Search This Blog

Jun 24, 2011

Type C innovation

Svetlana and I went to London, Amsterdam, and then to Russia. It was all fun and we had a great vacation. This is about as much as I want to know about other people’s vacations, unless they went to the Amazon or were kidnapped by pirates. This is how much I suspect most people want to know about mine! So, no travelogue, for those are lame.

Summer is time for thinking through the next year. DLC is trying to organize itself better, to spend more time on identifying the critical projects we need to accomplish, to reflect on what did and what did not work last year. Among other things, we’re thinking about our innovation strategy. What should we improve and why?

It is usually not too hard to see the closest horizon of improvement. For example, we should realign curriculum to ensure consistency and coherence, better sequence field experiences; we must consider strengthening our classroom assessment component, doing more with instructional technology, career guidance, perhaps also classroom management, differentiation, etc.; we should keep working on improving our assessment system. Those are not trivial tasks, and will take time, creativity, and effort. I actually enjoy thinking of small and medium improvements, because you can see them work right away. Fundamentally though, those are not game-changing ideas. We can continue working on these things indefinitely, gradually improving our programs; there is never an end to this stuff. Let us call this the innovation A. It may be the case that is all that is possible right now.

But then again, there may be more. How about some radical change? Let’s call this the innovation B, where whole large structural components are rethought, reshaped, cut out, and replaced. I have been in at least four brainstorming groups trying to “reinvent teacher education.” And what I learned is that it is very difficult, and looks impossible. Whenever we think of institutional limits in which we operate (credit hours, gened, state approval, accreditation, labor arrangements, etc.), they seem to significantly limit possibilities for innovation. Once you start imagining breaking those barriers down, it quickly becomes implausible, and somewhat silly. OK, so you get rid of typical 3 or 4 credit courses, and replace them with what? – oh, let’s do, er… shorter modules. - But how do you approve them, pay for them, register students for them, and maintain their original alignment? All of these problems can be overcome with great effort, but… remind me why exactly are we doing this? What is the big gain to justify going through all the trouble? Isn’t this just a solution in search of a problem? And it is like this with every single big structural change – by the time you estimate the scope of work, the gains do not seem to be that significant. Radical change eats up its own purpose. Besides, when you spend a lot of energy on implementing some radical change, you do not spend it on Innovation B, and your programs are stagnant.

Perhaps there can be a third kind of innovation, type C. This is something like what Apple has been doing so successfully for so long. They don’t really invent anything radically new. Instead, Apple takes a look around, and identifies ideas that are already there, and are somewhat tested, but not quite measure up yet. They combine and improve several existing technologies, package and market it smartly, and create a break-through product that way. It is sort of the Excedrin effect: it contains acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine, neither of which is that powerful. Together they created a completely new block-buster drug.

Here is what I want to do next year. We continue the several critical curriculum and operations improvement projects. At the same time, I would like to run an informal think tank, consisting of people that are interested in looking just around the corner in terms of where teacher education is going. We will agree from the start that nothing crazy or totally new is expected. However, several slightly altered, or new components can create the synergy to put us ahead of the pack. We need a vague vision to guide us. I don’t want us to focus too narrowly on AACTE or any SPA standards, for example; we already have done that. Of course, would need to look into what Linda Darling-Hammond calls the “powerful programs.” But I would not look too closely to what already exists; it is intimidating and hurts creativity. We should see what really works in our circumstances, and what else we can add, and especially – how a combination of several not too radical changes can merge into building truly innovative programs?

Rather than putting forth a set of learning outcomes, I want to focus on student experiences – how can we make it a wow-kind of college program? The one that they will later say changed their lives? What are known cultural and organizational tools to create loyalty, commitment, the sense of community? I want to focus on employers’ experiences: how do we make our kids to stand out in job interviews? Greg Kniseley is really onto something very important with his CURR 480 class. After all, interviews make or break our reputation. Our kids might be the best prepared, but if they cannot shine in interviews, no one will find that out. Can our graduates present themselves, sell themselves? Talk like a duck, not just walk like a duck? How about focusing on K-12 students’ and their parents’ experiences? Maybe we should have rigorous actor’s training? Maybe we need to practice parent communication? Maybe our students should watch hundreds of hours of video? I don’t know, but we should identify several simple and tangible goals, and examine what tools there are to get there. Goals like “This program is amazing,” “When RIC graduates interview for a job, you can always tell them apart from others,” “My teacher is a RIC graduate, and she is the best.” Those kinds of goals, not like RIPTS or other such boring stuff.

Again, let’s follow the likes of Apple and Google. They are intensely focused on not what their customers may want, not on what the customers think they want. We have a whole set of customers: the public, our own students, their students. What is it they want, but don’t yet know it? How can we pleasantly surprise them?