Special Report
School & District Management

Ed. Leaders Balance Risk-Taking and Failure

By Katie Ash — September 30, 2013 2 min read

One vital characteristic of innovative, forward-thinking districts, observers say, is a commitment to encouraging administrators, teachers, and students to take risks and not be afraid to fail.

It is a characteristic that is common in innovation-oriented companies like Google and Apple and one that more school districts should embrace, says Rowland L. Baker, the executive director of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership, which supports school administrators in the use of technology.

“[Such companies are] not afraid of trying something and finding out it doesn’t work, and pulling the plug,” he said.

But the caveat, Mr. Baker said, is that parents don’t want their children to be part of a series of failed instructional experiments.

“There’s a yin and a yang,” he said. “You don’t want constant failure going on in the school.”

Karen Cator, the CEO of Digital Promise, a Washington-based technology advocacy organization, suggests the issue might be a matter of semantics.

“The word ‘fail’ is a really problematic term in education,” she said.

A better way to put it, said Ms. Cator, who previously headed the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, is “the freedom to try new things in order to try to meet the complex needs [of today’s learners]”—one of the essential components, she agreed, in fostering an innovative school district.

That willingness to experiment and try new things usually starts with the superintendent, said Jayson W. Richardson, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky.

“Now, the tech-savvy superintendents are much more eager to take risks and let teachers take risks,” he said.

‘Spirit of Play’

That was the case in his district, said Superintendent David Britten, who leads the 1,800-student Godfrey-Lee school district in Wyoming, Mich.

“Before, it was me and the tech director trying to push the boulder up the hill to get things started because people were hesitant [to experiment]. But they’ve seen that they’re not going to get dinged on their evaluations through this,” said Mr. Britten, and now teachers are more willing to embrace risk-taking.

Superintendents also need to encourage students, teachers, and staff members when they hit the inevitable snags that come with rolling out a new initiative, said Scott McLeod, the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, at the University of Kentucky.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable and different,” he said. “That’s really where those adequate supports and proactive thinking and effective communication and nurturing [from leadership] really get through to the payoff.”

And it shouldn’t be all drudgery, said Mr. McLeod.

“Places that are really innovative have a spirit of play,” he said. “Learning is supposed to be joyful.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Balancing the ‘Yin and Yang’ of Risk-Taking and Failure

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