For our contribution to the annual book issue, three members of the P@nel.Edu team (Christian Altena, Gayle Monsma, and John Walcott) decided to read The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and dialogue about the book and its value for Christian educators. Christian, Gayle, and John gathered via video conference to discuss the book.
John: Let’s start by talking about our overall impressions of the book. What would we like to highlight as key take-aways from the book?
Christian: This was an interesting book for me to read right now because our school is two weeks away from implementing a one-to-one program, after many years of debate and discussion. So, many of the ideas were matching up nicely with discussions we’ve been having in our staff meetings and as departments. “OK, we’re getting these devices. What are they used for? Are they going to be $1,000 pencils?” (as was referenced in the book). “What’s a way to use these things beyond another thing that the kids have to lug around and that cause us headaches because they get broken. How can we actually make all this fuss and bother worth it?”
Gayle: I think that often when people think about innovation, they think about technology. That’s certainly part of it, and I think the work you are doing at your school, Christian, fits in well. But I also appreciated Couros’s reminder that innovation is not necessarily about technology. I noticed how he talked about innovating “inside the box.” This is an interesting and important challenge because otherwise we have all these obstacles that we put up in front of ourselves or in front of others. We don’t have the time; we don’t have the money; we don’t have the resources; we don’t have the facility; we don’t have; we don’t have. And he pushes against that type of thinking. This gets back to his definition that innovation is a mindset; it’s a way of thinking. And then you can innovate in whatever situation you are in. We don’t need money and all those other things, but we can innovate “inside the box” because innovation is a change in our way of thinking. I appreciated that definition because it opens up into so many different realms and removes barricades from what we think we’re going to do.
Christian: Yes. Every time I have a discussion with either staff members or students about the uses of technology in classrooms, I tell them the boring stories of the old guy back in my day. And I have this distinct memory of sitting in the classroom at Simon Fraser University, part of my teacher training, and we were taught how to type in “http . . .” This was in 1996, and the internet was just becoming somewhat useful. Couros talks about technology being transformative; that’s the goal. But for us in the 1990s, when I was learning about the internet and how to use it, the simple fact of access to all this information—and by comparison there was nothing on the internet then—but it seemed liberating. That seemed almost transformative; whereas today, all these years later, that same ability to access information is completely overwhelming, frustrating, and even depressing sometimes. Now we’re being bombarded, and it seems like some people, maybe of my vintage but even some students I’ve heard from, are almost nostalgic for a time when information was limited. You just dealt with the textbook you had, and you didn’t want to have another thing to worry about. We can’t go back to that world fully; obviously technology is part of our lives, but I really like the idea that innovation is not about the technology itself but about our mindfulness of how it’s used. I also appreciated the information Couros gave about being literate, adaptive, and then able to transform. I’m literate with many things; I’m adaptive mostly; but I haven’t really figured out how to use technology in truly transformative ways. I’m thinking of ways, but I’m not there yet.
John: I also appreciated that it begins with the learner. Couros’s definition of innovation focuses on the mindset—it’s not just something we do. He speaks of innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. When we just casually talk about innovative teaching, we’re often talking about what’s outside the box rather than what’s “inside the box.” Or our goal is just to be new. We’re doing something new, so that must be good. Couros sets a higher bar, right? It’s got to be new and better. And it begins with the question, What is best for this learner?
Gayle: In that same section of the book he also states that innovation can be both invention and iteration. Again, it seems we’re always thinking that it has to be something new, but he argues you can innovate through iteration as well, so you’re making something better. I think this makes it more doable for teachers or for learners—it’s not something you need to do completely from scratch; sometimes it’s an iteration of something you’re already doing and now you’re working to make it better. I also appreciate that his focus is always on the learner.
Christian: It seems like the old idea of individualized instruction, which may have been more onerous in the past because you had limited resources, may now have an opportunity to grow. With technology we can do new things and truly get to that individualized instruction. I teach US history, and I’m thinking about what that means in terms of unit planning. How do I become a little riskier and let students wander further afield within certain topics?
Gayle: It’s interesting as you talk about that, Christian, because one of Couros’s big points is that if we want innovative students, we have to be innovate teachers and innovative leaders. I’m not a classroom teacher right now, but to be willing to take those risks as teachers, to model those so that the students will also be willing to take those risks. . . . But the leaders need to be willing to model those risks in order for their teachers to be willing to do it. It creates a different culture in your school—one of openness and risk taking and innovation and mistakes and growth mindset and resiliency and grit and all those things that we hear about so often. It’s really intriguing.
John: Couros also uses the word empowerment. We used to focus on engagement, and of course we want engaged learners. But he indicates that that’s not enough. I think his discussion of empowerment fits well with what you are describing, Gayle, in that if we’re going to do this, we need to empower students, but if it’s going to happen, administrators need to empower teachers as well. It isn’t about an administrator coming in and setting an agenda and saying that everyone’s going to do such and such, but it’s tapping into the strengths of teachers, empowering them to use their strengths, and empowering them to do the same thing with students.
Christian: Is that a case of technology making a world that didn’t exist before? Because again, when I remember the high school teachers that I learned the most from, they were the most engaging, and they didn’t have technology. When I was in university, I learned the most from engaging professors who pulled me into the topics, and I did my own research, and so on. That seemed to be enough, right? But is it different now? Is there something about the new technological world and the crush of information now that engagement is no longer enough?
Gayle: With empowerment also comes opportunity for transformative work. Especially when we think about our task as Christian schools to have kids be engaged in kingdom work; I think then there’s a difference between engagement, which seems to be more the head-and-heart stuff, and then empowerment leads more to the hands—the actual getting out there and doing stuff. The book talks about the purpose of education, and that it’s for transformation: to be able to make a difference in the world. That’s kingdom work.
Christian: I also like his focus on inquiry-based education. I’ve been thinking more about getting beyond the adaptive uses of technology and into the transformational uses, having kids make products that get out there in the world.
Gayle: I also thought his discussion of problem-based learning was interesting. He says that educators are currently obsessed with problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. “While everyone looks at how we can help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders” (50). I thought that was interesting, particularly in our Christian school context, to think about our students as being fully engaged in the world, thinking about where things are not as God intended them, finding those problems, and figuring out how they can play a role in bringing restoration to brokenness around them. This means having students be problem-finders as well as engaged in problem solving.
John: So do you recommend this book? And if so, who should be reading this book?
Gayle: Yes, I would recommend the book. It would be very good for teachers and for anyone who is hoping to improve their practice, and hopefully that’s everybody. It also says a lot about school leaders, principals, and people in positions of official leadership, in terms of how to create a culture in a school and plan professional development, and all those types of things as well. Couros also talks a fair amount about school districts. My position is not working with a district, but I do work with a group of schools. The book got me thinking because we’re going through a strategic planning process right now, and I wrote tons of notes in the book as he talked about connectedness and networking. How do we create a vibrant learning community that’s networked across many, many miles? I think that the book is applicable at so many different levels.
Christian: I would say that for teachers thinking about implementing more technology in their teaching, this would be a great introduction about how to do that. For teachers who are doing pretty experimental stuff, maybe they already know this. For example, one of my colleagues just gave this wonderful presentation about all the things he’s doing. For one particular assignment he’s getting his students to screencast their explication of a certain part of a novel they’re reading. He played a video of a brilliant student, very, very quiet, very shy. But when she was doing her screencast, she was in control; she was authoritative; she was bold; and she was diving into this text in a way you would never hear her do in class. She found her voice; she spoke with authority, and she had a stage that she wouldn’t have had before. So, for somebody like my colleague, maybe this book would be like, okay, I already know this. But for people looking to take those first steps into the world of imagining uses of technology in classrooms, this would be a good place to start.
John: If you were working through this book with someone or recommending it, what cautions or concerns would you point out?
Christian: Couros is obviously very comfortable with Twitter; he mentions hashtags a lot. But I know a lot of schools would be wary particularly of Twitter because it’s the Wild West out there. Some school districts would be hesitant about having a bigger digital footprint for the kids. Obviously, that presents an opportunity to talk about digital citizenship, which I know a lot of schools are talking about, that it’s a constant conversation we need to have. The other concern I have is about writing. I know he is not suggesting that this is the answer to the problem of kids not being able to write well, but he talks about how people writing blog posts and commenting on each other’s posts is getting them writing. And that’s true, but I don’t know if that’s where we want to end up. It’s not the kind of writing that is going to be expected as they leave us and arrive at college.
Gayle: I found the first third of the book overwhelming. It is a different way of thinking. After that, it got into more of the practicalities. He also wrote that if we consider this to be important, we have to give people time to do it. If we say to teachers that we expect them to be innovative, but to figure it out on their own time, then that says to them that it’s really not that important. So, we need to structure our schools and our professional development in ways that encourage this.
The book also got me thinking about innovation in Christian schools. What does that look like in a Christian school context? This was the question that kept coming back to me. What would be the innovative practices in Christian schools? How would our schools change? I’m really intrigued by that idea of innovation in the Christian school context.
In summary, we certainly recommend The Innovator’s Mindset. As you can gather from our discussion, the book seeks to inspire an innovator’s mindset in all of us—a way of thinking that creates things that are new and better and that always starts by asking, What is best for this learner? Couros shares a variety of worthwhile and practical suggestions related to technology and how it can contribute to innovation. More important, however, he encourages and guides us to embrace and create cultures that foster the sort of innovation that leads to meaningful learning experiences for teachers and students.
Couros, George. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, 2015
Christian Altena teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
Gayle Monsma serves as the executive director for The Prairie Centre for Christian Education in Edmonton, Alberta.
John Walcott is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.