I began my career in the Kamloops Thompson school district on 2001. I love the list of changes that are taking place in the school district, how fantastic, I see the same challenging changes taking place in Rocky View schools in Alberta. In your post you consider that you could have gone more slowly, self-reflection is necessary. The more I read however, the more I hear the game changers saying that there is not better time than now. Good job Mr. Birk!

  4. Another great, reflective piece Cale. Seems like I’m commenting every week on your blog!

    I don’t think the pace of the change is the issue but rather purpose. Change is always going to be non-linear and complex. Progress will always be incremental, characterized more by starts and stops, messiness and redundancy rather than sequential efficiency.

    What I read as the heart of this post, the ‘what you have done’ (and I use ‘you’ in the collective ‘we’ sense), is the reality of moving forward and helping “transform delivery” but not core purpose: providing students (and staff) with enriching experiences and positive reinforcement that enables them to discover their own admirable purposes.

    I look forward to reading about how you and South Kam continue to design, implement and support multiple ‘ways of doing’ so that all within the ‘game’ can be part of a vibrant learning community. Pack a lot of gauze and wear protective head gear!

    1. Purpose is huge... otherwise it is just change for change's sake. I appreciate the candour in your post, Cale. Probably one of the best "wall breaking" activities you engage in is support for colleagues who want to make their own changes, and that you're willing to go "all in" as you've written about before. I mentioned this during the thing last week (your blog/concept of "all in"). Keep looking for promising practices in your staff and students (and elsewhere in your district) that are "underground" or not recognized by the mainstream "moving forward" concepts that pervade education. These are the habits and experiments that either so resilient that they look like anachronisms, or so innovative that they are controversial. If you wait long enough, you won't be able to see the difference.

  5. "Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats." - Howard Aiken

  6. Thanks Cale. Great post and I appreciate you taking the time to reflect as you continue the move forward. Although getting bloodied often happens to the first person through the wall, it's often important that we take down the walls. Randy Pausch wrote about brick walls in his last lecture and defined them as being indicative of our desire to achieve something. We can use the brick walls (and there are many convenient ones in our field) to stop our progress or we can break through them with intention and a desire for better outcomes.

  7. Cale wrote:

    But at the end of the day, I find change to be challenging. Messy. Controversial. But then it happens, and we adapt.

    - - - - - - - - -

    And you know what, Cale: If you hadn't gone through the wall first and taken a few in the teeth, change WOULDN'T have happened.

    Schools are full of people who are committed to traditions -- and specifically, to the traditions of the schoolhouse simply because we succeeded there.

    If ever there was a profession that needed prodding, it's ours.

    You're doing the right thing even if it's a giant PIA.

    Rock on,


Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog!