Guest Post by Summer Howarth

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

I have the immense opportunity to be working alongside some of the most brilliant minds in education from across the globe. For me, learning has always been social, and I thrive one the interaction with others. I’m fascinated with how people approach their work, with the convergent and divergent view points and perspectives people bring to the table of a common concept. I’ve grown in this; I used to find being challenged, quite challenging. I’ve never been risk averse, so leaping into new territory and giving new ideas a go, even dreaming up concepts has always been where I find enjoyment. Where I found significant difficulty (and heartbreak) is in bringing others on board ideas and scaling them up. My current work has me playing in this space, and so I’ve been working on the narrative of my concepts, looking at a range of communication methodologies and mechanisms for giving ideas traction and bringing others on board an idea… more than this, building ideas in true collaboration with others. It’s made me question and reflect deeply.

There are always questions around the purpose and function of our work. Are we innovating enough? Too much? How do we know when an idea is good? How long should we invest in it?

Some are organizational questions; what’s the best way to foster an innovation culture and spread the word of our work? Are we even in the business of innovation? Who and what drives us?

We know this; good teaching practice is built on good ideas, and sharing them is key to raising the efficacy of our profession, leading to great learning experiences for young people.

In reading Atul Gawande’s New York Times provocation, Slow Ideas, on how we spread good ideas, I was also drawn to the work of Nilofer Merchant, a social era commentator and company director, Steven Johnson, author of ‘how good ideas spread’ and Futerra, a marketing firm working with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) on reshaping communication of the sustainability message. There are some key learnings for the education space, primarily in how and why our good ideas and work can gain the traction we (and others) think it deserves.

There are a few considerations around judgement of ideas: Are quickly formed and quickly adopted ideas necessarily good? Often this is deemed the case. Inversely, are ideas that take time, poor ideas? Often not. It is in how they gain traction that requires a rethink. A classic example is the internet. Tim Berners Lee took 10 years and countless hours in sharing his spark of an idea for it to truly get the public traction of the familiar scope of the World Wide Web we know today.

In an age of rapid research, communication and action, there is much complexity. This can lead to error. Essentially individuals working within organizations, teams and indeed society need to realize “We can’t know it all or do it all ourselves”. We need to view this statement with a growth mindset, not a shame and deficit mindset. Once we get to this point, we begin to operate as pit crews, rather than cowboys. Shifting from corralling cowboys to producing pit crews is the great task we have before us.

Teachers, like doctors famously prize their autonomy as among their highest professional values. But improved outcomes also depend on teamwork.

A strong and productive ‘system’ or organization is a collective of diverse people who authentically work together to direct their specialized capabilities toward common goals. They are coordinated by design. They are pit crews. To function this way, however, you must cultivate certain skills, and acknowledge the strengths of individuals in the team.

There is a critical need to recognize when we’ve succeeded and when we’ve failed for the end user. People in effective systems become interested in data sets. They put effort and resources into collecting them, refining them, understanding what they say about their performance.

It’s important though to recognize that failure is not a bad thing, not because mistakes are good, but because they are critical steps that one must go through in order to create something valuable. Avoiding failure at all costs is a costly stance. Failing fast and moving on to the next thing is a much better philosophy.

Acclaimed instructional coach, Jim Knight talks about the importance of a shared discourse or common language across our education landscape. When we have a shared narrative, we have a richer ability to collaborate and make meaning of the business of schools and education; which is essentially the business of a community. This collaboration can manifest practically, for example, by collecting and analyzing evidence of student learning, or learning artifacts, and designing together both proactive and reactive measures that foster the kind of accountability that has real impact. We can utilize the capacity of a range of stakeholders to make sense of learning analytics and big data that is commonly underutilized in the school setting. Forming and fostering networks of interest, deepening to communities of engagement support educators and schools to focus on their core business.

Multiple studies and conversations reveal that there are three things we must accomplish if we are to enrich and deepen learning:
1. increase the quality and depth of curricular content,
2. improve teacher knowledge and ability to apply what they know, and
3. increase students’ active engagement

Learning Frontiers, a project by The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), in collaboration with The Innovation Unit, is asking teachers in Australia to imagine a world where kids are as eager to learn throughout school as they were when they arrived. In this, teachers, schools and stakeholders from all corners of the community are working on enhancing emerging, and developing ground-breaking professional practices to increase student engagement in learning. The core elements to success is the sharing of professional practices openly and an accountability to evaluate and iterate from within the profession itself. Underpinned by common design principles emerging from GELP conversations, which provide a common narrative to the project, Learning Frontiers has worked with stakeholders, including students, from across Australia and globally to develop a compelling case for change, progressed through conversations of the profession itself; a networked education community model.

There continues to be so much to learn from small, innovative teams in different professional fields, from medicine to music to software development, and it is already clear that sharing knowledge must be made easier in education too. Gawande shares the concepts of Jim Knight, stressing the importance of opening professional dialogue and publicizing practice for critical feedback, leading to improved outcomes and experiences for students. There are clear opportunities and emerging projects to allow for the community to truly engage in the business of education, inviting networks working on the periphery of schools to support the emerging work of teachers, school leaders and students in deepening student engagement and learning experiences. In a networked education model, the premise is clearly that “everyone’s a learner, everyone’s a teacher.” As the interest and the involvement of the wider community in schools deepens, it is clear that students will benefit the most from the increased professional collaboration and networking (social capital) and knowledge and expertise of individuals (human capital) that is built as a result.

When inventive people aren’t aware of what others are working on, the pace of innovation slows. If we had better visibility into one another’s work, one suspects, we could collaborate more effectively or work more quickly or with greater insight.

Clive Thompson

Great lessons and practices in a single classroom impact the students while they are in that classroom. Systematic succession planning for outstanding teaching practice requires a network of professional learners (on different peripheries externally, and also within the education space) who share their practices with one another so that innovation, best practice and concepts of next practice can be shared widely.

Learning Frontiers also takes the value that once thinking is public, connections take over. Failed networks kill ideas, but successful ones trigger them. It’s by learning from other people’s ideas, or previous ideas of our own, that we come up with new ways of seeing the world. It’s a constant connection of innovation and success. Documenting our thought process will inform the development of our ideas. Sharing this documentation could grow the concept, we’ve seen evidence of this in the widely successful TeachMeet model of professional learning.

Openness is powerful, even catalytic. On a personal level, it not only allows us to share, but to co-create with speed. On an organisational level, it allows for more than collaboration, it enables communities.- Nilofer Merchant

Essentially, the three key authors who have pushed my thinking around how good ideas get traction boil it down to this;
• People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change. Slow, sustained, supportive.
• Stakeholder engagement is conversational; trust and visibility are essential elements.
• To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.
• Conversations, not evaluations. Discoveries (“I really can do this and it really works”), not prescriptions (“Do this or else”).
• Model what you value

Understanding what motivates others is the ?rst step in knowing how to talk to them. Psychology teaches us some valuable lessons in how we can bring people along with us as we venture into new territory;
People are motivated:
• To know and understand what is going on: they hate being disorientated or confused.
• To learn, discover and explore: they prefer acquiring information at their own pace and answering their own questions.
• To participate and play a role in what is going on around them: they hate feeling incompetent or helpless.

So how can good teaching ideas spread for the benefit of all learners, everywhere? Technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass and Social media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.

- Steven Johnson