Practical Tips for School Leaders

8 Characteristics of the “Innovator’s Mindset”

September 16, 2014 by George Couros

Recently I explored the notion of the “Innovator’s Mindset”, and have thought a lot about this idea.  As I look to write on the topic of “Leading Innovative Change” within schools, we are looking to develop educators as innovators.  To be innovative, you have to look at yourself as an innovator first, and to create schools that embody this mindset as a “culture”, we must develop this in individuals first.

Building upon Carol Dweck’s work, I have been looking at the traits of the “Innovator’s Mindset”, which would be summarized as follows:

Belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed leading to the creation of new and better ideas.

To develop students as “innovators” in their pursuits, we must embody this as educators.  As I continue to research and look at different processes where innovation excel, such as design thinking, there are several characteristics that seem common amongst these themes.  Here they are below and why they are important for educators:

  1. Empathetic – To create new and better ways of doing things, we need to first understand who we are creating them for.  As educators, innovation starts with the question, “what is best for this child.”  For us to create something better for our students, we have to understand their experiences, and this is why it is imperative that we not only talk about new ways of learning, but immerse ourselves in these opportunities.  This way we can understand what works and what does not work from the perspective of a learner, not a teacher.  If anything, teachers have to a deep understanding of learning before they can become effective in teaching.  We need to put ourselves in our student’s shoes before we can create better opportunities for them in our classrooms.
  2. Problem Finders – As Ewan McIntosh talks about, it is important that we teach our kids how to ask good questions instead of simply asking for answers. All innovation starts from a question not an answer.  The invention of the home computer started with the focus of, “How do we bring the experience of a powerful computer into the homes of families?” Many capstone projects developed by students in their classrooms start with first finding, and then solving problems both locally and globally.  How often do we as educators immerse ourselves in a similar process?  If want to be innovative, we need to look at questions first.
  3. Risk-Takers – Many would argue that “best-practice” is the enemy of innovation.  To be truly innovative, you sometimes have to go off the beaten path.  The reality of this is, that for some kids, the “tried-and-true” methods will still work, but others, you will need to try something different.  In a time where many kids are totally checking out of school, is “best practice” truly “best”, or just “most well known”.
  4. Networked – Steven Johnson has a powerful quote on the importance of networks where he states, “chance favors the connected mind.”  Innovation does not happen in isolation, as it is often ideas that are being shared amongst many that lead to new and better ideas being developed.  The best educators have always created networks to learn from others and create new and powerful ideas.  Now though, many have taken the opportunity to take networks to a whole different level through the use of social media to share and develop new ideas.  Isolation is the enemy of innovation.  Networks are crucial if we are going to develop the “Innovator’s Mindset”.
  5. Observant – A practice normal amongst those that would be considered “innovative” is that they constantly look around their world and create connections.  It is normal to have a notebook or use their mobile device to record ideas or thoughts around them and link them to their own ideas.  In education, we often look to solutions to come from “education”, but when organizations around the world share their practices and ideas, we have to tap into their diverse expertise and learn from them as well.  Wisdom is all around us, we just have to look for it.
  6. Creators – So many people have great ideas, yet they never come to fruition.  Innovation is a combination of ideas and hard work.  Conversation is crucial to the process of innovation, but without action, ideas simply fade away and/or die.  What you create with what you have learned is imperative in this process.
  7. Resilient – Things do not always work on the first try, so what are the tweaks or revamping that is needed?  To simply try something and give up as soon as it fails never leads to innovation only a definitive end.  This is something great teachers model daily in their teaching, as they turn good ideas into great ones.
  8. Reflective – What worked? What didn’t?  What could we do next time?  If we started again, what would we do differently?  What can we build upon?  It is important that in education and innovation, we sit down and reflect on our process.  This last point is definitely lacking in many aspects of education as we are always “trying to get through the curriculum”, yet reflection is probably the most important part of education as the connections we make on our own is where deep learning happens.

For educators to embody this, it is imperative that leaders create a culture where these types of characteristics are not only accepted but encouraged.  It is also imperative that at both the leadership and whole organization level, these characteristics are embodied.  To many, being “innovative” is no more than a buzzword, but if we truly have innovative students, we need to embody the “Innovator’s Mindset” at all levels.

Videoconferencing Advice

  • Mind the lighting.  The brightest light in the room should be in front of you. You want to avoid looking dark and shady!
  • Posture!  Set the device at table height, sit straight, and tilt your head slightly forward. If you simply keep a laptop on your lap, it will make you look schlumpy and do weird things to the underside of your chin.
  • Wear headphones.  If you don’t your mic can pick up other callers’ voices, creating a cascade of echoes that will annoy everybody.
  • Learn to love muting.  Mute your device whenever you’re not talking.

(Source: 2020)

Google Arts & Culture:

If you haven’t experienced this app, I encourage you to do so and share with all teachers as the information can supplement any content area and help keep students engaged.

Leadership during Transformational Change:

From Time For Change, Muhammad, A. and Cruz, L (2019)

What skills must a leader possess to positively influence those who are subject to his or her leadership? A need to focus on four essential skills is paramount. “These skills focus on the why, the who and the how of change so that leaders and others in their charge can ultimately do the change, making it a reality.” (p. 5)

Communicate the rationale of the work – The why has been established for us through mandated school closure; we must help others understand the components of the required change.  They must feel like they have the time to become comfortable with the changing environment and culture created by online schooling.  Continue to be open and transparent in all of your communication with teachers and parents.  The reality is that the world of leaders has changed also.  Now when you walk the halls of your schools it is with a different purpose.  Connect with students via chat rooms and websites.  Think about creating a ‘Principals Podcast’ or ‘Time with the Principal’ where students can come together to discuss hot topics that you may facilitate.  Be patient.

Leaders must effectively establish trust – How do you connect with other’s emotions during this time?  ‘Facts and objective evidence alone do not inspire people; people need to connect with their leader on a personal level’, (p.6).  What steps can you take to assure the relationship you currently have with teachers, students and parents will continue to grow?  How do you connect intellectually and support the new culture of your school?  Do you talk to teachers about your practice in these changing times?  How do school leaders work?  How are you able to monitor the pulse of the school?

Leaders continue to build capacity. I believe it goes without saying that we are all learning new things and finding new ways of providing leadership while we help others stay the course. Share articles with teachers regarding the new school climate (I will continue to post these). Celebrate by asking students and teachers to share snapshots of students learning from home or a creative lesson they have implemented. Create a shout-out tab on the school website where these pictures may be posted. Update regularly.

Results of the change in the school culture need to be monitored.  Leaders must continue to assess and meet the needs of the people they lead by talking to teachers regarding their successes and struggles. Contacting students and families to determine the pulse of the school climate may be a way to stay in touch and monitor new processes.

If you have leadership articles or you have implemented a new leadership practice or protocol at your school, please share with me so I can post for others to learn from. Discussing our professional practice will be beneficial for all.

In the works: a SJCSD Leadership blog.  I am learning new things every day!  Thank you for everything you are doing as school leaders to inspire, promote and guide your school communities.


Paula Steele





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