Professional Development Opinion

Response: Education Innovation Is Like A ‘Stradivarius Violin’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 21, 2013 7 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Shawn Blankenship asked:

What are strategies to close the gap between new ideas and implementation? The question may need to be adjusted a little, but many educators are reading, sharing, learning, and growing together. However, what are ways in which we can put these new ideas into action in a timely manner? I’m sure self-initiation, problem-solving, risk-taking and the freedom to fail and learn from such failure will be a part of the conversation. As a principal, I would love to have some strategies to close this gap.

Part One in these series featured responses from Renee Moore and Kelly Young (who I consider a mentor and from whom I’ve learned more about teaching than anyone else), as well as my own thoughts. Part Two included commentaries by Scott McLeod, Sally Zepeda, and Tony Frontier.

Today’s post, the final one in this series, shares responses from Maurice J. Elias and Elise Foster, plus comments from readers.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting,” and a book young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

A lot has been written on closing the gap between new ideas and implementation. I want to focus on two elements that have proven themselves in research on sustainability of school interventions over long periods of time and many systemic changes

First, we need to get one thing very clear. Educational innovation is not like McDonald’s fries or a Burger King Whopper. They cannot be replicated exactly in different settings. The better analogy is a Stradivarius violin. It sounds a lot different depending on who is playing it, where they are playing, and what kind of condition the violin is in. So once we know we are going to have to adapt whatever is put into our hands, the essentials for doing so successfully become the focus, not replication.

A Deep Understanding of the Innovation is More Important Than Technical Training in Implementation.

Because the innovation is going to have to be adapted, if implementers only have a rote or cursory understanding of what they are doing, they will not be able to make the necessary adjustments. Spend time in developing an implementation leadership team that will learn deeply the theory and research, to understand where and why the innovation has succeeded and failed in the past and how this compares to your unique circumstances. When you start implementation, call it a “pilot” so expectations are tempered and you are justified in collecting feedback on how it is being received by staff and students, toward the goal of making changes when you implement “for real.”

Seek Out Those Who Have Implemented Before.

There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Find out where the innovation has been carried out in places most similar to yours and get on the phone and internet and find someone who can tell you their real story. Better still, maybe that person(s) can serve as your formal or informal guide. Perhaps they are working on something in their setting that you have implemented, and you can barter an exchange of resources. Regardless, developing or joining an implementation consortium is a smart way to save yourself a lot of unnecessary reinvention, and also avoid some nasty surprises.

Response From Elise Foster

Elise Foster is a co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, along with Lois Allen and Liz Wiseman. She is a leadership coach, national speaker and the Education Practice Lead for the Wiseman Group. Follow her on Twitter, @EliseFoster:

When most of us are expected to do more with less, an obvious conclusion is that idea implementation stalls because we simply don’t have the resources or capability. Instead, is it possible that there is more intelligence and capability that sits right in front of us? And, if we harness this intelligence, can we accelerate the idea to implementation cycle?

Let’s explore how leading like a Multiplier, someone who uses their intelligence to amplify the intelligence of others, allows you to close the idea-implementation gap, through the five disciplines that separate Multipliers from Diminishers (leaders who drain intelligence).

Putting genius to work: How fully are you using the talent of your team to implement new ideas? Are you tapping the people who should own it or are you tapping into people’s natural talents regardless of their seat in the building? By tapping into the native genius - something that people do easily and freely - and the passions of the staff, leaders unlock latent capability and discretionary effort across their organization.

Create a comfortable intensity: Are people motivated to implement new ideas or are they afraid? Environments characterized by fear and stress cause people to shut down. By giving your people space to make good choices, take risks and experience failure, you create an environment that demands their best thinking and their best effort.

Extend challenges: Is the idea a task or a puzzle? Our brains are wired to solve problems, not perform tasks. It is easy to focus on task, but laying down a stretch challenge allows people to go beyond what was previously thought possible. People and organizations stretch when there is a healthy gap between what needs to be done and the current capabilities. By appropriately sizing the capability gap, you can shrink the implementation gap.

Ready the organization for execution: How do you decide which ideas to implement? Are decisions made in small inner circle, or with the broader community? Implementation requires a broad community, when they are left out of the decision making process, they are left in the dark, which delays implementation. Constructing decision making forums allows you to build support for ideas that can be swiftly executed.

Instill ownership and accountability: Who owns implementation? Invest in the success of the idea by giving ownership to the person or team implementing the idea. Resist the temptation to step-in. Instead define ownership and play the role of coach, infusing the resources your people need to successfully implement the idea and be independent.

Multipliers think differently. They close the idea-implementation gap and get dramatically enhanced results by utilizing others at their fullest. What new ideas could your school implement if the entire school is functioning at 100% of their intellectual capability?

Responses From Readers


When will we extend this thinking, empowerment equals buy-in and implementation, to the ones who matter the most in this equation, the students? Free Schools which have focused solely on empowering students have been around for almost 100 years now, we don’t need much in the way of innovation, simply a willingness to listen to our students and empower them over curriculum and pedagogy.


A long time ago I read or heard two slogans about successful business management that became central to my own work as a school principal. They were " Keep it simple, Stupid (KISS”) and “Manage by walking around.” They worked for me and my school then, and I believe they would work even better today when there are so many complex reform plans in operation at once and important decisions are being made by people far removed from schools and classrooms. What credibility do you have with teachers, parents, and students when your plan for improving things is far removed from the realities people are living with and you have never taught a day in your life?

Thanks to Maurice and Elise, as well as to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

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Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.