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New Directions

Looking for the Road to 21st-Century Schooling?

It's being paved by your teacher innovators.

Have you ever dreamed of experiencing a watershed moment in your field? Moments like the splitting of the atom or the landing of a man on the moon? If you're an educational leader, buckle up, because your moment is here. Schools are still experiencing the shockwaves of the Internet, a transformative global network that is radically changing how we think about learning and schooling. Moments like these are exhilarating, because our decisions matter so much. They are also terrifying, because we're under enormous pressure—first, to find the right path; second, to move people in that direction.

Take a deep breath, however, and you'll see that the answer lies in reversing those steps. In times of great uncertainty, don't start with the path—start with the people. I'm talking about empowering your teachers to build 21st-century classrooms long before you figure out how to create a 21st-century school. That may just sound like abrogating responsibility, but it's actually a subtle form of leadership. It requires building a culture of innovation that empowers your people, engenders trust, and captures the resulting inventions. Those steps separate chaos from cohesion and lay the groundwork for creating a true 21st-century school.

"Can" You Make a Switch?

For a fascinating example of how to promote innovation, consider a story from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. Few people would equate can manufacturing with exciting innovation, but South American can manufacturer Brasilata actually has a global reputation for just that. The company earned it by empowering its employees, building a culture of trust, and capturing the best resulting ideas. Brasilata's leaders changed employees' official titles to "inventors" and made it easy for them to share their innovations. These steps resulted in 134,846 ideas being submitted by more than 900 employees in 2008. Many of the ideas were revolutionary, including a series of innovations that reduced electricity consumption by 35 percent. If that's how many ideas could come from cans, how many could come from classrooms?

Start With Teachers as Learners

To become 21st-century innovators, we must first become 21st-century learners. Our "PD boot camps" should focus less on new tools and more on new ways to learn. Educators must personally experience the power of a customized, "always on" global network of people and information in order to apply this innovation to their classrooms. This is what separates blind experimentation from informed innovation.

To Get Innovation, Promote Trust

Next, we need to remove one of the biggest barriers to innovation: fear. We can start by unblocking Web sites and loosening restrictive technology policies, but that won't mean a thing if teachers don't feel trusted to innovate. School leaders must tell faculty in plain words that it's OK to make mistakes. It also means having leaders engaging parents in conversations about what Internet safety really looks like in 2012. In a world where the vast majority of teens use social media outside of school, innovation often equals safety. We want our teachers using social media to improve learning in a way in which students can learn responsible use of these networks.

Capture the Learning

The final piece of the innovation puzzle is capturing the breakthroughs. Ask yourself the following question: If tomorrow a teacher in my district develops a lesson that dramatically increases student achievement, how is that captured and shared? Traditional methods of class observation and curriculum building are just a single snapshot of the rich, full-motion innovation taking place in our classrooms. We need to invite teachers to share their ideas through the use of social media sites and permit the school community to evaluate the link between these practices and student achievement.


Instead of searching for the perfect path, empower your people to carve it out a few steps at a time. You'll end up not only with a 21st-century school, but an organization ready for the next big change.

Rob Mancabelli is a speaker, writer, and education consultant. He is the co-author of "Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education."(Solution Tree Press 2011).