Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Building a Legacy: Innovations Shouldn’t Necessarily Become Institutions

June 15, 2008

I spent the weekend extending a stone wall I have been working on over the years. Now, before you get too impressed, please understand that my effort this weekend was only about 8 feet long and about 2 feet or so from the ground to the capstones.

Credit: Courtesy of Jim Moulton

This is the third section I have built, and I should no longer be surprised by how much work it is, but on Sunday at around 2:30, I was starting to think that maybe I should finish the wall the next weekend. However, I persevered and got it done -- and, boy, does it feel so good. I love to just stop and look at it when I walk by.

Our home in Maine is in the woods, and the stones I am using to build my walls come from a stone pile made when the folks who originally farmed the land cleared it, most likely some 150 years ago. You see, the house that originally sat on the land was noted on the 1857 map of Sagadahoc County, so I know rocks have been picked from this land since at least then.

The wall-making process requires me to take my wheelbarrow, the same one I used to mix concrete in when I began to build our home back in 1982, out to the stone pile, where I fill it up with rocks. I pay some attention to the sizes and shapes before wheeling them back to the building site.

The actual building is slow, and from time to time, I have to take rocks out and I need to restart the general flow of the project. But in the end, I finished this section of wall. It was finished on Sunday at around 4 P.M. and is still finished. It will still be there in a week, in a month, in a year. In fact, the thing that I have been thinking about since I finished this piece of wall is that I have created something that will most likely still be here after I die. My stone wall, I believe, will pass the hit-by-a-truck test.

Not to get morbid or anything, but when I work with schools and meet agents of change who either just naturally shake things up in their schools or who purposefully set out to change behaviors and outcomes, people who are thoughtfully doing things differently, I speak to them about the hit-by-a-truck test. It's a way to see if they've made a real change: They must try to think about what would happen if, God forbid, a truck were to hit and kill them as they drove to work next week. Would the changes they have made through passionate commitment to improving things for kids carry on beyond them?

If the change would carry on, as my stone wall will stand when I die, the change is strong enough to pass the test. But the longer I live, the more aware I become that positive change that can withstand the hit-by-a-truck test is rare indeed, and it's oh so hard to accomplish in a school.

So, to everyone who has had a great idea, to those among us who have started something from scratch that proved to be successful at multiple levels, I ask, "Will your idea outlive your tenure? If you get transferred to another school next year, will your project continue? If your grade-level assignment changes, will the teacher who moves into your classroom continue where you have left off?"

Or -- hold it -- what about this whole stability thing. Perhaps I should be asking, "Is it a good thing to have your innovation outlive your tenure?" Could the desire for the continuation of my ideas or your ideas beyond our tenure be part of the problem rather than a good thing? Could the rigidity of how teaching and learning is supposed to happen in a school simply be evidence that someone or some group was very good at making sure their ideas would stand up to the hit-by-a-truck test, that they knew how to build a New-England-stone-wall type of curriculum or pedagogy or bell schedule?

So, might continuous change actually be the best thing for schools, rather than the institutionalization of innovations? Is it perhaps best that your great idea or my great idea eventually whither and die? Doesn't the very act of institutionalizing an innovation, be it your precious baby or mine, render it noninnovative? And is not thoughtful innovation the lifeblood of learners engaged in good learning and teachers engaged in good teaching?

Or perhaps there are different levels of change, like creating a more caring school or creating a school that fosters lifelong learning or creative problem solving, changes that are global and nonspecific in how they are accomplished, changes that call for personal and schoolwide innovations in order to happen and that deserve to be ongoing. Perhaps the methods that are in place now to accomplish those broad, foundationally good goals should be the ones we don't bronze and put on the shelf. As good as they are, there has to be a better way. There is not now, nor will there ever be, a best way. Will there be a better way? Sure. But a best way? Never.

Edutopia is a cornucopia of innovations, many open ended enough to provide inspiration without expectation of direct replication. I think right away of the Garden of Eating: Middle Schoolers Grow Their Own Lunch and Leapin' Lizards!: Students as Data Collectors articles as wonderful innovations that are ready to be tweaked to fit your school, your community, your classroom.

But you probably have your own favorites on Edutopia. What are the Edutopia articles, podcasts, or videos that inspired you, that caused you to think, "I need to do something like that," and from which you took the innovative kernel and built your own innovation, moving these wonderful ideas forward in your own environment? Please share your stories, and be assured that others will take what you have done and do what good teachers always do -- make it better!

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