Creating a Culture of Innovation

Fall 2010

By Jamie Feild Baker and Lee Burns

Now that we have completed the first decade of the 21st century, it’s clearly time to stop talking about the qualities of 21st century schools and actually start being 21st century schools. The challenge for most of us in schools is not in establishing a relevant mission, but in being too cautious and deliberate about change. Even as we identify the qualities we believe graduates need in order to lead fulfilling lives today and in the coming decades, there’s a tendency to continue to do school as usual — tweaking things, rather than embracing serious and necessary innovation.

Assuming the desire is there, how can your school make the cultural shift from a good but cautious school to an innovative school committed to excellence and relevance in a rapidly changing era? At Presbyterian Day School (Tennessee), an elementary school for boys, we have found some of the answers not by looking at other schools, but by looking at Google — one of the world’s most innovative and successful companies. 

Why Google? Let’s start with its motto: “Never settle for the best.” As school leaders at this moment in time, the foundational paradigm shift we need to feel in our bones is that the “best” is a moving target, one that we must always passionately work to re-define and adapt to. To thrive in the “New Normal” — a boundless, fast-paced wiki-world — requires that we act… well, “Googley.” 

In particular, the school leadership at Presbyterian Day School (PDS) read Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do?, and considered the nine Principles of Innovation developed by Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Search Product and User Experience1 — and what these principles mean for independent schools.

Ideas come from everywhere

Google’s company-wide goal to create an ever-better user experience keeps Googlers striving for new ideas, which are the lifeblood of their dynamic and innovative culture. Ideas can come from customers, engineers, or from top-down strategic priorities. It follows, too, that everyone is expected to have ideas, to participate in the mission of serving customers. Google has set up systems in which people feel they can contribute and that their perspectives and ideas are valued.

For schools, at this moment in time, there is much work to be done to create a new paradigm in teaching and learning. The best leader cannot do all the thinking, planning, creating, and managing for the whole school. Everyone bears a responsibility to participate, to have ideas. At PDS, we have restructured faculty meetings and retreats so that the focus is far less on logistics and far more on provocative questions that engage all of us in discussions. 

As a faculty and staff, we do a lot of reading and learning outside of the field of education. In recent months, we have watched lengthy interviews with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, author Thomas Friedman, and the CEO of a large technology company in India. At our two-day overnight retreat last year, 20 different employees gave presentations on topics ranging from how a hybrid car works to nanotechnology, from trends in the video-gaming industry to the educational systems in Finland and Singapore. We actively cast a wide learning net because innovations often arise when ideas in a seemingly unrelated field are applied to our field.

Share everything you can

Google has an extremely open and collaborative culture that is reinforced by physical open spaces, shared workspaces, as well as a collaborative can-do mindset. Google keeps the Googlers well informed and motivated, trusting them to make good for the company. A spirit of teamwork and collaboration pervades, making team success a higher value than individual credit or recognition. This act of sharing reflects trust, which in turn motivates teamwork that is mission-driven.

Schools typically do not bother sharing information that is not function-critical. Schools are siloed geographically with their egg-carton designs and siloed psychologically with their role-specific emphasis. Classroom teachers focus on their subject; alumni directors focus on alumni; etc. At PDS, we intentionally create committees that cut across all school divisions. We have asked teachers in one grade to analyze the curriculum in distant grade levels. Our science and Bible teachers met for a whole year to talk about the relationship between faith and science. We also have established a PDS Ning to share professional content and ideas. With the advent of changes at Ning, we have evolved our Ning into a self- administered online learning community on our website. In recent months, there have been many open discussions about the business aspects of the school, including the challenges we face in a recession. 

Our sharing also includes parents. Increasingly, we are asking our parents to help think with us about how best to connect learning to the 21st century world. We draw them into this conversation through blogs, tweets, and articles that members of the administrative team share. We started using Facebook groups for parents in each grade level to share information and to get feedback and ideas. Now our parents groups have been included in our online learning community on our website. We even welcome negative comments.

You are brilliant, we are hiring.

When Google’s Marissa Mayer was searching for a job, she saw a flyer that caught her attention and that she later “borrowed” for recruiting Googlers. The flyer simply read, “If you’re brilliant, we’re hiring.” Mayer claims great effectiveness (“a click-through rate to the factor of 5”) with this hook. Google intentionally hires smart people from all types of backgrounds so that they maintain widely appealing, fresh products. 

Schools tend to hire teachers with credentials and prior teaching experience, preferably at schools much like theirs. While most of our teachers came to PDS that way, many new teachers are joining us through an apprentice program we established a few years ago. When we encounter outstanding candidates who lack teaching experience, we have hired them as apprentices for one to two years, allowing them to shadow a veteran teacher, gradually assume responsibility for some teaching, meet regularly with our administrators, and earn their master’s degree. Hiring apprentices and tailoring a program to their unique goals and interests has enabled us to hire some brilliant men and women we would have missed otherwise. Recently, PDS has evolved its apprenticeship program through the establishment of The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, which will underwrite teacher residencies and professional development for PDS teachers, as well as public and independent school teachers across the country.

When it comes to retaining brilliant people, we have found it vital to give them a voice and leadership opportunities early on. Even our relatively new and young employees serve on (and sometimes lead) task forces and committees and make presentations at faculty meetings.

A license to pursue dreams

Googlers are allowed to spend 20 percent of their work time on projects that interest them, things they are passionate about. Google’s 20 percent time is a systemic expression of trust and belief in Googlers’ creativity and innovative focus. Instead of detracting from the company’s productivity, some of Google’s best products — like gmail and Google maps — were 20 percent projects, started and nurtured by people with great passion and interest in their success. 

The 20 percent concept has a lot of application to school environments. At its core, 20 percent time is about time to be generative and creative in your thinking. What if every meeting, from the board meeting to the classroom teacher’s meeting with her students used 20 percent of the time to think big, to ask new questions, the kind of questions that lead to innovative projects? 

We are moving in that direction with our meetings at PDS. Most of our meetings are now oriented around one to three strategic questions, what Grant Wiggins has long called essential questions, and they often include thinking routines we have learned at Harvard ’s Project Zero that stimulate generative thinking. We re-tasked our Teaching and Learning Committee, asking it to serve as an entrepreneurial think tank about education, rather than as a basic custodian and coordinator of the curriculum. In this new role, the committee has transformed our traditional report card into a radical but relevant assessment tool. We gave committee members permission and encouragement to “blow up” the current report card, and we have given them time for numerous off-campus retreats in order to advance their work on this and other topics.

We give our teachers professional development days (the school provides a substitute) so they can work on their unique professional development goals set at the beginning of the year (and for which they are compensated if they achieve them). We also give all employees a spiritual growth day: a day away from school for them to spend in prayer and meditation. Members of our administrative team take a week at different times during the school year to go off alone for a study leave. It is a time to reflect, read, write, dream, and plan. It is a time of renewal and productivity, creativity, and critical thought.

Creativity loves constraint.

Most people think of creativity as free and unrestrained thought. Another way to consider creativity is as problem-solving. To do good problem-solving, to think like an engineer, one needs the constraints: “We want to accomplish _____ by____ using ____ but not ____.” Once the parameters have been identified, creativity is unrestrained within those limits. 

Schools are places of limits and restraints, but not so much of creativity. Teachers often feel they lack permission to create, vary, or improvise. At PDS, we encourage our teachers to experiment, and we give them permission to fail. We tell them that, other than a certain number of school days and fire drills and a few things like that, we are free as an independent school to create and invent our curriculum and programs. We have no excuses not to be who we want to be other than a lack of creativity or courage. That mindset has freed teachers up to take bold steps in focusing on critical and creative thinking. It has empowered them to create their own curriculum rather than rely upon a textbook or what we have done for years, to move away from worksheets to performance tasks, to embrace new social media tools. 

Users, not money

Googlers worry about satisfying users and meeting customer needs. For Google, by creating a culture that places its energy and attention on users and customers first, they have found that the money follows. 

Traditionally, schools have not been set up as student-centric or customer-centric places. They are generally built around the comforts and conveniences of the adults in school. As a result, they are usually slow to adapt and change, even when the world around them and the students within their walls are rapidly changing.

At PDS, we are trying to shift the conversation from that of teaching to learning. Schools that center on the learner and the learning outcomes will be more sustainable. They will understand the power and implications of the fact that students all learn differently. They will honor learning differences and teach in more flexible ways, giving students different ways to demonstrate their understanding. They will ask students to create, collaborate, and connect with peers and experts around the world. In short, a school becomes inspiring and relevant as it centers on the learner.

Innovation, not instant perfection

One of the game-changers that Google has initiated is the idea that it is better to get out there with an early product — even before all the kinks are worked out — and to listen to what its users say about how the product should grow and change. This philosophy requires quick prototyping or product development, relinquishing control, risk-taking, and a good-enough-for-now mindset. Googlers have come to know that perfect products that come to market later than imperfect ones falter or even fail.

Quick prototyping or product development, relinquishing control, risk-taking, and a good-enough-for-now mindset are not usually words that describe schools. However, today’s operating environment necessitates these very things. At PDS, for example, we recreated our Social Studies for all nine grade levels. It is now built around the same seven essential questions throughout the school. It’s a globally focused, non-textbook curriculum that our Teaching and Learning Committee created. When we implemented it this past year, we knew we’d make some mistakes and have to revise it this year. In the second semester, five of our teachers piloted the radical new report card we designed. We are rolling it out for the whole school this fall, after we modified it further over the summer based on feedback from those five teachers, their students, and parents.

Data is apolitical. 

Google is a company that generates and honors data. Relying on lots of data and its specific component segments makes decision-making at Google apolitical in that is doesn’t matter the seniority of the person who had the idea or the board member who will fund the idea. Data drives Google’s actions.

Data has a spotty and contradictory record at schools. Narrow standardized tests can be given too much weight in constraining our curriculum, yet many schools don’t carefully study the data for potential ways to improve instruction. Most report cards, for example, capture just a fraction of a child’s learning and total development, and few schools have good data on teacher effectiveness.

At PDS, we are talking about what constitutes important 21st century data. How do we measure creativity, imagination, and entrepreneurial thinking among our students? How will we know if they are creative problem solvers when given an incomplete and ambiguous set of information? How will we know if they have grown in their ethical thinking? What are the defining characteristics of an excellent teacher in the 21st century? This is the kind of data we want, and we are increasingly looking at instruments — such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the College Work and Readiness Assessment (see “Creating an Academy of Learning, Independent School, Spring 2010) — to see if there are ideas we can adapt.

Don’t kill projects; morph them.

When launching a new product or project, it is impossible to know, predict, and control everything on the front end. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Projects falter. Google advises that if a project has made its way to fruition, there is a kernel of truth in the product or project that deserves to be preserved and re-articulated. In effect, don’t quit a project just because it struggles to find its form. Hang with the truth you are trying to bring about.

In his 2009 University of Michigan commencement address, Google co-founder Larry Page said that “the people [who] come to Google are interested in making a meaningful and positive impact on people’s lives and want to participate in Google’s entrepreneurial culture.” What if each of our schools provided that sort of magnetic work culture? What if each of our schools graduated that sort of motivated, energetic, and inspired learner and contributor? To get to this pinnacle of engagement, creating participatory and innovative cultures for our staff and students is key. We believe Google’s principles of innovation offer a great start to thinking about and taking steps toward creating cultures of innovation and responsibility. Looking to Google can provide insights into the change in organizational mindsets that our schools must make in order to remain relevant and sustainable. 


1. Since her employment as Google’s first female engineer in 1999, Marissa Mayer’s projects have included developing Google’s customer interface, internationalizing the site, and leading dozens of new product ventures like Google News, Google Maps, Orkut. In addition, she teaches and mentors at her alma mater, Stanford University. When asked about how Google is able to remain nimble and innovative despite its huge size (10,000+ employees worldwide), Mayer finds the answer easy: a culture of innovation.
Jamie Feild Baker

Jamie Feild Baker is the chief academic officer and director of the Grauer Institute at Pomfret School (Connecticut). Her charge is to bring innovation and culture change to Pomfret in order to position the school as a recognized thought leader in teaching, learning, and innovative program design for independent boarding schools. She can be reached at [email protected].

Lee Burns

Lee Burns has been the headmaster of Presbyterian Day School (Tennessee) since 2000. He currently serves as the vice president of the Elementary School Heads Association as well as a member of Visionary Heads Group. Burns writes regularly about 21st century education opportunities and challenges on his PDS Headmaster’s blog ( He can be reached at[email protected].