An Interview with George Couros

Author — The Innovators Mindset

February 2, 2017
Email Interview with George Couros

George Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. He has worked K-12 as a teacher, technology facilitator, and school and district administrator and today is a sought after speaker on the topic of innovative student learning and engagement.

George is also the creator of Connected Principals.com, an initiative that brings educators and leaders together from around the world to create powerful learning opportunities for students.

In 2015, George authored the book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity.

Q&A
George, am I correct to say that your entire book is based on a belief that it’s time for the American education system to move from a factory model to an innovative model?

Generally speaking, yes. I believe that the traditional system of education (the factory model) required (and still requires) students to hold their questions and compliantly stick to the scheduled curriculum, though our job as educators today should be to provide new and better (aka innovative) learning opportunities for our students.

I simply think that it’s time to recognize that compliance doesn’t foster innovation, encorage critical thinking, or inspire creativity — though those are the very skills that our students need to succeed.

So yes, my entire book is based on the belief that today the possibilities that exist in our world are pretty amazing, and what we have to learn as educators is to embrace and create our future, while teaching students to do the same.

Q&A
If I too believe that it’s time for the American education system to move from a factory model to an innovative model and, hence, want to be viewed as an innovative educator, your book claims that I must first possess an “innovator’s mindset.” What’s that?

The term innovator’s mindset refers to the belief that our abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas. As educators we need to look critically at what we are doing in education and ask if it is serving our students in a way that leads them to be successful, not only in school, but more importantly in their lives now and in the future. We get set on auto-pilot too often in education and just do what we have done, and sometimes we do not even know why.

Innovator’s Mindset (Page 48)

Q&A
Your book also claims that to be viewed as an innovative educator, I must be willing to “empower learning.” What does that mean?

Where information is abundant, I think engagement is a pretty low bar for what we are looking to do in education. When we move to the notion of empowering our learners, giving them ownership over their learning, it leads them to eventually not need the teacher and be able to learn on their own. It is not that engagement is not important. If you are empowered, you are engaged, but the opposite is not always true.

Q&A
To be viewed as an innovative educator, your book also claims that I must be willing to “unleash talent.” What does that mean?

We often look at how we can “fix” others, as opposed to tapping into what they already have. I have shifted away to identifying our best academic students as our “smartest” students. They are just our most academically gifted. Yet when you are looking for intelligence in all of our students, it shifts thinking to finding what is great in each one of those we serve. Everyone has abilities We just need to find them whether the “curriculum” brings them out or not.

Q&A
Your book makes one final claim — that to be viewed as an innovative educator, I must work to develop a “culture of creativity.” What does that mean?

All children are curious and creative before they ever walk into school. But is that curiousity and creativity sucked out of learners while they are in school? If so, we need to turn that around. And certainly curiosity and creativity should not be saved for certain classrooms, or even specific educators, but should be the norm of what we try to tap into within our schools.

If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.

Q&A
How do you respond to educators who say, “The idea of being called upon to develop an innovator’s mindset and to innovate scares me? I have the opportunity to work with some wickedly smart, wildly creative, and truly innovative people, and I am not at all like them. I don’t have the creativity or personality to be innovative.”

All people are innovative and creative at some point, yet we tend to lose this somewhere along the way. Why it was important for me to identify innovation as a way of doing “new and better” things was to help people see that they have been “innovative” in many things that they are already doing. What I saw in many schools is that the word “innovation” was connected directly to how people use technology. Although technology provides us opportunities that did not exist before, it does not equate to being innovative. It is how we think and what we create, not what we use.

Innovation is not reserved for the few, it is something we will all need to embrace if we are to move forward.

Q&A
How do you respond to educators who say that “All this talk about the need for educational innovation is much ado about nothing, yet another minor pendulum swing that with time will swing back.”

The scary thing about the word “innovation” is that people are using it in a way that it can potentially just become a buzzword. Right now, we have an abundance of information at our fingertips, and thinking that the pendulum will swing back to a point where we will not have information abundance, is not a reality. Thomas Friedman said, “The world doesn’t care what you know. The world only cares about what you can do with what you know, and it doesn’t care how you learned it.” We are here at this point in time, and we are not going back to a point where simply knowing will ever be enough.

Q&A
And how do you respond to educators who say, “The American education system doesn’t need innovation. That’s just tinkering with the system at the margins. What the system really needs is wholesale transformation, a dramatic altering of the way educators work.”

There is a delicate balance here. I believe that there are many great things that are happening in education right now, and there are some things that are non-negotiables.

Focusing on starting with relationships was something that was important in education when I went to school, and it will be to this day, especially in a world where I can get great content anywhere.

The shift that is needed is in our thinking, not necessarily in the stuff. I heard this quote recently, “Have a mind that is open to anything and is attached to nothing.” If all educators were open to embracing the notion that learning is about constant growth and development, not only in our students, but in ourselves, education would make tremendous shifts. The “system” is run by people, and educators are the people. I believe that if educators can shift their thinking, the “system” will be so much better off.

When teachers think differently about the things that they are used to seeing daily, they can create innovative learning opportunities.

Q&A
George, what do you think about the typical AP class? Not much room for innovation there, agree?

No. I actually don’t agree.

I know that your typical AP class is often content heavy, but the content suggests what we teach, not necessarily how we teach. There is an artistry and innovation in how we bring that content to life. This doesn’t mean that educators have to change everything they do, but, rather, just change one thing at a time and eventually, over time, you will see a large shift in your practice.

Great educators can work within the constraints of the system and still create innovative learning opportunities for their students.

Q&A
While reading your book, I highlighted sentence after sentence, even though this is not how I normally read. I just found your book so packed full of things I wanted to remember. But, if I were to have highlighted only one part of your book, it would have been the part entitled, “Eight Things to Look for in Today’s Classroom?” Can you either tell us about that part of the book or provide us with the chart that appears on page 116?

When I looked at the “8 Things To Look for in Today’s Classroom,” I wanted to look at the tangible things that are needed in the classroom and how they were applied. It is important to have a vision of what education can be, but it is also important to bring that into the context of the classroom. If you simply have a vision that is so far out there, yet doesn’t apply to teachers in the classroom, then they do not necessarily develop along the way.

Innovator’s Mindset (Page 116)

Q&A
If you were to recommend that I highlight just one part of your book, would it have been the part entitled “Eight Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset?”

What I am most proud of about the book is that different people have highlighted different things and find value in so many different places throughout the book. I have had comments from students who have read it who are now rethinking their own experience, to teachers, to administrators. I wanted to write something that wasn’t targeting a specific group but everyone, because to move schools forward, that is what we will need; all of us. Everyone is somewhere along their own journey, and I have hoped that there are parts of the book that meet them where they are at.

Innovator’s Mindset (Page 48)

Q&A
Any closing comments/remarks
?

The whole point of the book was not to give a step-by-step guide on how to become innovative, but was meant to be the start of the conversation, not the end of it.

To put it another way, my focus, and the why of this book, was to try to inspire students, teachers, and adminstrators to develop an innovator’s mindset. When forward-thinking schools encourage today’s learners to become creators and leaders, I believe they, in turn, will create a better world.

And one thing that I have really loved about this book is the opportunity for me to learn from the people who have read it and have shared through the hashtag #InnovatorsMindset. I have learned from them after the fact. Innovation is a process, not a product, and I have learned that from connecting to so many others that have read and started a conversation with me regarding the book. It has been humbling but also empowering to learn and develop given the contribution of so many others.

Readers can connect with me on my blog, “The Principal of Change” (georgecouros.ca) or through Twitter @gcouros.