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Are You an Improver or an Innovator? Differentiating EdLeader Roles

By Tom Vander Ark — January 04, 2017 4 min read
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Are you an improver? Or are you an innovator? Both roles are important, and every education system needs both.

Schools, however, go through seasons—some periods demand an innovation sprint while other periods require a sustained focus on improvement.

The question is, does every EdLeader need to be a master of both innovation and improvement, or should systems have differentiated roles?

Improvement is Better. Innovation is Different.

Improvement efforts seek better results from an existing model. For schools, it means better teaching in every classroom every day. Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, is about improvement.

New learning models change roles and experiences. They are an example of disruptive innovation–doing things differently to dramatically improve outcomes. Clay Christensen and Michael Horn’s book, Disrupting Class, is about innovation.

Michael Fullan and Lyle Kirtman identified “the traits, characteristics, values, and behaviors of leaders who can focus on their own improvement, build capacity in others, and focus outwardly on the future trends in education.” These seven competencies for whole-system change include:


  1. Challenges the status quo;
  2. Builds trust through clear communication and expectations;
  3. Creates a commonly owned plan for success;
  4. Focuses on team over self;
  5. Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results in improving student achievement;
  6. Has a commitment to continuous improvement for self and organization; and
  7. Builds external networks and partnerships.

While all seven competencies are important for leaders at both a district and school level, all people are not equally skilled, said Kirtman—and that’s why he focuses on team development. A team can balance out skills in a district and a school.

“If a principal focuses on innovation and does not understand and respect the effort to implement it it can create problems and a lack of sustainable change and improvement,” said Kirtman. He supports roles such as Chief Operating Officers or Building Manager. “Industry and many nonprofits utilize these role and we tend to reject them in education,” added Kirtman.

“Management is a lost art,” said Kirtman. “It can be built through both people and systems and will enable the innovative leader to execute and get results.”

Kirtman believes in the power of teams. Innovation and improvement “must co-exist in all of us with the people who are stronger at each one helping the others through a team environment.”

Why now?

Why is this question relevant now? There are three innovation drivers creating a new opportunity set:


  • New tools: access devices, connectivity, learning platforms and apps for everything change what’s possible. Just beginning to emerge is augmented and virtual reality. Just behind that is artificial intelligence making all the tools smarter.
  • New learning models: teacher teams have the opportunity to create a sequence of powerful learning experiences with personalized, project-based and competency-based learning. Learning can take place anywhere and schools can leverage local assets (#PlaceBasedEd).
  • New staffing models: new tools and models create the opportunity to rethink teaching and support roles—in which some roles becoming highly differentiated. New models also create new leadership opportunities. Opportunity Culture, from Public Impact, is an initiative to extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, often through a multi-classroom leadership role.

Perhaps Kirtman is right that balanced teams of innovators and improvers are the solution for schools as well as districts. But one difference is timeframe: innovations are developed and implemented in bursts while improvement is long term discipline. To the extent that this is true, innovation requires periodic design thinking and change management. Innovation may also require external agreements (e.g., a school community), given risk and required investment, while improvements only require internal agreements (e.g., a teacher team). Given the periodic need for innovation services, it makes sense for a system to have focused expertise in facilitation, design, and innovation management (e.g., district director of innovation).

The field of improvement science offers ideas for making rapid improvements in teaching and learning. The Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning defines improvement science as “explicitly designed to accelerate learning-by-doing. It’s a more user-centered and problem-centered approach to improving teaching and learning.”

We’ve argued that given the complexity of education innovation, it requires occasional intermediation, some incubation and a dose of inspiration. Education takes a village—and education innovation takes an ecosystem. These “smart cities” support school and district teams with design, technical assistance and funding. They allow teachers and leaders to move in and out of traditional roles—expanding their impact while gaining new experiences.

Preparing EdLeaders for new schools and systems requires a much broader range of experiences than in the past. They need opportunities to develop as improvers and innovators—and to gain some sense of how their gifts match up with both opportunities.

For more see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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