Tag Archives: disruptive innovation

Ken and Covid: Two disruptive forces that changed my life

When I saw Ken Robinson’s cleverly animated video about how schools kill creativity in 2007 , I knew that my teaching career would never be the same. It was the tail end of the No Child Left Behind epoch when schools had become barren deserts of accountability and pedantic threats about performance.

When Covid hit in 2020, I knew that my administrative career would be changed forever, not only because I had to re-design the logistics of learning, but because the stuff we put into place and the impact it had on culture would not be reversible for a long time.

The Vulnerable Leader

I sat with my new teacher leader team, without anytime to talk about norms, feelings, or Myers-Briggs results, and put them to work. I felt like a lieutenant in a WWI trench handing rifles to 16 year old new recruits and sending them over the top. I knew they weren’t prepared but we were in crisis. For the first time in my 18 years as an administrator, I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I’d dealt with tragic deaths, trauma, bomb threats, riots (yes riots), but beneath all of that was a solid foundation of a school that served as a baseline. Now the baseline was dissolving. I could no longer pretend that I had any answers to anything and people depended on me to know. So, I turned to them, and said things like, “I can no longer solve the problems that I don’t know exist yet. You are going to have to be comfortable with this uncertainty without panicking our team or our students.” They saw a side of me that Principals aren’t supposed to show. We aren’t supposed to shrug and say “I don’t know.”

We all act like we are supposed to be honest and open and all the conferences we go to talk about the power of collaboration and distributed leadership, etc. but it’s all superficial stuff. This vulnerability went to my core. It wasn’t just assigning some committee on literacy. It was running the bloody school. Strangely, it felt liberating. I was forced to reconsider the principle that my job was to remove obstacles so people could focus on teaching and learning. I could no longer stay true to that core belief because there were too many obstacles. Simply, too many. I imagined how hard the same experience must have been for teachers that had to make the same choices whether or not to reveal their vulnerable selves to their students. This reveal didn’t mean I had given up or was asking them to save the day. Quite the contrary. I knew the battles that had to be fought. I just needed help.

Sir Ken ignited the passion within me that schools had to do something drastic, and now that moment has arrived, accelerated by a pandemic. Virtual learning, outdoor and experiential education, redesigned timetables, creativity. All of it has become turbo charged in an environment of chaos. The one and only thing I’ve learned from the loathsome President of my native country is that there’s all kinds of opportunity in chaos. Right now it is in abundant supply. So, rather than feeling like Sir Ken and his legions are pushing cement blocks up the mountain of stagnancy and consistent IB scores, we are really and truly at the precipice of the change he wanted to see in the world.

God Bless, Sir Ken and thank you for your gifts to the world. I will miss you.

Please Don’t…

In one of my finer moments as an educational leader, I stood in front of an assembly of 400 students and stuck a microphone in front of a 10th grader, asking him to tell us what the mission statement meant to him (cue the mic squeaking). His eyes widened as his friends leaned back away from him as though something terrible was about to happen (which it was).

“Please don’t” he mumbled into the mic. The entire assembly cracked up. I think I recall offering to pay for the boy’s therapy later. Or at least a few rounds of medication. It was pretty bad. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

It has been fun to witness the sea change taking place in education, particularly around innovation and designs around learning rather than testing. But one thing is starting to really scare me.

I saw my first “creativity rubric.” Now, ever since I saw Sir Ken’s famous talk about schools killing creativity back in 2007, I have been somewhat obsessed with learning environments that are relevant to what students need to know and be able to do in the next generation. I’ve seen the concept of ‘design’ turned into a curriculum, coding and STEAM, robotics, maker spaces and some pretty good attempts at personalized learning. It’s all good-intentioned stuff and seems to tinker (pun intended) around the edges of the type of skills students need.

Then I went to a workshop on innovation and saw a creativity ‘rubric’ and thought. Oh….My….God. There are so many things that schools take responsibility for in the lives of people, everything from socio-emotional development to music to math to ways of thinking, etc. etc. and for the most part they do a pretty good job. But teaching creativity is the one domain that is going to possibly destroy the very thing it is trying to….create.

I can see it now; Creative Academy. Creative Tutoring. Creative Communities. Creative Commons. Creative Classes. Creativity Labs. Creative Conferences. Creative Rubrics.

I consider myself to be fairly creative. None of it I learned in school. I learned it from hiking in the mountains, praying in Buddhist temples, snorkeling in crystal lakes, lying under majestic palm trees, reading magical pieces of literature, and talking to cab drivers, lots and lots of cab drivers. My life has been open to opportunities that have made me feel very lucky to have had such opportunities to nurture my creativity. I am filled with “what ifs” and “why nots” (which often get me in trouble). I really don’t know if we can teach this.

A creativity rubric is going to formulize the process of being creative. It may even end up with a grade. Can you imagine getting a grade in creativity? (I have no idea how art teachers manage).

What I do know about creativity is that it is deeply rooted in being curious. It is rooted in that ability to transcend your present experience, put yourself into something new, and have all of your senses absorb everything that it can. One of the most creative days I ever had in my life was after climbing the ancient rickety steps of a crumbling castle in Ireland that was traced back to my ancestors. I wrote a story non-stop for six hours after that day and I’ll never forget it.

You cannot teach that.

If you can teach a child to be curious about the world around him or her, then so be it. If you can teach a young person how to strike up a conversation in another language with a man fixing shoes on a side street in Bangkok then so be it. If you can develop in young people the mindset to write a poem in the pew of an ancient church in Lisbon on a rainy day, then all the more power to you.

But whatever you do, please, please don’t turn creativity into a rubric.

The Life of Pi and Waist Deep Powder

My son Ian and I are pretty good skiers. We’ve been at it as long as we can remember. Today in Switzerland we received over three feet of fresh powder snow which sounds like paradise but can be equally terrifying. When Ian fell he completely disappeared in the snow, his legs tangled on top of him so that he couldn’t move. It was an experience that pushed everything he had ever learned about skiing to its extreme limits. (Luckily I was nearby to help pull him out).


In the Life of Pi, Piscine Patel grew up around zoo animals and learned much from his father about the dangers and the habits of dealing with creatures from the wild. And then the boat that was transporting them across the Pacific sank.


There’s so much talk about creative confidence, experiential learning, design thinking, resiliency, global competence (and let’s not forget about disruptive innovation), that it makes me wonder what we’re going to do once that genie is really out of the bottle. It’s easy to use I.B. internal assessments to determine who’s ‘learning’ and who’s not. What are we going to do as we start moving closer to this new era of subjective reality? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the standards movement grew out of the self-esteem movement of the late 1980s.

Believe you me, I’d love to see some of my former I.B. Diploma students straddling a life boat with a broken oar and a hungry Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific just to see how they’d handle it. But I am starting to look ahead at how the institution of school will not only simulate what is creative or innovative or unique, but how they will ‘judge’ it. A product driven world gave us product driven schools. Is it right to give the world process driven people? After all, the men from the Japanese shipping company were not interested so much in how Piscine survived his odyssey with the tiger so much as they wanted to know how the ship sank.

I loved how Piscine had to grapple not only with the logistics but the psychology of survival. I looked over at my son as we watched and wondered how well he would have done on the journey. Have I prepared him for the anguish of learning in the real world? Was he psychologically and spiritually strong enough to match intellects with a tiger on a boat? At one point in the film, Pi had the opportunity to kill the tiger but he did not because he realized that the challenge of keeping them both alive was the key to his own survival. That simply cannot be taught.

I am excited about the conversations, I truly am. But this excitement is tempered by something nagging at me that schools are going to try to create innovative, creative, academic, outdoorsy, generous, intellectual, resilient super people who simply cannot do it all and they’re going to ‘lose the plot’ (to quote my English friends). Whether it’s three feet of powder or a tiger on a life raft, it is when we are put in the most dire of situations that we truly learn what we are all about and what we are capable of. You cannot teach that.

Speaking of survival , gotta play this one out with a cheesy 80s classic…

Google Exec Disrupts Innovation

Eustace Breaks Record

I live at an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level (1500 metres). It seems high when I look down at the tiny headlights of cars passing in the night. The other day, Alan Eustace detached himself from a helium balloon tether at 135,890 feet or 41,419 meters. What’s that, something like five times the altitude of Everest? Are you kidding me? I got scared at the Wild Eagle roller coaster ascent at Dollywood this summer.

But I digress.

What was amazing about the seemingly mild-mannered Eustace was that he looked at the highly technical operation that poor Felix Baumgartner had painstakenly accomplished and said “Yeah, I can do that.” Not only did he do that but he did so without a fancy space capsule, without millions of dollars in sponsorship, and without Red Bull. It was almost comical how he lifted off, simply tethered to the balloon like one of those plastic parachute guys you used to get at penny candy stores in America (when they used to exist). The guy set off a sonic boom that was heard on the ground for crying out loud. (He said he didn’t feel it or hear it).

Apparently, the intent of the mission was to test spacesuit technology for potential commercial use. What was remarkable was how he took the innovation of a man jumping from the edge of space, simplified it and improved it in such a short period of time. That’s the era of innovation we’re in right now; making the complicated simple and remarkable at the same time.

We have to do the same with innovation in schools.

We don’t need a fancy space capsule covered with sponsorship ads and high tech gadgets to jump from the edge of space. We don’t need to overcomplicate technology to the point where we don’t use it that much or that well. Innovation is not synonymous with complicated. It is, however, something that we must implant in our students so that they are not intimidated, but rather in awe as they observe someone jumping from the edge of space and think to themselves, “I can do that.”

I think Walter Mitty might agree.