Real Ways WE Can Help Inspire a Generation of Innovators

This blog series was authored by our own A.J. Juliani, Head of Learning & Growth.

Screen Shot 2020-02-10 at 2.46.55 PMIt seems after all this research I’ve done on the current state of education and all the reading I’ve done on the future of learning, that one piece of information keeps coming back to get me again and again. It’s basically screaming at me when I look at past innovations, past movements and reforms, and current changes in education.

My opinion on the future of education (and learning) doesn’t matter.

Does that seem harsh? Give me a minute to explain.

I wish my opinion mattered, I really do. I’m sure you wish your opinion mattered as well. It would help us all feel empowered to go out and change education. But sadly, much of what we talk about online, opinions we share at conferences, and blog posts we write don’t actually matter (and by matter I mean impact or influence anything).

A few years ago teachers were angry about the use of cell phones in school. They wanted them banned (some still do). Other teachers fought back saying students should be allowed to bring their mobile phones to school and use them for learning. In both cases, their opinions didn’t matter.

Students brought their phones to schools regardless of the opinions of adults. Schools made policies on both sides of the debates, and students kept bringing their phones. The phones were a part of their life, were a part of what they did, who they were, and how they communicated and connected with the world. The policies we made didn’t matter. The world had already changed, and we couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to stop it.

This isn’t the first time our opinions didn’t matter.

Many teachers wanted to ban calculators (some still do) but the technology became so ubiquitous (just like cell phones) that it became a moot point and calculators were allowed and now bought by most school districts for student use. [footnote] Source: [/footnote]

Teachers, school leaders, and parents have been against standardized testing for years and years. Their opinions were shared in news, social media, and books. Yet, despite all the uproar we still live in a standardized test-based system. [footnote] Source: [/footnote]

And the list could go on and on.

Opinions tend to be reactive. And reactionary education is not effective. 

But, if we learned anything, it’s that the world is changing exponentially, our reasons for learning have been impacted, and the ways in which we learn have been transformed.

So, if our opinions don’t matter, and we still want to see a better education for our students and children, then what can we do about it?

We can focus our attention on two areas that matter: Our attitude and our actions.

As Will Richardson wrote in his book Why School: 

“The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”

The world doesn’t care about our opinions either. The world only cares about what we are going to do about it, and what our attitude is when we take action.

Action: Schools Like Blockbuster or Netflix?

When I talk with schools I often give this message: We need to think and act like Netflix, not like Blockbuster.

blockbuster digital strategyBlockbuster was doing everything right. They had a fantastic business. It was booming and growing each year. They would tweak something here or there. Improve customer service. Move to DVDs or Blu-ray. But the model stayed the same. Because in all honesty: the model was working.

Blockbuster focused their attention on providing convenient entertainment, for a cheap cost, in the quickest way possible.

Netflix came along and challenged Blockbuster by telling customers they didn’t have to go to the store anymore. Netflix would send the DVDs right to your house…for a monthly flat fee. A lot of people liked this. They could go online, pick out the movies and tv shows to add to their queue and have a steady flow of DVDs coming in throughout the month.

Blockbuster said, “we can do that too” – but you all know this is not how the story ends.

The interesting piece is that Blockbuster’s focus was on point. People will always want cheap, easy, and convenient entertainment.

But the idea of cheap went from a $3 rental to an $8 per month flat fee. The idea of easy went from taking a quick drive to the closest store, to clicking a button from home or receiving it in your mailbox. The idea of convenient changed from popping a DVD into your TV, into streaming it on any device.

Netflix changed their entire business model to meet the growing needs of people who wanted to stream movies and tv shows to their devices. While Blockbuster was left wondering why their model wasn’t working.

The difference is simple: Netflix saw how the world was changing around them, and adjusted accordingly. They weren’t doing something “better”, instead they were doing something “different” because it matched what was actually happening in the world.

We Can Do Things Better, But What Should We Do Different?

To me, this is the big question. I’m not saying schools are like businesses (because they are not). I’m also definitely not saying students are like consumers (because they are not).

Instead, let’s take this lesson and apply it to our schools with a focus on change. We know the world around us is constantly changing and many of those changes are effecting the everyday lives of our students and teachers:

So, if all this change is happening, and we know that change is going to be a “constant” in our lives…let’s come together to see what needs to be done differently. Here are some questions I’m asking at our school right now and they are questions that continually need to be asked over time:

  • How can we shape our learning activities and assessments to match what the world actually looks like right now?
  • How can we create a curriculum cycle that is flexible and adaptive enough to allow for doing things differently each year if need be?
  • How can we focus on student-centered learning opportunities all of the time instead of some of the time?

Netflix isn’t a perfect model to look at, but we can take a few things away from their story: They have changed along with the world, instead of fighting back at it. They have proactively modeled their business practice on the reality instead of past practice.

We too need to take a proactive approach to our change in schools. Our actions matter. Our actions will have impact. Our actions will drive innovation. And those who fail to take action will fall behind, just like Blockbuster.

Attitude: What We Can Learn From Thomas Edison

On a brisk December evening in 1914, a huge explosion and fire engulfed ten buildings of the inventor Thomas Edison’s plant located in West Orange, New Jersey. Fire departments from the surrounding area rushed to the scene to fight the chemical blast, but they were too late and the entire block would eventually burn to the ground. A recent article shares Edison’s interesting reaction and ATTITUDE towards this seemingly tragic event: [footnote] Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph has a fantastic chapter devoted to telling and expanding on this story. The entire book is worth checking out. [/footnote]

According to a 1961 Reader’s Digest article by Edison’s son Charles, Edison calmly walked over to him as he watched the fire destroy his dad’s work. In a childlike voice, Edison told his 24-year-old son, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” When Charles objected, Edison said, “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”

Later, at the scene of the blaze, Edison was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.” He told the reporter that he was exhausted from remaining at the scene until the chaos was under control, but he stuck to his word and immediately began rebuilding the next morning without firing any of his employees.

Was there any other viable response? In the new book, “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph,” author Ryan Holiday says there wasn’t. Sure, Edison could have wept, yelled in anger, or locked himself in his house in a state of depression. But instead, he put on a smile and told his son to enjoy the spectacle.

Edison figured out that he lost almost $23 million in today’s dollars. Worse yet, many lab reports, records, and prototypes were lost in the fire.

But after just three weeks, with a sizable loan from his friend Henry Ford, Edison got part of the plant up and running again. His employees worked double shifts and set to work producing more than ever. Edison and his team went on to make almost $10 million in revenue the following year.

Wow. Hearing that story blew me away. Thomas Edison had worked years and years building this plant up, developing products and patents, and documenting so much research and progress. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was all taken away.

I think about us as teachers and leaders in education. We’ve spent so much time teaching, learning, and reaching students. We’ve spent years reforming schools, implementing initiative after initiative, and developing best practices.

But then everything changes. The world changes. And like Netflix and Blockbuster we have a choice to make. We can take action or continue doing things the same way.

There’s a great quote below that talks about the problem of cognitive dissonance. I have to do a gut check when I’m presented with information that goes against what I currently believe. I have to ask myself whether I am open to new ideas or simply fighting for the world to stay the way I like it.


Things are going to happen that we will not expect. The world will change in ways we cannot plan for, and we will not only have to deal with it, we will have to be role models for our children and students in HOW we deal with it, and WHAT we do when it happens.

Building a New Model Together


Let’s stop fighting change. Instead, let’s build on the best practices we’ve developed over centuries as learners, and embrace next practices that reflect our world.

Let’s stop fighting the tests. Instead, let’s build new measures that show student achievement at a much higher level that any test could demonstrate.

Let’s stop fighting each other on what platform or company is best. Instead, let’s build resources and tools that work across any and all platforms, in order to give all teachers a chance to work with another inspiring educator.

Let’s stop talking about what we can do to shape the future of education. Instead, let’s build it and inspire a generation of innovators.

How Teachers Can Inspire a Generation of Innovators

#1. Be Expert Learners

I put this first on the list because we have to be master learners. We have to understand the science behind learning and the four stages to learning anything: attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval. This first principle building block of learning allows us to help students to be prepared for anything. In Liz Wiseman’s award-winning book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, she writes:

In a rapidly changing world, experience can be a curse. Careers stall, innovation stops, and strategies grow stale. Being new, naïve, and even clueless can be an asset. For today’s knowledge workers, constant learning is more valuable than mastery.

We have to be expert learners, so our students can be expert learners. If we fail to grasp this shift, then we rely on being content experts when the content is already constantly changing.

#2. Stay Informed or Get Left Behind

What are you feeding your brain? What are you reading? What videos are you watching? What YouTube channels do you subscribe to? What podcasts are you listening to?

How are you staying informed as a learner and leader? How are you staying updated as a parent and educator?

If you are not informed then you can only make decisions and plans for you and your students with outdated information. Here are some quick things you can do to stay informed:

  • Get on Twitter. Follow these educators. Browse the hashtags and choose three that are relevant to what you do (or want to do) and follow the hashtags and join the chats if you can.
  • Read the work of Peter Diamandis and subscribe to his newsletter. You’ll be informed on how things are changing in the world.
  • Download the Flipboard App. Choose everything you are interested in to follow as a subject/topic. Check it every day or every week to learn about those topics and read newly curated articles.
  • When you find an article from Twitter or Flipboard that really speaks to you, sign-up to follow that writer. Chance is they’ll have more great stuff you’ll like in the future.

#3. Go Beyond Connection to Collaboration

Let’s make things at conferences. Let’s build products at Edcamps. Let’s innovate when we connect instead of talking about what we could do. 

The conversations are moving from Twitter and Facebook to Voxer and Google Hangouts. Teachers and leaders around the world are now creating projects together, starting movements together, researching together, and building products together.

Connection is great (don’t get me wrong), but in order to inspire a generation of innovators, our students have to see us as creators and collaborators as well.

Find a problem (we all have many!). Find others that share that problem by connecting. Talk. Plan. Then build a solution together!

#4. Forget About Labeling Learning

Differentiated. Blended. Personalized. Individualized. Flipped. Passion-based. Inquiry-based. Problem-based. Project-based.

On and on go the terms for learning. When really, it’s (as Bo Adams says) all about the learning. We can label learning, but it seems to be a futile exercise that excites only those that want to pretend like they are doing something new.

Do students have attention? Are they encoding the information in various ways? Are they storing it in their short-term, working, or long-term memory? Are they being given opportunities to recall that information and apply it?

That’s learning.

A recent article points out that the concept of different learning styles is one of the greatest neuroscience myths:

“Perhaps the most popular and influential myth is that a student learns most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style,” writes Howard-Jones.

“Learning Styles do not work, yet the current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use. This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students,” he wrote in his paper for Frontiers in Psychology.

The aforementioned evidence against learning styles is compelling. In 2004, Frank Coffield, professor of education at the University of London, led research into the 13 most popular models of learning styles and found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to cater teaching techniques to various learning styles. And a 2008 study by Harold Pashler, psychology professor at UC San Diego, was scathing. Despite the preponderance of the learning styles concept “from kindergarten to graduate school,” and a “thriving industry” devoted to such guidebooks for teachers, Pashler found there wasn’t rigorous evidence for the concept.

Let’s focus our attention on the actual learning, and not labeling what type of learning our students are doing.

#5. Focus on Building Great Relationships

In previous posts we discussed how we learn and why we learn. And beneath all the changes that we’ve seen, there is still something very human about learning. It is social and relationships matter. I think George Couros sums it up perfectly:

“We can no longer take the most human profession in the world and reduce it to letters and numbers.”

It doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. Students need to be inspired by their teachers, challenged by their teachers and develop relationships with their teachers. Sir Ken Robinson puts it this way:


#6. Don’t Just Adopt Technology, Embrace It

If you think technology has reached the tipping point in how it’s impacting learning, you are wrong. It’s only just beginning. With the pace of change (especially in technology-related fields) ramping up, it’s important to have a mindset that goes past adoption. Embracing technology means being a learner first, then figuring out how to use it with purpose.

When students see teachers using technology with purpose, they want to use it with purpose. I see the work of students in Don Wettrick’s Innovation Class and it’s all about passion and purpose. Students are developing patents, creating sellable products, and launching movements all with technology. Be that inspiration that your students need, by being a learner first and embracing the changes in technology.

Generation of Innovators

#7. Fight Weak Data with Better Measures

We all know that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure student success. But guess what, they are the easiest way. We also all know that what we measure matters. And the “measuring of achievement” is not going away anytime soon.

Let’s find better measures. If your standardized test scores are low but every student is graduating, going to college, a trade school, or getting a job once they leave–what does that say about your school? If students are getting rave reviews from internships, helping the community with programs, and impacting the global community with projects–what does that say about your school? If students are filing for new patents, inventing innovative procedures, and leading online movements–what does that say about your school?

Our kids cannot be reduced to numbers in a spreadsheet, or we’ll inevitably be replaced by those that can “data dig” better than we can (hint: computers). But worse, when we use weak data to support and showcase what our schools are all about, we completely miss the most important piece of learning. Joe Bower said it the best:

Some things in life, however, are not made to be measured. While my height can be accurately described as 6’1” without debate, my personality, character, intelligence, athleticism and learning can not be meaningfully reduced to a symbol. When we reduce something as magnificently messy as learning to a number, we always conceal far more than we ever reveal.
The most important things that children learn in school are not easily measured. The most meaningful things in life may, in fact, be immeasurable. The good news, however, is that the most important and meaningful things that we want children to learn and do in school can always be observed and described. This is precisely why it is so important to remember that the root word for assessment is assidere which literally means ‘to sit beside.’ Assessment is not a spreadsheet — it’s a conversation.

#8. Empower Your Colleagues with Solutions

I was going to title this section: Replace Complaints (and Blaming) with Solutions. But it is more about empowering each other to find solutions than it is to stop complaining and blaming. Here’s the deal: We are all human. We are going to complain. It is very natural for us to blame other when things don’t go the way we want them to go. Yet, none of that complaining and blaming matters. It doesn’t help. It hurts.

I love how one of our elementary school principals this year made the focus for the year on “finding solutions.” That’s it. That’s the mission. If there is an issue, or a problem, or a situation let’s be mindful enough to find a solution.

If we are going to inspire a generation of innovators, we are going to have to be problem-solvers ourselves. We are going to have to empower our colleagues to take action and have the right attitude. It’s not going to magically happen. The greatest gift I ever received from a colleague is when I was complaining about my students’ attitude towards my class. I had a “woe is me” attitude and couldn’t believe they weren’t engaged. When my friend (and peer) called me out, I had to think about solutions. That simple message led to the 20% Project in my class. It would never have happened if I didn’t have empowering colleagues.

#9. Take Your Classroom from a Space, to a Place, to a Home

I’ll never forget the conversation I listened to as a new teacher. It was in a faculty meeting and one of our Art teachers stood up to talk about the culture at our building. There was a lot of complaining about student behavior, and a number of newly imposed rules for the hallways and classrooms. Yet, his words hushed the crowd and made us all think. He said, “If we want students to respect us and respect the school. We need to take this from a space, to a place, to a home for our students.”

If your school and classrooms feel more like a space or a place for students, then what’s the purpose of them learning in the classroom instead of in a cubicle in front of a computer? When our classrooms look like cemeteries, our students tend to follow suit. Lined rows of desks. Teacher up front. Students bored out of their minds.

And the best part is that 92% of teachers say they know the learning environment impacts student behavior and achievement, yet most feel like they are not in control of what it looks like and feels like. Let’s change that this year, and make our places more like homes.

#10. Allow For, Support, Make Time For, and Praise Creative Work

What we allow for in our schools and classrooms will ultimately open up avenues for new ideas to develop. If we don’t allow for inquiry, choice, collaboration, digital tools, failure…then usually only the people in charge are allowed to have ideas.

Similarly, a constant complaint I hear from teachers and students is that they don’t have enough time. It drives stress levels up, and brings innovative work to a halt when we create curricula and schedules that are jam-packed with content and pre-determined lessons. When we make time for reflection/self-assessment (look at Hattie’s work), sharing, and making/tinkering our students (and our teachers) actually go out and TRY new things.

Next is support. Take for instance a school that solely focuses on standardized assessments. The teachers are not supported by the administration by bringing in new ideas or curiosity to their profession. Then it is increasingly difficult for teachers to support students when they create or make. Often they’ll never get the opportunity. Yet in schools like Wissahickon (where I taught) I was supported when I wanted to try something new in the classroom. Online and global opportunities like the Flat Classroom Project weren’t looked down upon. And when my students wanted to try something outside of the box or run with a project idea, I jumped at supporting their innovative work through ideas like Project: Global Inform. Support is a key ingredient to help those new ideas actually work.

When we change what we praise and look for in a classroom, students begin to adjust what matters. When we praise failure, look for resiliency, and assess the process (instead of only the final product) then students are empowered to share their work and grow as learners in a variety of ways.

Bonus: Be Intentional About Innovation

I’ve seen so many educators and leaders sharing their #oneword. I don’t have one word. I have three: Make It Happen. 

Innovation starts with action. It starts with being intentional about how we lead, how we learn, and how we teach.

Download the Innovation Teaching Toolbox. Take one idea away from it and then make it happen! Let’s not wait around anymore to inspire our students and change education. Let’s do it right now. It doesn’t matter if you take a small step or a big step, the key is to take a step.