Educators need to lead change and not be bunkers for the status quo. #TellUsDetroit

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” – President Barack
Obama. Our schools would be a good place to start.

Op-Ed by Tom Watkins/Tell Us Detroit

DETROIT (Tell Us Det) – Far too many of our public schools are insular, siloed, and inbred to be creative, or innovative as the change agent required to help our state and country prosper in the second decade of the 21st century global, knowledge economy.

When the world was more traditional, children followed their parents from farm houses to the fields, then from Main Street to the factory floors. The sameness of education mirrored society’s needs. The world has changed and too many of our schools operate as if nothing has changed, when in fact, everything has changed.

An article by Jonah Lehrer, ”Imagine: How Creativity Works,” in the Wall Street Journal reawakened this “ah ha” moment most recently for me. (Jonah Lehrer is author of the best selling book: Imagine)

With few exceptions, perhaps not since the fall of the “Evil Empire”, aka Soviet Union, has there been a more insulated, self-perpetuating, public institution left on the face of the planet, than our public schools. There is more change outside our schools than what is needed within them.

In school buildings and central offices, most personnel have a teaching certificate, a master’ degree in education, EdD, or PhD in an educational field. Many have spent their entire careers in the same district if not the same building. So much for diversity of thought.

For the most part, if you did not decide to be a phys ed, English, social studies, or math teacher before exiting high school, the likelihood of your being in a position of decision making in what is often termed the biggest “business” in many towns, is minimal.

Don’t Get Mad – Think and Reflect

The natural tendency in the education community reading this essay may well be to deny, become defensive or dismissive.

Take a deep breath, be the reflective educator you are and ponder the possibilities of changing the educational paradigm. What would our educational systems look like if there were multiple professional paths to teaching and learning? Ask yourself, if you were able to start from scratch, would you create the educational system we operate under today?

Regress for a moment to the inquisitive state of a two year old and ask, “Why?” Why is the system structured the way it is? How can we enhance teaching and learning?

When learning and knowledge is available 24/7, 365 days a year why is schooling relegated to the 180 days or less of instruction, 6 hours of a school day, 4 walls of a building and the 2 bindings of a book?


We need to be more open to new learning models like the W-A-Y Program, (Widening Advancement For Youth/, a project-based, blended e-learning model of education.

WAY turns the educational model on its head offering a personalized blended learning experience. The WAY Program encourages self-esteem, creativity, independence, and the development of 21st century skills to prepare students for our hyper-competitive, knowledge economy.

Every student of WAY is provided an iMac workstation and Internet connection within their homes. WAY combines personalized, project-based, online learning experiences with face-to-face interaction. The learning environment is set up to allow learning 24/7, 365 days a year.

Students are called “researchers” and are active drivers of a relevant, rigorous, relationship-driven, learning experiences. Teachers are able to serve as the professional experts and learning coaches they were prepared to be.

We need to innovate to educate if we wish to remain relevant on the world stage. As long as people seek to contain and control creative change progress is limited, if not impossible.

We need to move from a educational system that has grown far too focused on power, control, politics and adults to one that focuses on TLC –Teaching, Learning and Children.

An Educational Kaleidoscope

This essay is meant to stimulate thought and discussion, not be a final pronouncement on the subject. Yet, we need more people within and without the system to challenge the status quo.

Do we reward creativity or conformity in public education? Is the prize given to those who lead change or manage their careers? Are we seeking educational pioneers or settlers?

People with similar backgrounds and experiences tend to have similar thoughts and seldom challenge the status quo. As my first boss told me, “If both of us think alike, one of us is not necessary.”

Today, the most successful, creative and innovative organizations seek out and populate their institutions with a diversity of backgrounds, degrees and experiences.

Yet, in public education, the individual who does not have a teaching certificate, a master’s degree in a “leadership” curriculum or a specialized academic subject area, is the odd ball. Most public school staffs are clones from the equivalent of the educational Hatfield or McCoy’s. Meet my colleague Darrel and my other colleague Darrel.

Jonah Lehrer, a Rhodes Scholar, American author and journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience and the relationship between science and humanities, points out new research that demonstrates the best way to approach the thorniest problems is to cross-pollinate organizations with people from various fields.

He states, “We tend to assume that experts are the creative geniuses in their own fields. But big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders. For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise.”

Does this sound like your school building or district?

How many professional employees in your school district have degrees outside of education? How many years of experience outside of the educational field exists within your organization? How many of your employees have held a professional job outside your district? When you look at the numbers, does it appear a bit inbred to you?

This is not to say there are not some very bright, capable, creative, innovative people in public education, because there are. Yet, far too many educators are cut out of the same cloth making it is the exception, not the rule.

Lehrer goes on to say, “If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.”

The most innovative enterprises in the public and private sectors encourage their employees to develop diverse networks, interacting with colleagues in totally unrelated fields.

As Jonah Lehrer explains, Apple’s Steve Jobs believed that the best inventors seek out “diverse experiences,” collecting lots of dots that they later link together. Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. This tends to generate creativity, new ideas, different ways of solving problems and innovative breakthroughs because creatives don’t have a predetermined, programmed answer. They are willing to seek the answer in unfamiliar places.

Recent research by Martin Ruef, a Princeton Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in sociology found that those entrepreneurs with the most diverse friendships scored three times higher on a metric of innovation. His research demonstrates that rather than “getting stuck in the rut of conformity, they were able to translate their expansive social circle into profitable new concepts.”

We now live in a hyper-competitive, transformational, technologically-driven, knowledge economy where ideas and job can and do move around the world effortlessly. To collaborate and compete on the global stage we need to educate more and more of our students to higher and higher levels. A child without a quality education today will become an adult in a community or state without much of a future.

How are we going to prepare our students for this diverse world with one of the most insular institutions on the planet?

We need a sense of restlessness, imagination and curiosity coupled with a fear that we are slipping behind the world in producing enough talent to collaborate and compete on the global stage. This will compel us to re-imagine learning with a great sense of urgency.

Act Like A Two Year Old, Ask WHY?
We need to challenge the educational orthodoxy at every turn.

Professor Yong Zhao was a “Distinguished Professor” at MSU until 2011 when he departed to become Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon. He is a full professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership.

Dr. Zhou can be reached at:

Dr. Yong Zhao was and is one of the best minds in education today and making an impact on the global stage. Yet Michigan let him slip away.

In 2009, he wrote a must read book “Catching Up or Leading the Way”.

We are moving to an educational system that is more rigid, standardized, and test-driven when what is needed is a system of learning that is genuine, personalized, project-based and taps the unique interests and skills of each child. Dr. Zhao challenges this direction.

There is a major national push for “Common Core Standards”. Dr Zhao believes that this move will make American’s education system, most likely, worse off than we are today. And that is frightening!

Dr. Zhao fears what we will accomplish is most of our nation’s schools will be teaching to the common tests aligned with the Common Core. This will result in a further narrowing of the curriculum and lack of true learning experiences.

Doing more of the wrong thing will not produce better results for our students.

While we claim we want creative, innovative and entrepreneurial students, we may well standardize and test these traits completely out of the learning experience.

What will be left is a nation of students, teachers, and schools who are compliant with the Common Core Standards, in essence dumbing down our nation and stripping students of experiences and skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century.

His new book, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students” should also be read and better still, absorbed and acted upon across America. This new book is about cultivating global, creative, and entrepreneurial talents in schools and why the current trends in reform are taking us down the wrong path.

Dr. Zhao articulates three elements of an excellent education: personalized learning/student autonomy, product-oriented learning, and the globe as the campus.

How many school districts, school buildings or classrooms around our state and nation measure up to the world-class educational model Dr. Zhao espouses? Sadly, the answer is not many.

Professor Zhao firmly believes if we continue on the same path of our so-called “education reform”, the American educational system will remain broken and become obsolete.

As a state and nation we must understand that while we dither, other states and nations are moving forward.

Insanity is often described as doing the same thing over and over again, in the exact same manner and expecting a different result.

Are we crazy, Michigan?

True Statute of Liberty

A true supporter of our public education system must embrace and lead change. I value our public schools, believing that even with the world’s challenges, they remain the true Statute of Liberty in our great country.

Our schools still take the tired, hungry, poor, those who speak English as a second language, and those with disabilities and provide hope and opportunity. Our great teachers are the torches lighting the way for us all.

I raise these issues to awaken us all to reflect on our creative potential. How can we improve and make our systems of learning the brain banks of the world where everyone wants to come for deposits and withdrawals?

Educators need to lead change and not be bunkers for the status quo if we are going to be the innovation nation moving forward.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan, with these words, started the first domino falling and the beginning of the end of the Cold War, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

We need to tear down the silos of educational conformity that stagnates our learning with traditional education –think if we wish to do more than merely survive.

We need to thrive moving forward. It is impossible to become the Innovation Nation with a conformity mentality in our places of learning. Public education needs to open up – or die.

There is no better place to begin the change process – than with yourself.

Reports on Real Change For Schools:
EXPLORING E-LEARNING REFORMS FOR MICHIGAN: The New Education (R)evolution 2005 report:

Structural funding Problems Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century:

Tom Watkins values both the ideals of public education as well as the need for sensible reform. He has an eclectic background serving as Michigan’s state superintendent from 2001-2005, as well as experience in mental health, social services, juvenile justice, higher education and leading a major business organization. He is the 2010 Upton Sinclair Award winner, 2011 Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Detroit Lifetime Award recipient and the 2012 Chinese Association of Greater Detroit, Leadership Award winner for a lifetime of “Bridge Building” between the U.S. and China. He currently leads a US/China business and educational consulting practice. He can be reached at:


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