Building Schoolwide Innovation: Two Critical Planes

Grant Lichtman

For at least a decade K-12 educators have recognized that schools must change in order to prepare our students for the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The word “innovation” has become a catch-all for those changes. Unfortunately, for many schools, innovation remains a phrase or vague commitment, and substantive change that builds value for the school in a time of expanding choice and dynamic markets remains elusive. When the external environment is changing, both in terms of the school’s customer base and in what our students need for their future success, there is a direct tie between being innovative and providing the best quality of service to your customers. Recognizing that innovation is now a key ingredient of excellence in education, some schools have begun to take a much more systematic, intentional approach to shifting away from an industrial age model of learning. It is through the progress of these schools—private, public, charter, and faith-based—that we can start to see a model of effective school innovation evolve.

I have had the unique privilege of visiting more than 100 K-12 schools in the last two years, and in virtually every one I found a spark of what the school leaders called “innovation.” A principal or head of school says, “You just have to see what Ms. Jones is doing in her classroom; it is SO exciting. This is what we want learning at our school to look like in the future!” Off I go to see Ms. Jones and her passionately engaged students, working deeply on an interdisciplinary project, noisily collaborating on idea walls, or building something remarkable in the school garden or maker space. The teacher, site leader, and students all know they are engaged in something special; this is the class they love to teach, to come to each day, and to show off to visitors. This class paints a vivid picture of what is powerful about the learning experience at the school, why families send their children here as opposed to all of the other options available to them.

But on my way to and from this class I glance sideways into the rooms we are passing, through closed doors at rooms with neat, rigid rows of desks, students sitting quietly listening to a teacher lecture at the white board or click through a PowerPoint that has not changed in years. Students at the back of the class stare out the window or draw pictures on notepaper. One hand rises at a time to answer the question that the teacher asks, a question she knows the answer to, and about which the students don’t really care. The differences between these classrooms and the one exemplar shown to the inquisitive visitor are stark, particularly in terms of pedagogy and student engagement.

In these schools, there are brushfires of innovation burning, but will they ever coalesce into a conflagration? If so, how? Is innovation systematic at this school, or episodic, isolated, and ephemeral? Does the school have a powerful vision of learning under which innovations can unite? Do the teachers and students at the end of one hall even know what is going on in Ms. Jones’ class that is radically different from what is going on in their own? Are schools and school leaders merely “checking off the box” of innovation, or are they truly on a pathway that will change learning in a world where the rate of change threatens to make the current learning system irrelevant? As Beth Holland questioned recently in an Edutopia blog, is innovation that does not have a significant impact on student learning innovative at all?

Many schools can point to a class, program or new practice and say, “We have teachers who are flipping the classroom or who ‘do’ PBL or use a new iPad cart this year.” Many schools are piloting a makerspace, an idea laboratory, or a robotics course. These are the brushfires, and in my work I find that this approach to innovation may be successful depending on a wide range of factors, but that lacking a truly systematic approach, real change at the school will likely take 12-15 years.

Schools that are serious about changing the learning model for the current generation decide to take a different approach. They understand that these pilot projects reflect a fundamentally different set of learning goals than what it taking place in the traditional classroom. They understand that we cannot attain “21st century” learning outcomes from a teacher-centric pedagogy. School communities that are serious about substantive change are much more intentional about shifting their practices, and in these cases we see remarkable transformation across the school in as little as 3-4 years.

Plane One: Pedagogy

I have been working for the last several years to synthesize the key elements of this more systematic approach. Much of my thinking is indelibly informed by Bo Adams, chief learning and innovation officer at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. Bo has focused his team’s cutting-edge work on re-imagining and systematizing a different learning process. Two years ago Bo shared with us his layers of a successful “pedagogical master plan,” or PMP (Figure 1). He imagines each of the nodes in this figure as a layer of a set of blueprints, just as an architectural team would draft for a building project. If a school builds this set of blueprints, Bo argues, they will build a systemically strong and sustainable ecosystem based on what we know are the keys to great learning, which are represented by the nodes on the figure.

Figure 1: Key Elements of a Pedagogical Master Plan

These are very different than how many schools organize their operational thinking around nodes of grade level, subject, division, budget line item, and building space; or around vague strategic goals like “hiring and retaining excellent faculty,” “increasing diversity” or “using the latest technology.” These elements are the core of what I call “zero-based” strategic thinking, in which schools align their thinking, planning and resource allocation to the key elements of the core value of schools: learning. Schools that adopt this plane of innovation understand that great learning must drive our vision, our resources and our community.

This approach focuses on breaking, rather than continuously re-enforcing, the silos that separate school stakeholders. They build teams comprised of teachers, administrators, trustees, and often students that have a responsibility and allegiance to promoting the schools vision through the lens of learning, not through the lens of subject, grade level, or department. These teams use simple design thinking-based routines to ask expansive questions and prototype options that integrate with the overall vision. As these teams move forward over time, their work forms a systematic set of programs and practices that mutually enforce the vision.

Some senior administrators and trustees feel uncomfortable, even threatened, that decisions about program and pedagogy, for example, are discussed and forwarded by diverse teams that include a much greater voice of classroom teachers, and even students. They feel that these “strategic” decisions belong to “leaders”—and this is exactly the point. In a time of rapid change, effective organizations promote strategic discussions and even decision-making across a much wider group. We need and want more stakeholders to help imagine, design, and implement potentially innovative solutions. We need all of our stakeholders, not just senior administrators and trustees, to be empowered as “educator-leaders” in their respective jobs.

Plane Two: Getting There

While a systematic pedagogical master plan is our set of blueprints for what great learning is going to look like at the school, the second plane of innovation must articulate “how we get there,” the steps of building a culture of successful school innovation. My current thinking expands on a graphic used by Timothy Knoster and others adapted from the Managing Complex Change Model first published in 1987. I took the Knoster version and expanded it based on my work with schools and districts around the country, and for now I think it represents a complete stairway (though likely not a linear sequence) of steps that are necessary for a school to evolve into an organization capable of implementing a forward-thinking pedagogical master plan (Figure 2).

Figure 2:

What this graphic makes clear is that each step on the stairway is critical; if one step is missing the school does not achieve success. Many schools I visit have real strength in some of these areas, but they might have a weakness in one or more other steps of the stairway. That is fine; that is where we can focus our attention and resources. And while the process is nonlinear, there are two of the steps that absolutely have to be in place before the rest: leadership and vision. Without strong leadership that wants innovation to occur, nothing else will follow. And without the community-wide development of, and support for, a shared vision of great learning, we do not have a North Star towards which everything else will align.

I spent roughly a third of my recent book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, sharing narrative examples and a more full articulation of many of these steps. Here are just a few elements of each step on the stairway.


  • Modeling what it means to take a risk and learn from failure.

  • Encouraging the community to take risks that promote innovation.

  • Developing a model of effective distributed leadership.

  • Willingness to launch pilots (and retire old programs) without long-term studies that prove a new direction is right.

  • Willingness to embrace discomfort, and encourage others to move outside of comfort zones.


  • Creating and articulating a learning-focused vision that differentiates the school from competitors.

  • Collaboratively establishing the “North Star” towards which the entire school community aligns its work.

  • Looking realistically at the future of the school, its market, and strategic options that may be very different from those of current conditions.


  • Building strategic discussions into many job descriptions.

  • Breaking silos for strategic and tactical thinking and implementation.

  • Empathetically understanding the needs and desires of user groups before settling on new directions.

  • Listening for what is most important at the school across stakeholder groups.


  • Developing and holding to an innovation timeline.

  • Shortening the time from “talk” to “do.”

  • Trying and testing pilots on a more frequent basis.

  • Building processes for ongoing change on the basis of small, frequent iterations as opposed to large, infrequent strategic plans.


  • Increasing innovation DNA in the faculty and staff.

  • Training and use of design thinking-based skills.

  • Hiring based on past evidence of creativity, team-based collaboration, and growth mindset.


  • Aligning resources in support of the all-school vision.


  • Working at a pace that is sustainable given the many responsibilities of community members.

  • Enshrining a commitment to innovation in the school principles; ensuring the ethos is not fragile when leadership changes.


  • Systematic, ongoing communication that support the vision to both internal and external audiences.

  • Participation by many stakeholders (most importantly teachers) in frequent, supportive communication about the school vision, and how it is implemented every day.

True innovation in schools, the conflagration of those disparate brushfires, occurs as the systematic intersection of these two planes, an intersection at many points both in time and space. (I wish I knew how to draw that, but I don’t, so use your imagination!) Schools and districts are systems, which is why Bo’s metaphor of an architect’s blueprints is so essential. No architect designs a building without coordinating the good work of engineers, designers, users, and builders. Foundations, roof designs, plumbing, walls, and electrical layers all work together as a system, or the building fails. So if we are going to re-imagine a learning system that better prepares our students for their futures in a rapidly changing, increasingly ambiguous world, why would we not design our learning organization system with the same degree of thought, detail, and care?

The two planes are equally important. They represent the next level of commitment for those schools and school leaders who are serious about transforming school from what it has been in the past to what it might, or indeed must, be in the future. There is a tremendous amount of work and detail involved in implementing both of these planes, and in that detail lies the exciting, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, tactical work to make it happen.

But rather than prescribing a cookbook answer for all schools, I prefer to ask questions that provoke thinking: Where is your school in this process? What are you willing to tackle? Are your school leadership discussions mindful of both the PMP plane and the Stairway plane? Which elements represent your strengths and which your weaknesses? Do you see this as a linear pathway or roiling stew? Most importantly, does your school have the collective courage to start the work of imagining and designing a great learning ecosystem that will best prepare our students for their future?

Grant Lichtman (, a keynote speaker for the recent North American Jewish Day School Conference, is the author of #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education and The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School. [email protected]

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015