The Fork in the Road of Education

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2019

Distinguishing between the limits of innovation and the possibilities of disruption to change school culture
Two educators pose with four students holding up unknighted tshirts
James Roscoe (left) and Jeffrey Schagrin (right) celebrate with student volunteers at Grayslake North High School after an early morning assistance session at a local food distribution shelter.

Have you ever wondered if innovation is enough? School leaders often face a fork in the road as they seek to provide meaningful and lasting change.

In one direction, there’s a road of innovation, a likely journey in which new ideas are presented to rethink an age-old way of doing something in K-12 education. In the other lies a disruptive path that comes with limitless possibility but uncertainty, risk and heavy challenge along the way. It yields tremendous opportunity to impact the culture of a school or district. Disruption is the point at which genuine innovation changes the organization’s mindset.

Educators wrestle with the difference between innovation and disruption. Simply, innovation is a new way of doing something. Disruption goes well beyond that. It deals with how you think about doing something. Innovators are concerned with a singular process — for instance, a teacher takes a direct-instruction lesson and implements a project-based learning unit within the curriculum to increase student engagement and mastery.

Disruptors use the innovative mindset, but they move beyond innovation by taking the same project-based learning example and implementing it across various teachers, subjects and perhaps community partnerships to create more authentic learning within their school community. Disruptors use innovation, but not all innovations result in disruption.

Moving Forward

As experienced educators, we recognize that the most powerful tool we hold is the culture we create in our schools. School culture is the elasticity that allows a school to grow and unlock potential in students and staff.

Innovation and disruption both play a vital role in moving an organization forward, yet each tool carries different intended results. At its most basic level, innovation is designed to improve a single item, causing a micro impact. For example, a school organizes a food drive to support its students and local community.

Disruption, meanwhile, causes a shift in mindset and usually accompanies a series of innovations, causing a macro impact. Taking the same example, the school creates systemized food drives, but goes further to create a permanent food pantry housed on the school’s campus. In both of these examples, the school worked to solve an issue of hunger and accessibility within its local community, but the disruption caused a paradigm shift in the organization and addressed the true “why” behind the problem.

Innovation can create pockets of cultural possibility, yet it often fails to impact the system as a whole. Disruptive actions cause organizations to stop, reconsider and participate in behavioral shifts once thought to be impossible. Disruptors may fail, but in doing so, they further the institution’s belief in the culture of ongoing learning and risk-taking. Creating a disruptive culture centers around questions that ask “why,” “what if” and “do we need to do that?”

One of the most well-intended innovations over the past decade has been the implementation of one-to-one technology programs in schools. These programs, while exciting and full of promise and hope, often fall short of their potential to increase student achievement.

While a series of variables affect the impact of one-to-one classroom initiatives, the success of these programs can be better understood by thinking about them through the Fork in the Road analogy. A one-to-one technology project is a 21st-century innovation in a 20th-century learning environment. Disruptors think about the end goal — how to use a 21st-century tool to inspire 22nd-century teaching, learning and thought.

Three Principles

Disruption aims to challenge a status quo culture that protects and perpetuates school as usual. School leaders can ignite new ways of thinking and spark a disruptive mindset by following three principles.

 Principle 1: Challenge the status quo.
At some point, everything becomes status quo. Disruption is about identifying what is safe, familiar and routine and challenging it at every turn. Disruption is a positive spark for cultural paradigm shifts. Disruption challenges old norms, ignites conversations, activates wider innovation and fosters new ways of thinking. To change the most sedentary routines and age-old practices in K-12 education, leaders need to challenge what we’ve all heard at some point, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

The opening-day routine each fall is something that conjures an image for every teacher and administrator. It’s an image of a school auditorium or gym crowded with school staff waiting to receive a welcoming message and sit-and-get professional development.

But this is not the case universally. At Grayslake North High School, located about 40 miles north of downtown Chicago, opening day of the school year for the last three years has been used to get faculty and staff out of the school — to engage in community service, experiential learning and team-building challenges. As the leaders at Grayslake North, which serves 1,500 students, we realized our challenge was no longer about finding the right inspirational speaker or interesting topic to launch the new year but rather about challenging the status quo. In rethinking the purpose of an opening-day program, we created a disruption that unlocked new possibilities for the staff at our school.

We knew at Grayslake North if we were to walk the road of innovation by sticking to tradition without changing the model, we risked perpetuating the status quo. If we tried to innovate a system instead of asking if the system is truly needed, we would only establish a new status quo, not create the disruptive change that would shift our school’s culture to one where teachers and leaders model disruptive thinking and risk-taking on a daily basis.

Students work together on a building a garden box outside a school
The mission of a faculty and staff team at Grayslake North High School in suburban Chicago is to create garden boxes to support community food pantries.

 Principle 2: Identify rite-of-passage experiences.
Innovation alone lacks the momentum to shift the paradigm to challenge the prevailing culture in K-12 education. Education leaders must stop to question the very being of the model that’s proposed or in place. We need to challenge the processes and routines that we’ve always done.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of education is the rite-of-passage experience. We perpetuate the experiences that we ourselves lived through when we were in school. The education field, by nature, attracts teachers who excelled at school. Today’s teachers, intentionally or not, enter education and default to the system they experienced as students. (If it worked for them, it’ll work for all.)

Parents also often expect their children’s school system to mirror their experiences a generation earlier. That plays out when schools struggle to transition to standards-based grading models. Parents and teachers push back, comfortable with a traditional model they can relate to. When schools reinforce the instructional models its stakeholders experienced in the past, we create a cycle of status quo teaching and learning. Disruptive leaders see rite-of-passage experiences as opportunities to shift educational paradigms.

Schools in various communities are challenging the status quo and rethinking the teacher-centric model by pursuing new structures for the learning day, content-delivery methods and authentic curriculum. From the work of Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist-turned-change agent for schooling, to the XQ SuperSchool Project, a nonprofit committed to reimaging and transforming high schools in the U.S., there are models and resources available for school leaders to challenge rite-of-passage experiences both small and large.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The iconic “Think Different” Apple commercial narrated by Steve Jobs, first appearing on TV in April 1997

 Principle 3: Own your story. Write your story. Share your story.
A disruption mindset begins with identifying those innovations, ideas and processes that have had lasting organizational impact, also known as paradigm shifts. Identify those schools around you that have been disruptive. What makes them so? Reach out to them to build a collaborative network. These models and connections will help inspire your own creativity and confidence.

Also, remember that disruption is all around us — nonprofits, business, government. The most effective way to change how we think may be to find inspiration outside of our educational comfort zone.

In the late 1990s, Apple rebranded itself around its core value — “think differently” — challenging the world to see it as more than just a company selling computer products. Apple understood it wasn’t just about marketing the innovation, it was about marketing its paradigm shift, its disruption. Apple challenged the world to see it differently. As school leaders, we need to challenge our communities, students and teachers to see us differently too.

Apple’s message is disruptive and thought-provoking. The company owned its story, reimagined its identity and was relentless in telling its story. Apple understood that the true disruption was its culture, its ecosystem — not the innovation of technology.

Disruption is an unyielding commitment to culture and changing the mindset. Stories of disruption are powerful for our changing organizations, but they are equally important to the wider discussion on education. When we tell our stories, we create lasting change in our culture, which shifts the educational paradigm. @Disruption_Edu is committed to modeling and sharing those ideas that inspire what education can and will be. Send us your stories so we can celebrate, connect and collaborate.


James P. Roscoe and Jeffrey R. Schagrin
About the Authors

James Roscoe is principal at Grayslake North High School in Grayslake, Ill.

   James Roscoe

Jeffrey Schagrin is associate principal for curriculum and instruction at Grayslake North.

A Forum for Disruption

The founders of @Disruption_Edu, a discussion forum on Twitter, are James Roscoe and Jeffrey Schagrin, who serve, respectively, as principal and associate principal at Grayslake North High School in Grayslake, Ill.

The pair say the forum is “committed to modeling and sharing those ideas that inspire what education can and will be.”

Both contribute regularly on the feed. Join them online to celebrate, connect and collaborate.