Raising a Ruckus

Note: This post was originally written February 18, 2013 and added to this blog site today because I was reminded of it after my post yesterday, Asking Questions vs Providing Answers (and because I have a blog now).

After attending the Summit for Innovative Education hosted by McRel in Denver, CO, I offered a less than enthusiastic review to one of the two dynamic keynote speakers. Days later, my boss, Dr. Mike Mattingly, and I received an email from an exec at McRel stating, “Our hope is that you found it informative and engaging, but some feedback we received indicated that you may have been less enthused.” He requested “any specific feedback you would like to provide in response to this e-mail.” And so I did…

The views and events expressed here and not necessarily the views of Denton ISD or Dr. Mike Mattingly. In fact, they’re not necessarily the views of anyone. But myself.  Seth Godin, author of The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly, writes, “Courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say. When you speak your truth, you have opened a door, allowing others to speak to you, directly to you, to your true self.” With passion I write. Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege, said, “Although it’s nice (and helpful) to have others validate your ideas, the second everyone agrees with you, you have lost your innovative edge.” Thus, I appreciate the opportunity to offer insight into The Summit for Innovative Educationfrom my lens.

Expectations are premeditated resentment. Having followed the Hackademic movement, perhaps I was expecting the jeans and t-shirt heretics. While I don’t take exception to a suit and tie, I do with industrial-based instruction. As a current central office administrator and former campus principal, modeling what is expected of our teachers is a nonnegotiable core value of mine. Endless bullet points and reading off handwritten notes hardly qualify as innovative. Turning and talking to tablemates following an hour-long sit and get is not engagement.

“High quality work is no longer scarce. Competence is no longer scarce, either. Competent people enjoy being competent. Once you’re good at something, changing what you do or moving to a new way of doing it will be stressful because it will make you (momentarily) incompetent.” I expected to feel incompetent in Denver, and yet I felt more vulnerable reading Seth Godin’s Icarus between sessions.


Gary Hamel of the London Business School and widely considered one of the most influential business thinkers writes in his book, What Matters Now: What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, “Within any organization, it’s usually the malcontents and rebels who are the first to sense the impending demise of a long-cherished business model, and the first to see the value in wacky, new ideas.Yet these folks are often muzzled rather than encouraged to speak up.” Continuing, Hamel states, “Industries are typically reinvented by contrarians rather than by incumbents. Why? Because long-serving executives are often unwilling to challenge their own deeply entrenched beliefs. The solution: management systems that stimulate heretical thinking, legitimize dissent, and prevent powerful executives from killing discomforting ideas.”

It is here that Dr. Yong Zhao made the first big impression at the summit. Clearly, there were two differing schools of thought afterward during the interactive panel discussion between Dr. Zhao and Dr. Eric Hanushek. Dr. Hanushek came across as a defender of the status quo by predicting No Child Left Behind would improve the American economy by 2030. While NCLB proved to be more inclusive than the law formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I cannot ascribe to the belief that seeking the right answer on a closed-book exam void of real word tools such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer will drive our country’s economic competitiveness. If we wait until 2030, we will have found our children’s children left behind.

“As an emotional catalyst, wealth maximization lacks the power to mobilize the energies of every employee. It’s neither specific nor compelling enough to spur renewal. For these reasons, tomorrow’s management practices must be focused on the achievement of socially significant and noble goals.” Hamel, a business innovator, could easily have replaced “wealth maximization” with “test scores.”

“To be an innovator you have to challenge the beliefs that everyone else takes for granted—the long-held assumptions that blind industry incumbents to new ways of doing business.” I agree. And this is why I attended the summit.


In his personal, 30,000-word education manifesto and free eBook, Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?, popular marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin writes, “School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do.” Reform was interwoven through the fabric of the summit, yet failed to cut the cloth of the frightening prospect that reform is not the answer. Rarely do I disagree with Godin, but reform must give way to revolution. Although not related to schooling per se, Godin recovers in his latest work, The Icarus Deception, when he writes, “Revolutions bring total chaos. That’s what makes them revolutionary.”

During open mic, I remarked, “I believe we are operating a 19th Century system, using 20thCentury accountability, and expecting 21st Century learners. I came to the conference to learn not how to reform but to revolutionize. Can you comment?”

“We don’t really have any answers,” offered Dr. Timothy Waters, hardly the response I sought in attending a Summit on Innovative Education. I disengaged.

Godin asserts, “It’s easier to play it safe. Why risk blowing up the educational system, why not just add a bit to it? Why risk the education of our kids merely because the economy has changed? That hesitation about taking dramatic action—that’s precisely why we still have the system we do. That’s how we get stuck with the status quo. When it’s safer and easier and quieter to stick with what we’ve got, we end up sticking with what we’ve got.”


“The urgency of our problem is obvious, and it seems foolish to me to polish the obsolete when we ought to be investing our time and money into building something that actually meets our needs. We can’t switch the mission unless we also switch the method.” I agree with Jamie Vollmer, businessman and author of Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools. Our schools must change. They were designed to serve a society that no longer exists.” And this is where Dr. Brian Setser’s performance was spot on. His quote of Yogi Berra was right. “If you want to do something you’ve never done before, you have to do something you’ve never done before.”

One could easily insert “schools” in lieu of “businesses” when Hamel write, “Businesses fail when they over-invest in “what is” at the expense of “what could be.”

“The system is the primary problem. It has been operating in American for over two hundred years and its roots stretch back deeper into the past. Its traditions run deep in our veins. It’s all we know,” explains Vollmer. Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Had it not been for Dr. Zaho, Dr. Setser, and a few innovative districts such as Westfield Washington and Kettle Moraine, my toolbox would have been light.


Cognitive dissonance has enabled me to hold two opposing views or the “Genius of the And” as opposed to the “Tyranny of the Or” as Jim Collins calls it in his book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies co-written by Jerry Porras. But because of our industrial model of scalability, we are a failure adverse culture.

“Industrialization is about eliminating the risk of failure about maintaining the status quo,” writes Hamel. Throughout the summit, the fear of failure was used as a defense of the status quo. Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 correctly stated, “Failure is not an option.” Lives were in immediate danger. However, learning is not rocket science. The brain is hardwired to adapt to experience. Synapses fire, connect, and create neural pathways when learning from experience. In learning, “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”


“Innovators are constantly on the lookout for emerging discontinuities—in technology, regulation, lifestyle, values, and geopolitics—that could be harnessed to overturn old industry structures.” Hamel

“Reasonable people don’t produce breakthroughs.” Dr. Zhao and Dr. Setser were unreasonable. Each offered promising opportunity. We face what seems like an impossible task; and yet that is what makes this so exciting. We have the opportunity to be a part of the greatest American revolution since the American Revolution.


In Icraus, Godin offers, “The industrialist asks, ‘How does this threaten me?’ or perhaps ‘How can I use this to make gradual improvements in the systems I have?’ Most of all, he asks, ‘Is it safe?’ The artist wonders, ‘How can I break this?’ or ‘Where is there an opportunity for me to change everything and make an impact?’ The industrialist demands that everything be proven, efficient, and risk free. The artist seeks none of these. Change is powerful, but change always comes with the possibility of failure as its partner. ‘This might not work’ isn’t merely something to be tolerated; it’s something you must seek out.”

Mark Twain once quipped, “I never let school get in the way of a good education.” This old school of thought may well be the new school of the future. Unless… We raise a ruckus.

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