At one time, I perceived the concept of “pockets of innovation” as something problematic. But I changed my mind.

Over the March break, I read Scaling Up Excellence. It articulated the idea that pockets of excellence don’t have to be a symptom of a lack of widespread change – when nurtured, they are actually a key to creating change.

“…Scaling hinges on discovering (or creating) pockets of excellence and connecting the people who have it, and their ideas and expertise, to others. When all goes well, a chain reaction occurs where excellence flows from one person, team or place to the next – much like those “domino chains,” where the energy generated by one falling domino creates the energy to topple the next, and then the next, and so on, until all have fallen.” (Chapter 6)

Did you know that a falling domino can topple another that is twice its size? From a single, small domino, an incredible amount of kinetic energy can be generated.

What’s the opposite of pockets of excellence? Taking something good and spreading it thinly.

“Some leaders believe – or pretend to believe – that just by spreading a thin coat of something good, deep pockets of excellence will magically form. But the connect-and-cascade process doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to act as Wyeth did when they rolled out quality and cost control methods to seventeen thousand employees. They started by focusing on a few “minitransformations” in eight plants: each was supported by intensive training, coaching, and feedback from Wyeth’s staff and consultants, and each involved extensive experimentation and rehearsal. Once a pocket of true excellence was created, the lessons were cascaded from that minitransformation to the next.” (Chapter 6)

How might we use the concept of pockets of innovation in education to our advantage? 

What if we create minitransformations of true modern learning in a handful of schools or classrooms?

Would the intense investment, professional development and support focused on a small area, as in the Wyeth example, be perceived as “unfair”? (Likely). In an attempt to be perceived as “equitable”, are we spreading the good too thin to create true excellence?

Let’s imagine that we do commit to pockets of innovation. Other lessons in Scaling Up Excellence highlight that we’ll need to:

  • be patient: slow down to scale faster (later) – research confirm that initial results are likely to be mediocre as a result of the learning curve and it’s important to experiment, test and figure things out – you can’t rush it
  • subtract: in order to add more excellence to education, we’ll have to identify what we can subtract – adding just ‘one more thing’ will not be successful – what processes that currently exist can be made more efficient or eliminated altogether?
  • connect: have a strategy for communicating findings (the different physical locations, even within a single school, are a barrier to spreading change – how will this be overcome?) – people need to see the successes
  • engage: people need to feel belonging and ownership or they won’t care about changing – changing is hard work and if someone is resistant to change, making them change won’t help
  • adapt: excellence is contextual – what works in one classroom or school will have to be adjusted in other locations – we’ll have to find a balance between the key components that are essential to the innovation’s success which should be replicated closely and where there’s room for customization
  • be patient: yes, again – even the best case studies of scaling excellence are slow journeys, full of missteps – it is a battle that can be won but there are no shortcuts

Who’s ready to design our first domino?



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