Using a startup mindset in K-12

Innovation blossoms in a leadership environment where new ideas can be tested and evaluated
By: | August 19, 2019

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts.

As a former principal and district leader, I’m always evaluating current programming, revisiting long-standing decisions and reflecting on the district organization. A question I always ask when doing so is: “If we were going to start over, would we start the way we are doing it now?”

If the answer is “yes,” then as a team, we work to enhance whatever we’re doing. But if the answer is “no,” then we stop, pivot and begin planning a new launch.

One word we never use is “change.” Too often, schools get caught up in change and never establish forward motion. A constant state of change is equivalent to standing still.

As school leaders, we must stop what we are doing, pivot, and refocus our goals to launch something more effective.

Pivot for improvement

As Tom Goodwin, an executive at the French media group Havas, has noted: “The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, owns no cars. The world’s most popular media company, Facebook, creates no content. The world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property.”

A leader must have the vision to make a difference and the courage to pivot and make that vision a reality.

These transformational companies didn’t change travel or the retail business; they evaluated the industries and identified needs. They didn’t just do the same things, they pivoted and worked to develop efficient improvements. This type of transformational thinking directly relates to today’s schools.
Accessing information is effortless, so we need to shift the way we teach. If teachers in your district have not made this shift, then it is time to pivot your work and transform your district, school and classroom.

Schools are experiencing a dramatic shift in how they’re run through the landscape of technology. Enhancing school culture through technology requires a dynamic combination of mindset, behaviors and skills. A leader must have the vision to make a difference and the courage to pivot and make that vision a reality.

Take action for innovation

Think about the aforementioned forward-thinking companies. They pride themselves on flexibility, collaboration and creativity. School can be a place where students are given creative opportunities that increase participation, engagement and retention. Giving students ownership of their learning makes the classroom more engaging. Much like the CEO of a technology startup, schools require innovative leadership to make a shift to the technology-driven 21st century.

Innovative leaders create an environment where new ideas can be tested and evaluated. A good CEO does not ask the creative team to make the next big product. The CEO asks for prototypes and works with a team to take the best parts of 10 ideas to make one big idea. School district leaders should do the same. Innovation and deep learning occurs when there is an opportunity to be creative.

I will be discussing innovative leadership through pivoting at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference next year. Some of the action steps that I will share include:

  • Lead by action: People follow people—not positions. Teachers respect leaders who have accomplished something worthwhile and demonstrate that they deserve to be followed.
  • Have a vision: Vision helps us focus on the unchanging goal in the ever-changing K-12 environments. Leaders prepare for the future by looking forward and understanding the best ways that students will learn and retain information.
  • Plan for pushback: When transforming culture, educators may wonder why change is necessary if students are succeeding, for example. A vision helps leaders communicate goals and work on what is essential to achieving the desired result.
  • Add value: Leaders add value by opening doors to better opportunities for students and/or colleagues. But many leaders are quick to take charge. Effective leaders actively listen to students and colleagues and then help them reach full potential.
  • Take risks: Everything that is worth doing involves risk. While it can be scary to try something new, once someone else jumps, it’s a lot easier to follow.

Innovative leaders are visionaries who lead by example and foster collaboration. Innovative leaders often have a strong vision that allows them to seize opportunities and recognize when a single idea can be the seedling that becomes a beautiful flower.

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts. He will be a featured speaker at DA’s FETC 2020.


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