What is Your Specialization?
What makes you unique? What sets you apart from everyone else? What is that one area in which you are a champion? That is your specialty. But is identifying your specialty enough? Perhaps you are called to be a bit bolder, to go further . . . Will you leave a legacy? Your task is to leave your mark on the world by creating a blueprint, a recipe of sorts, that describes not what you do, or even why you do it; your recipe should describe how you do what you do.
Easy, right? Well . . . not so fast. One more caveat: you must describe how you do what you do best (you know, that thing that makes you come alive) in a way that is so clear and deliberate it can be replicated, perhaps by a complete stranger. Ahh . . . therein lies the challenge.
The Recipe Prototype
In an effort to refine this prototype and more deeply engage with the concept of a recipe as a strategy to codify our practice, we tested user experience and user interpretation of the recipe prototype at the the biannual meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council (TAC), a group of teacher leaders selected to provide candid, thoughtful, feedback to inform the work of the Foundation as it progresses, this past June.
Armed with only a taste of what Redesign Challenge was all about and a deliberate ask of the attendees to keep the process in mind, members of the TAC, were tasked with unpacking their specialties. What were the processes that made each one of them especially good in a particular area? Ultimately, this small group of teacher leaders used a very rough version of the recipe prototype to clearly frame their process as an example in the hopes that other educators might one day “cook up” similar dispositions, knowledge, and skills of their own.
Observation is Key in the Testing Stage of Any Design Thinking Process.
Observing human interactions with a prototype may reveal never-before articulated needs or a problem or challenge that had, to this point, gone unnoticed. I had two important take-aways from this brief session with TAC members:
- A Teacher is a Specialist. In teaching and in innovation, the processes that we engage in are complex. However, while innovators may arrive on the scene confident in their area of expertise, the concept of viewing ourselves as specialists creates a pretty serious, albeit temporary, state of cognitive dissonance for most educators. Masa Uzicanin, Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told us that professionals working in this field have a natural tendency to “specialize” in areas that help them constantly adapt and meet their students’ needs,” but, when asked to articulate a specialty, educators more often than not articulate their title — that is, until they are pushed to see themselves through a more comprehensive lens, educators detail what they do, not how they do what they do. Even when entering the feedback session armed with this knowledge, these educators, leaders among teacher leaders, still struggled to detail their area of expertise.
- The How is Hard. In navigating this prototyping process with one brilliant teacher leader, I asked her to tell me her specialty. That was easy. As we moved on to the process, however, I noticed that her first instinct was to tell me what she did, not how she did it. She used two specific action words, support and advocate. When I asked her to explain to me how she supports and advocates for her students she froze. If she were my mentor and tasked with teaching me this competency, I doubt that she would tell me to support and advocate and push me out the door. Nevertheless, the process — the how — was something that was incredibly complex to understand and almost impossible to articulate in the moment. This teacher is highly effective. What she does is ingrained in her practice, but her experience perfectly illustrates that if educators are not able to explain their process, if they are not able to tell their story of success, their practice is difficult to replicate and scale.
Start with Why, but What about How?
The gravity of the how got me thinking about the why. Simon Sinek, when discussing the principle of the “Golden Circle”, tells us that we must start with why: Everyone knows what they do. Some know how they do it. Very few know why they do what they do.
I do not doubt the importance of why — of recognizing our purpose and vision. And Sinek implicitly recognizes the importance of who (the user), but the more I ponder the importance of the process in innovation, I feel like the how has been neglected.
Once we develop expertise in a field or become skilled in a certain task, we tend to take our process for granted. We completely abandon the metacognitve process and simply do what we do, effortlessly, intuitively, perhaps mechanically. We continue to develop our skills but become further removed from the vocabulary required to effectively share that expertise with the world. We focus our conversations on the what — the ingredients, the products.
It is time that we, as educators, are able to clearly and intentionally articulate our process. We need to be able to point to what makes our ideas different, unique, innovative. We need to be able to demonstrate why our ideas are better than the ones that came before.
A Return to the Recipe
The recipe, as a product by itself, is somewhat secondary — as evidenced by the ideas contributed to Redesign Challenge. It is clear that the value for the innovators is in the experience over the finished product. We must reframe the product vs. process concept. Most would say “don’t start with the product in mind,” in this case the recipe. I say we flip the script to get at what is really valuable — The process is not different from the product — the process is the product.
A recipe, according to Merriam-Webster, can mean the following:
- A prescription: the act of laying down authoritative rules or directions, a right or title, or a written direction for the use of a therapeutic or corrective agent;
- A set of instructions for making something from various ingredients;
- A formula or procedure for doing or attaining something, ie. a recipe for success
If we examine this definition as it applies to our exploration of the concept of specialization within our field, we know that:
- The educator who specializes has earned the right to be recognized as having comprehensive and authoritative expertise on a topic. In other words, the specialist is a maven.
- The recipe will include a set of ingredients, as well as instructions and/or rules for implementation.
- The recipe is more than the ingredients and instructions. It must also include a procedure for attaining the “special sauce” that is the essence of the specialization. This alludes to the idea that this recipe will be much more about the process than the product.
The innovators at Redesign Challenge are tasked with a similar objective. The seemingly disparate pieces of each educator’s idea must be organized into a recipe that can be applied in unique educational contexts across the country by an Innovation Team. Each new context serves as a beautiful opportunity — the resiliency of the recipe will undergo exciting metamorphoses. Perhaps the context is enough to alter the original goals and outcomes. Perhaps additional steps are needed. What impact would an additional ingredient have on the outcome? What if an educator doesn’t have access to a resource or chooses to add a little of their own expertise to the mixing bowl? The possibilities are endless and we wait in joyful anticipation to witness these ideas and innovations come to life in diverse and unpredictable ways.
To Innovators and Innovation Teams Alike:
- In the words of Christopher Bronke, educators are innovators. YOU are a specialist and you have earned your seat at the table.
- Remember that the essence of your recipe is more than the list of ingredients, it is the process that is truly valuable. Pay attention to your process and learn to articulate how you determine what is essential, how you achieve your goals, how you measure success, etc.
- Robert McKee once said that,”Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” Remember to keep a journal. The story of your idea, filled with all details of your journey, will bring your idea to life in a way that inspires others to use your failures and victories to make meaningful change in their communities or to take the leap to innovate and design their own solutions to the problems they face.
What makes you unique? What sets you apart from everyone else?
How you answer those questions matters.