Innovation, Culture, and Radical Thinking

Spring 2017

By Jamie Feild Baker

Innovation in education is not about the acquisition of high-tech equipment or creating new add-ons such as makerspaces or design labs. Rather, it’s the thinking process that results in taking action to better prepare students and fulfill the school mission. Real innovation focuses on developing the culture and skills of the whole school to solve problem after problem after problem with grace and ease.

To accomplish real innovation in schools, I see three foundational components: (1) embracing the stance that solving problems through innovation is absolutely critical to a school’s long-term sustainability; (2) understanding that innovation is an ongoing process of radical thinking, decision-making, and action; (3) realizing it’s about culture, not tasks.

Relevance, Excellence, and Sustainability

Those who resist institutional change tend to fall back on the adage, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But innovation, as counterintuitive as it may sound, is not about “fixing” broken systems. It inoculates a school from becoming irrelevant. As independent schools, our greatest tradition and key success factor is excellence. I contend that it is essential today for a school to boldly question everything it does and how it does it in order to extend its unparalleled tradition of excellence. Only by being relevant can a school be excellent. And only by being excellent can it be sustainable.

A school cannot achieve excellence in today’s world via an unexamined continuance of the way it has always done things. Too many schools are still counting on their success in years past to automatically translate into future sustainability and greatness as if it were an inherited fact. The world has changed too much for this to be true.

Relevant, future-aligned outcomes for students today are substantially different from the age-old outcomes for which our schools’ spaces, curricula, and teaching methods were designed. It is also true that our operating environment continues to be turbulent, evolving and changing to such a degree that schools must constantly adapt and respond. Our ability to build solutions to problems we have never encountered before needs to become innate instead of an event.

This is real innovation.

Most susceptible to innovation is how we teach. Everyone is well aware that digital technology has changed how we do almost everything, especially transactions and interactions (shopping, banking, correspondence, photo sharing, etc.). Collaboration and communication are not locally limited nor bound to time. Worldwide, asynchronous collaboration is routine. Consequently, our students need inherent digital fluency and sharp cultural competency skills.

With digital technology came speed. According to IBM’s 2006 report The Toxic Terabyte,1 the “Internet of Things” will lead to a doubling of knowledge every 12 hours by 2020. This means what one learns after breakfast may be obsolete before one goes to bed. At this speed of change, textbooks are farcical.2 At the same time, educators cannot stay abreast and maintain expert knowledge at warp speed. Therefore, instruction must focus on what students can do with knowledge, emphasizing learning-by-doing and creating instead of passively receiving humanly transmitted knowledge.

Likewise, the most recent Ericsson Mobility Report3 forecasts that by 2020, 90 percent of the world’s population over the age of six will own a cell phone and that the cell phone will become our only digital device. Transmission teaching is simply anachronistic when we carry such access and power in our pockets.

To continue to provide a meaningful, relevant learning program and experience for students, a school has to be connected to the developments in society that affect the work environment, the ultimate playing field for which we prepare students. It used to be that the work environment was easy to understand because it was familiar, predictable, and stable. This is no longer the case. Forrester Research predicts that today’s youngest workers will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime. They will design many of these jobs for themselves. Changing jobs every few years used to be a sign of unemployability. Research now shows that “job hoppers are believed to have a higher learning capacity, be higher performers, and even to be more loyal.”4

Learning agility, deep self-knowledge of strengths and skills, taking initiative to create one’s own circumstances, and adaptability are indeed the survival skills today’s students need. Schools not cultivating these outcomes lack relevance — or will soon.

Radical Thinking

The word “radical” is derived from the Latin word radix, which means root. Radical, to-the-root thinking is the crux of innovation because it enables us to get to the fundamental, rudimentary beliefs we carry, sometimes unconsciously. These fundamental beliefs drive our perspectives, sense of constraint, risk tolerance, behaviors, and decisions. We carry these beliefs and assumptions — I call them shoulds — about all aspects of teaching and learning: the role of the teacher; the role of the student; how power should be allocated; who should have authority in the classroom; who has agency; the boundaries of the classroom; what good work should look like; what learning tools should be allowed; what assessment and grading should be like and what they should accomplish; etc.

It is only by exposing and questioning these deep, guiding beliefs that growth beyond the familiar and routine is possible. By questioning ingrained beliefs about ourselves and school, radical thinking forces us to reframe what we hold as immutable truth. For a school to innovate, this process by which an individual is able to develop a new operating system of beliefs, attitudes, and thinking skills is essential.

Most people are unaware of the limiting beliefs to which they are so attached. Supporting someone in this very personal questioning and reflection process is not easy and can be unsettling because it is highly threatening to one’s sense of identity and self-concept. But peeling back the layers of unexamined assumptions and outmoded beliefs creates an opening for action-oriented creative thinking and problem-solving. A whole new sense of knowing can be developed and aligned to the school’s strategic priorities, and a more relevant student experience for today’s context and targeted outcomes for a student’s future can be created.

New beliefs about the role of the teacher and the possibilities of the student, and everything in between, obligate a deep challenge to and change of the status quo. Once a person sees the world differently, there is no heading back. New worldviews and ideas deeply discovered cannot be un-known. It then becomes our obligation to act — innovating teaching and learning to reflect the new assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs we now hold.

My experience has been that once this radical individual transformation has taken place, a new creative energy and excitement bursts forth, making innovative leaders and collaborators of people who previously resisted any discussion or possibility of innovation or change. A school that can finesse a combination of individual and organizational radical thinking can firmly establish itself on a sustainable path of innovation because it has gained skilled partners in the work.

I highly recommend making significant time and place for challenging, reflective, learning-oriented conversations. Without a shared understanding of the current environment and a shared vision of the future that is necessary for the school, two approaches to innovation prevail: the path of “shiny objects,” which lacks a deep root to a substantive base idea of teaching and learning, or the safe path of one improvement at a time that does not change the school’s routine practices or trajectory in an impactful way. The first path carries the danger of superficiality; the second, death by incrementalism.

It’s About Culture

We are living, like never before, in an atmosphere of constant change, innovation, and advancement. I recently noted 73 updates pending on my phone. Ours is an update society — a post-knowledge era in which creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, problem-solving skills, and empathic decision making are competitive, distinguishing factors. Our schools need to develop these skills as competitive, distinguishing cultural attributes that enhance our value propositions. To develop in our students innovation mindsets and skill sets, we, as the adults, must develop the same for ourselves. We have to ignite our own agency and drive to learn, experiment, reflect, and iterate in our individual roles and our contributions to our school communities.

Culture is the way we do things around here. It is the beliefs, habits, assumptions, and mindsets that drive the policies, procedures, and school systems we use every day. Culture is deeply ingrained and has been developed over time. A school’s current culture and status quo have architects who defend their creations. Traditional cultures are largely fossilized and conservative. School culture, founded on top-dog competitive performance, typically does not recognize the value and role of failure in the learning process. Instead, we quickly apply penalty and disfavor to mistakes while proffering reward and status for the one right answer. Trying new things necessitates a willingness to learn through experience, risking public failure.

For a school to innovate successfully in an authentic and lasting manner, it needs to supersede the existing culture with the knowledge, skills, and mind-sets of innovation by building the innovation capacity and collaborative spirit of each community member. An innovative culture has an intense and palpable learning drive and agility. Agile learners equip themselves for understanding and managing complexities by continually developing and growing their knowledge and experience base. They do so voluntarily because they know that developing, growing, and continually learning are key to survival and success. Importantly, agile learners easily discard assumptions, perspectives, ideas, and strategies that no longer serve present conditions and context. In other words, they are constantly adapting to their environment.

Putting pressure and pushing new ideas on a traditional dominant culture in the hopes of developing a collective innovation mindset and skill set causes tension. It brings insecurities to the forefront and creates friction. While it does not feel pleasant, it is normal and necessary for reconsideration and growth. Having great focus on and empathy for the strategic goals of the institution helps give purpose to the discomfort of growth, change, and innovation because it reminds us that the purpose of innovation is to increase the strength and sustainability of the school.

Asking what type of culture the school needs to accomplish its mission, vision, and strategic priorities is a good way to connect the pain of the present to the health and viability of the future. This reverse-engineering approach also allows one to tap into what, I believe, is the most important constant of our schools’ cultures: the intense dedication, loyalty, and hard work of our people. Faculty, staff, and school leaders give themselves to our schools in highly personal and meaningful ways. When innovation is understood as a successful path to the future and better preparation for our students, that love and dedication finds great meaning to latch onto through the bumps and setbacks — and onward to the celebrations and successes.

Every school should be doing the hard work of innovation. It takes courage and commitment. It requires attention and intention. Success in innovating will not be accidental. There must be apurposive vision and unwavering, consistent leadership that ensures that the work is systemic.

Our challenge is to adapt to the world as it is now and do our best to foresee what it is becoming. Through innovation, we can offer better service and value to our students and their families. Customized teaching and learning, high-touch customer service, operational efficiency, new courses, new teaching strategies, more demonstrations of learning, performance tasks, explicit instruction and assessment of teamwork and collaboration, and cultivation of strong character, communication, and social and emotional skills are all areas for innovation.

It is essential that our schools never forget the past as we build for the world of tomorrow. Our schools will be well served to strike a balance between tradition and innovation. A school benefits greatly and is grounded by honoring its history and past achievements, its former students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. Traditions impart a meaningful and lasting bond, one that intertwines the spirit of a school from one generation to the next. But we cannot let tradition keep us bound and unable to create and build the best possible school for the future. For schools wishing to be around 100 more years, innovation is mission critical.

Our school communities must carry enthusiastically the opportunity and obligation of preparing students for the world of tomorrow — not the one of yesterday. If we wait, it will always be a defensive dance and frantic stretch to catch up. To protect the tradition of excellence, we innovate. By paying attention to our operating environment and holding dear the intention of staying relevant, we can lead real innovation, allowing our schools to be tradition-steeped but far from tradition-stuck.


1. “The Toxic Terabyte — IBM,” July 1, 2006.

2. “EDUCAUSE 2014: Publisher Says ‘Textbooks Are Dead,’ and..,” EdTech Magazine, October 11, 2014.

3. “Ericsson Mobility Report: 90 Percent Will Have a Mobile Phone by 2020,” November 18, 2015.

4. “You Should Plan on Switching Jobs Every Three Years,” Fast Company, January 1, 2016.

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].