Monday, August 17, 2015

What Are The EXPERIENCES You Create?

In British Columbia, we are still basking in the sun of summer holidays, but in a very short couple of weeks, administrators will be locked in and lining up the schedule for start-up, teachers will be preparing for their new classes, and students and their parents will be getting ready for a new school year.  It's a very exciting time! 

For a number of our students and parents, this September will have represent some sort of 'first' in their educational journey.  A student may be moving from elementary school to a middle school or high school and having their first day with their peers in a new setting.  Alternatively, for a variety of reasons, the student may be moving to a different school in their district, or moving to an entirely new district altogether as their family has relocated to a new community.  Perhaps it is that most momentous of occasions, the first day that the little learner is ever going to school as a fresh and new kindergarten student (which my wife and I will be experiencing with our second child next month). Or it could simply just be the first day of another school year for a student as they move their way through the K-12 system.

Each of these 'firsts' is incredibly important, as are the 'firsts' that are going to happen for our students throughout the year...first impressions, first day activities, first assemblies, lessons, assignments, quizzes, report cards: the list is of 'firsts' is endless.  As providers in the education system, it is my belief that how we approach these 'firsts' is pivotal.  And it is also my belief that by asking ourselves a very targeted question, we can begin to articulate co-developed values that allow us to approach these 'firsts' in a consistent, student-centered, and innovative way that truly values our students and parents and costs us very little!  The targeted question is this:

"How can we make the EXPERIENCE that our __________ (students/parents) have when they ___________ (walk into our building/register at our school/go to our website, etc) SO POSITIVE that they want to communicate this experience with others?".

Whenever I think about this question, I remember an example of an experience that my daughter and I had last summer at one of my favorite hotels, The Four Seasons in Vancouver.  

I am not much of a camper.  I did a great deal of camping as a child, but for right now, if I am going to be out of my house for an evening, typically I would choose a hotel over a campsite.   Don't judge me, I am just telling it like it is.  Last year, my daughter had a great year in kindergarten, so I told her that I would take her on a date in Vancouver, which would include a trip to the aquarium, a dinner wherever she wanted, and a night at a downtown hotel, and as much swimming at the pool as she wanted.  We were both excited.  

I made a reservation at the Four Seasons, and let them know that my five year old daughter would be with me.  When we showed up at the hotel...

  • we were welcomed as Mr. and Miss Birk, and the concierge made a point of asking my daughter whether this was her first visit to the city and to the Four Seasons, and what she hoped to do during her visit.  Paige was enchanted. 
  • we went up to the room, and on the beds were two bathrobes laid out on the bed, one for Dad, and a miniature one for Paige, complete with a chocolate, moose-shaped lollipop on it.  Paige immediately put on her robe, and asked if we could just stay in!  
  • we left the room and walked back to the lobby, the concierge called 'Miss Birk' over and asked if she enjoyed her moose-lollipop, and asked us what our plans were.  I said we were off to the aquarium, and without my asking, offered to call us a taxi.  He then asked if we had dinner plans, and Paige said she would like to go to Earl's Restaurant.  The concierge asked us what time, and then made a second call to the closest Earl's and made our reservation for us before we left for our outing.  

I could go on and on, because the service only got better that night and the following day.  And to top it all off, we received an email 24 hours after our visit asking if everything was to our satisfaction, and was there anything they could have improved on to make our visit even more enjoyable.  

The point is this--our EXPERIENCE was so amazing and felt so personalized that when anyone asks Paige or I about where we would stay in Vancouver, we don't just say "The Four Seasons", we tell the whole story of the service we received to anyone who will listen--we are instant, authentic advertising!  And while it is likely that there are 'nicer' hotels downtown, and there are certainly more expensive ones, because of the experience that we had, we tell our story for The Four Seasons and get absolutely nothing in return!  

Coming back to the context of schools, in my last post, I gave a starting definition of something that Simon Breakspear and I are working on-- 'frugal innovation in education'.

"frugal innovation is the co-creation of iterations of solutions to educational issues that contravene our co-developed values while embracing the 'immovable' parameters that impact our day-to-day operations"

By considering each of the different experiences that our students and parents have each day with our schools, we are actually beginning the process of frugal innovation.  From my last post, the initial steps to frugal innovation include
  • developing a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determining basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • creating diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
So how could we apply this to experiences in our schools?  We could begin by using the question stem posed above as the basis for a design challenge, and use an example like our websites for our students and parents.  It might look like this...

"How can we make the EXPERIENCE that our students and parents have when interact with our website so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

I just think of how many other questions this type of challenge triggers for me:   How best might we answer this question?  Who should we have involved?  Who can we learn from?  Who are people that we have not thought of that might be able to help us with this challenge?  What would a process look like if we had a group of these different people together?  What might the norms or rules for innovation be? How can we best collect the information about this challenge from this diverse and eclectic group?  

And those are just a few questions in the first part of the process! 

It sounds like a lot of work, but think of the upside.  Imagine creating a website for your school that your parents and students raved about.  A website that was so dynamic and packed with stuff for students and parents that all of their questions were answered, their expectations were met, and when they were chatting with other parents or community members at the local Starbucks over coffee, they were telling them how informative and user-friendly your website was for them.

Now take that design challenge question and substitute 'website' for 'registration day', 'parent teacher interviews', or 'report cards' for your parents or students.  How could you think about those things in a different way?  A human-centered way?

Or, if you are a teacher, take that design challenge and make it into something like this:

"How can I make EXPERIENCE that my students have when they first walk into my classroom so positive that they want to communicate this experience to their fellow students, parents, and friends?".

Or, if you are an administrator, perhaps a challenge such as this is important:

"How can we make EXPERIENCE that our teachers have when they leave our first faculty meeting so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

There are so many experiences that we can create that can truly transform the culture of our schools, but because there is no more time in our day, and no influx of money coming to education, being innovative in our approach to the 'firsts' for our students, parents and teachers can be a continuous challenge.  But we HAVE to get started, because we owe it to our students and our parents to take an innovative approach to all aspects of our schools for our learners.  And because we must embrace the parameters that we work with each day, the mindset of frugal innovation is one that we must adopt. And if the moral imperative is not enough, the ability for our students and parents to rapidly amplify their story about their 'firsts' and experiences through social media makes one thing absolutely certain:    

Whether our students or parents have an experience at our school that is positive OR negative, they WILL communicate that experience to others.

So, what are the the "Four Seasons"-style experiences that you can create in your school?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Getting Started With Frugal Innovation

When I first created my blog page, I included the header message:

"It's education.  There is no more money.  There is no more time: there are only 24 hours in the day.  It's also the greatest job in the world, so let's get on with it.".

After five years of blogging and reflection, I believe in this statement even more today. Regardless of the increasing cost pressures due to things such as tech purchases, infrastructure upgrades and professional development requirements, there has been no sudden, magic influx of money. And with an ever expanding number of initiatives being introduced along with the concurrent pressures to produce students that are creative, collaborative and resilient contributors to society now and in the future, the time that we can dedicate to any one program to improve student and educator learning has actually decreased--we seem to be cramming more and more in to our 24 hour day.  "Do more with less!", we groan together in unison.

Several years ago, I was listening to Douglas Reeves speak at the Effective Schools Conference in Phoenix.  He asked the audience to make a list of all of the initiatives that they had been working on in their schools or districts over the last five years, or what we were planning to work on in the upcoming year.  I proudly wrote down a dozen or so initiatives that I felt were going on at our school, and then added a few that I was interested in investigating for the future.  Many of the participants around me had similar lists, and some were much longer!

He then asked us how many initiatives we had STOPPED doing in the last five years.  A nervous smattering of laughter rippled through the audience, and everyone quickly got the point:  we never seem to stop doing anything, we just keep going.

Bearing this overriding philosophy in education, of course our plates are full!  We keep going back to the educational buffet table and filling our plates without actually removing anything that is already there.  We wonder why we have no money for new initiatives when we continue to spend resources on programs that may (or may not) be having the desired impact that we envisioned when they began.  Yet how many times have we actually turned over all of the stones in our schools and districts to see whether there are some things that we, well...just need to scrap.

Over the past few months, I have seen an incredible proliferation of the term 'innovation' in tweets and blog posts across my learning network.  Teachers, administrators, schools and districts are beginning to dedicate time and resources to becoming 'more innovative', even if we don't quite know what being 'more innovative' is actually going to look like.  Even with my new position as "District Principal of Innovation" for our school district, a number of my colleagues have asked me "So what exactly will you be doing for us in the school district?".  Many believe that my job will revolve around technology.  Many others feel that I should be helping to transform classrooms into '21st century' (groan...we are 15 years in...) learning spaces, or that I should investigate and then facilitate professional development on new apps or gadgets that make life better in the classroom.  Not that these ideas are bad ones, however, I think I have a bit of a different answer for them. This answer is based in some ideas that one might call 'frugal innovation' in education.

Along with friend and colleague Simon Breakspear, I have been kicking around this idea of frugal innovation for the past few months.  While frugal innovation is a term that is often used in fields outside of education, and there have been a number of books about the concept, it can be adapted to education with a definition such as this:

"frugal innovation is the co-creation of iterations of solutions to educational issues that contravene our co-developed values while embracing the 'immovable' parameters that impact our day-to-day operations"

As a result of this line of thinking, I believe that my new job will be to work with educators, administrators, students, parents and their local school community to

  • develop a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determine basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • create diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
  • harness and increase the capacity of these groups to solve problems by developing mindsets such as those in the Field Guide to Human Centered Design from IDEO, such as creative confidence, learning from failure, empathy, embracing ambiguity, optimism, and iteration
  • determine the parameters which contravene these co-developed values
  • decide which parameters are truly 'immovable', and which ones are instead constructs that we have created on our own and can actually change (or let go of, as Douglas Reeves pointed out)
  • make, reflect upon, and share solutions that not only work within but embrace these parameters
  • continue to iterate, and not to lock in to any one solution to the point that it obscures ideas that can be gleaned from other solutions
Frugal innovation is going to be my focus for the foreseeable future in my new position.  In the next few weeks, I am going to be tapping in to the talents of other educators in my PLN to develop tasks and activities for workshops in each of these areas.  It will be both exciting and daunting all at the same time, but I know that there is no more money in education, and there certainly is no more time in the day.  But I truly believe educators have the greatest job on earth, so it's time to get on with it and embrace the parameters that confront our educational values.  

It's time to get started with frugal innovation in education.