Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Education is highly criticized these days for (a) costing too much and (b) achieving too little.   And, if we are perfectly honest, those criticisms are not just idle chatter.   I have long argued that much of college education is not radically different than what I experienced when I started as a college freshman 47 1/2 years ago.   (Okay, we do have PowerPoint now and teachers did not have that back in 1966, but I am not sure if that is progress or regression.)   The world has changed radically over those decades but a lot of education has barely flinched.

I believe that there is not enough innovation in education.   Think of the sheer number of teachers working in the United States.   Why are there not more innovative ideas flowing from those minds?    If each teacher came up with one innovative idea, the world of education would be radically transformed almost immediately.   We would be flooded with serious improvements.

We live in a risk-averse time.   People are so fearful of failure that they are afraid to take any chances.   They try to live in a cocoon.   Yeah, failure is tough but you can never accomplish anything if you let fear push you around.   (Perhaps, we should all start bragging about our failures just to show we are not so timid.)

Last week, a friend of mine sent me a quote that he thought I would like.   It comes from Peter Drucker, one of the most famous business writers and consultants to ever live.  

The quote said:    “People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

We need to stop being so risk averse.  It does not improve things.   It is not good for us.   It is not good for the world of education.   We hide our ideas under a barrel and the world is not improved.   Innovation is the cure for risk aversion.

I believe that the real problem today is that our organizations (schools, departments, businesses, and the like) do not encourage innovation.   Organizations fear innovation that does not come from “the chosen few.”    Therefore, organizations neither reward nor encourage innovation.   They do not create a path by which innovative ideas can be put forth.   You likely work at a school or in a school system.   If you suddenly had a great idea to radically improve education, is your organization open to the idea?  Would the administration encourage you and help you make it happen?   Well, if so, you are probably luckier than most.  

Most administrators claim to want innovation until someone suggests making a change.  

Organizations have a wealth of talent in their people.   The real question is how to jump start that talent pool to produce new and creative ideas and reach its potential.   Schools will never get better without a system to encourage and reward innovation.

As I have mentioned, I have a new book on Amazon (Don’t Just Dream About Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor).   I have one entire chapter on the idea of becoming more innovative.    I end that chapter with the following suggestion.   Okay, it is directed toward an individual and not to an organization but you get the idea.   Innovation does not happen by accident.   Each organization must truly go out of its way to make sure that every person within its ranks is encouraged to think about improvements.

“I have long argued that the world’s economy would improve dramatically if a single action were taken.  All organizations should be required to create an annual employee award (with a significant cash prize) to be titled ‘The Weirdest Idea of the Past Year that Worked the Best.’  Every worker immediately has a good reason to look for innovative ways to create practical benefits.  Currently, too many employees lack the motivation to think differently.  Incentives do matter.  Scores of fantastic ideas undoubtedly remain locked inside heads at every organization and never emerge to make operations more effective.  Innovation is needed from everyone, not just a few.  A monetary prize should stimulate different thinking on a wide scale.  Ideas will pour in from every corner of each company.  The best are implemented and become eligible for the next award ceremony.

“Of course, organizations cannot be forced to provide prizes for creative thinking.   But, you can use this same logic to help develop a mind that is more inclined toward innovation.

“The first part of this closing assignment is to study the past year—at work, at school, at home, wherever you have been.  Consider all the ideas you produced during those 12 months.  Take the time to write them down.  Pick the one that best meets both of the above criteria.  It has to be weird or unusual.  It must have actually worked well.  This award is not for theoretical accomplishments.  Reflecting on the results of the past helps you evaluate your current level of innovative thinking.  Are you in a rut or has your brain been pumping out one great suggestion after another?  Thinking (like success) is habit-forming.  I used to tell my children:  the more ideas you have, the more ideas you will have.  

“Next, create a computer file titled ‘Weird Ideas to Increase Productivity.’  Over the next 12 months, whenever you have a unique thought, type it into this file.  Also describe what eventually happens to the idea.  Was it implemented and, if so, what was the outcome?  Monitor your thinking.  Push for results.

“During this period, encourage the incubation of new ideas by studying the ordinary aspects of everyday life.  Reconsider accepted assumptions.  Where can changes be made?  Where can you envision improvements?  Can you stack the cannonballs in a different pattern; and, if so, what possible avenues does that open?  Remember that insightful questions provide the energy to power innovation.  

“At the end of the year, look back at the ‘Weird Ideas’ file and judge whether the depth of your thinking is improving.  Becoming more aware of the innovation process helps stimulate you to think differently as a normal part of life.  That is the goal!  Creative thinking should not be a special event that happens on occasion, but one that occurs every day on a continuous basis.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Opening Speech -- Tell Them What You Want Them to Know


After a sabbatical semester, I am back in the classroom.   It is interesting to be away for 8 months and then walk in to face young faces again.   In the first week, I try to do as I always do:   Set the tone that I want for the entire semester.   I see no reason to wait to say “this is how I want the semester to go.”  

During the first class, in different words on several different occasions, I explained exactly how I wanted the class to operate.   I always believe that it goes better if you are very open with the students and clear on your goals and expectations.  I think, for the most part, students rise to a challenge if they are convinced that the benefit is real.

“During this semester, I will devise weird situations each day and then I will guide you as you figure out proper responses.   We’ll make lots of mistakes along the way but if we work hard we’ll eventually get to good, firm, logical conclusions.   I am never going to ask you to memorize anything.   If I do, someone should raise a hand and demand a refund.   In the real world, after you graduate, no one is ever going to ask you to memorize something and then give you a test on it.   That’s never going to happen.   I am not sure what a school is preparing you for when it asks you to do that.   But, if you are going to be successful, people will start showing you weird situations that they cannot solve and get your help in arriving at a reasonable resolution.   That is a skill worth having.   That is a skill you can develop.   My role here is not to teach you anything.   My role is to help guide you to figure this stuff out.   My three favorite words are:   ‘figure it out.’   There is logic to this subject.  It is not random.   Nothing is accidental.   But you have to learn how to see that logic.   Once you see and understand that logic, you can start making use of it.   Often, it is like an elephant hidden in a picture, you won’t see it until it is pointed out.   After that, you will never understand how you ever missed it.   By the end of the semester, I want you to see every hidden elephant without any prompting.   The process takes some patience.   That process requires you to look beyond the superficial.   But everything worth having requires patience.   More importantly, it takes time and effort.   If you put in the time and effort, what you get from this class will be well worth having.   I guarantee that.   You have to walk in to class each day prepared.   No one wins a football game without preparation.    No one wins an election without preparation.   No one learns anything serious in class without preparation.   In my classes, I like to ask questions.   I think that is the essence of developing critical thinking skills.   Every question is slightly different.   Every question pokes at a different part of your thinking.   Every question asks ‘how is this different than that?’   Your preparation is to think through those questions.   Your preparation is to look for logical conclusions.   Not in some superficial way just so I will not fuss at you.   No, you have to think through the questions like you are tearing them apart so that you can put them back together with the answer sticking out.  At the end of the semester, I have one goal.   I want you to walk out of this room on the final day and say ‘I never thought I could work so hard; I never thought I could learn so much; I never thought I could think so deeply; and it was fun.’   When I hear that, I’ll know we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.”  

Okay, I don’t know if we will accomplish all of that this semester but I am 100 percent sure that we would never accomplish much of it if the proper tone did not get set on the very first day.