Harvard Educational Review
  1. How to Innovate

    The Essential Guide for Fearless School Leaders

    Mary Moss Brown and Alisa Berger

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2014. 144 pp. $28.95 (paper)

    The speed at which information and knowledge are currently expanding and changing requires today’s youth to be literate not only in academic subjects but also in applying learning to novel tasks and situations (Wagner, 2008). Unfortunately, data show that current methods of schooling in the United States may not be sufficient in preparing students as competitive members of a global society: results of international assessments indicate that U.S. students lag behind other industrialized nations in mathematics, reading, and science (Fleishman, Hopstock, Pelczar, & Shelley, 2010). In their book How to Innovate: The Essential Guide for Fearless School Leaders, authors and educators Mary Moss Brown and Alisa Berger take a practical approach to such substandard results, looking toward innovation in designing and implementing a school model “to serve the needs of a 21st-century world and 21st-century students” (p. 1). In three sections, they aptly lay the foundation for why innovation is critical to improved student outcomes, identify four potential levers for school change, and present a guide for leaders hoping to transform their individual schools into institutions that better foster the development of twenty-first-century skills.

    The book begins with an exploration of the question, Why innovate? Brown and Berger point out that many schools do not currently meet the needs of their students and, with a sense of urgency, call for a focus on schools and teaching that builds student capacity to think critically, problem solve, adapt to new situations, and communicate ideas effectively. While researchers, policy makers, and practitioners have similarly called for improvement of the state of U.S. education, Brown and Berger push beyond what they see as isolated efforts toward innovation, defined by “systemic change and dynamic leadership” (p. xix). They affirm that “[to] effect real change and improvement in our schools—locally, nationally, and globally—we must question and rethink ‘school’ to develop a whole new vision for teaching, learning, and the student experience” (p. 3). Certainly, the passion with which the authors approach the topic, as well as the possibilities they see in the future of schooling, inspires the audience to read further.

    In Part I, Brown and Berger introduce readers to the NYC iSchool, the high school they codesigned and led beginning in 2008. They outline the path that the NYC iSchool community and leadership took to develop and implement a new vision of high school education, focusing on the core values of “innovation, individualization and personalization, and metacognitive skill development” (p. 5). They discuss the rationale, context, and logistics for their three-pronged educational program of real-world learning, online learning, and a student advisory program. For example, Brown and Berger candidly identify the factors enabling them to experiment and innovate in the early years of the iSchool, noting that principal autonomy, partnerships with the New York City Department of Education and other public and private organizations, and the mutual choice of the school and its families to enroll in the iSchool were all conducive to their success.

    The way the authors describe the NYC iSchool also serves as a case study and practical guide for what it can look like to tailor schools and school systems to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Brown and Berger do well to note that while details of the iSchool’s inception and implementation are specific to its single context, “there are common questions and factors that must be considered in any context” (p. 3). In Part II, the authors shift from specific description of the iSchool toward a more applicable discussion of what they have identified as the four levers of change: curriculum, culture, time, and human capital. By presenting solid rationale and illustrative examples from the iSchool, they convince the reader of the importance of school leaders’ agency in shaping what and how students learn; optimizing how adults and students interact and communicate; managing time to facilitate the school’s vision; and better utilizing already-existing human capital. One of the most compelling anecdotes around curriculum illuminates the iSchool’s Field Experience Program, which is structured around the ideals of service, exposure, and expertise. Brown and Berger thoroughly describe how field experiences aid students in learning skills and preparing for the future, are cohesive with and complementary to students’ studies, and can be purposefully selected to contribute to culminating Senior Projects. The examples they provide not only clarify discussion of specific aspects of the iSchool, but also help the reader to envision the potential for innovation that already exists within many established schools.

    In the final section Brown and Berger draw on their backgrounds as practitioners to make this guide applicable and immediately practicable. “Transforming Your School: A Guide” offers direction for leaders in rethinking and transforming their schools. By way of a list of twenty-one activities and exercises, the authors encourage interested leaders to apply the four levers of change to individual schools by developing school vision, evaluating use of instructional time, analyzing teacher roles, and determining time needed for instruction, to name but a few. The first activity is “defining your goals and values.” In this exercise, participants describe their vision for graduates—and the roles that students, teachers, and leaders play in its realization—through mind-sets, habits of mind and work, beliefs, skills, experiences, family goals, and understandings. While Brown and Berger note that specific series of activities are suited to each of the four levers, they suggest that all innovators partake in this first activity, solidifying the notion that a defined vision is paramount. Additionally, they indicate that “this guide is not intended to be a one-time experience, but rather part of a habit of innovation, through which you will continually question and rethink your school practices” (p. 67).

    While the transparency and applicability of this guide are commendable, How to Innovate is not without its limitations. The reader is still left with questions about the iSchool and the generalizability of such a model. Because the iSchool is still in its infancy, it will be important to learn about the progress of the school as well as the success of its students in and beyond high school. In addition, there is little to no mention of the suitability of the iSchool for exceptional students. How are diverse student needs met if and when the curricular program or online modules prove to be insufficient to promote student progress? Beyond the school itself, there are also unresolved issues of scalability. While the authors note that How to Innovate is meant to raise questions around and serve as an impetus for innovation, it remains unclear as to whether the changes practiced at the iSchool and suggested in this book are feasible within the parameters of typical U.S. public schools. 

    Even so, Brown and Berger achieve the book’s mission to “push school leaders’ thinking, forcing them to ask the right questions, to rethink the practices they have been implementing, and to adopt a habit of innovation” (p. xx). Certainly, in reading How to Innovate, school leaders can feel empowered to leverage change within their own school communities.

    Fleishman, H. L., Hopstock, P. J., Pelczar, M. P., & Shelley, B. E. (2010). Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of US 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in an international context (NCES 2011-004). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.
    Wagner, T. (2008). Rigor redefined. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 20–24.
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    Book Notes

    How to Innovate
    Mary Moss Brown and Alisa Berger

    Inspiring Teaching
    Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Eran Tamir, and Karen Hammerness