Wednesday / May 29

Why Your School Needs a Skunkworks Group

During World War II, every manufacturing company in the U.S. was searching for substantial innovations to end the war. Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Projects created a special independent laboratory experiment to develop new ideas, new products, and new actions. This special unit of people worked together to create solutions that were outside the current products and processes of the company. Moreover this unit was next to a plastics factory in Burbank, CA. The strong smells that made their way into the make shift domicile made the Lockheed R&D workers think of the foul-smelling “Skunk Works” factory in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip.

Schools need skunkworks groups—groups that are independent of the collective beliefs and behaviors of the dominant culture. Such a separation would allow a group to truly experiment and rethink not only the problems to solve but how to solve those problems. Skunkworkers need to be prepared to suspend their beliefs and face the “Men in Black” mind eraser pen to delete their past memories as a student (or what Dan Lortie called “the apprenticeship of observation”). Furthermore, they need to take a deep dive into those innovations that are disruptive; those innovations that could fundamentally change the basic premise of traditional schooling and as such challenge the operating procedures of the school.

Most innovations in schools are not disruptive in nature; they are merely new iterations to sustain the status quo. Sustaining innovations are prevalent in education: sitting to standing desks, full to modified blocks, moving from 27 to 23 student teacher in each class, and changing textbooks. Sustaining innovations have tremendous curb appeal and yet barely move the needle when it comes to impacting student learning. A skunkworks group isn’t needed for sustaining the status quo. Skunkworks are needed to fundamentally challenge the status quo in real time in schools.

To begin, skunkworks groups should focus more on learning than teaching and use evaluation of their impact on learning on all students as their driver for decision making. These suggested boundaries spark a need for understanding stakeholder perspectives, inspecting the underpinnings of educator actions, and tackling opportunity, student empowerment, and achievement issues. All disruptive innovative solutions will ultimately lead to the need to change teacher and administrative behavior which is incredibly challenging in a system that typically changes everything around adults.

Big ideas start with small steps. Here are a few steps to kickstart the skunkworks:

  1. Begin with the 5 Why’s. Begin by attempting to find the foundational root to the problem or challenge and how such problem is perceived by multiple stakeholders. Use at least 5 why questions to get to the basis of the problem. For example: Why do we do x as a means to enhance every learner’s learning? Why is x important to us? Why is x being used as opposed to y? Why are we focusing here?
  1. Stay small, stay focused.When you are questioning everything, tether it to learner progress across all sub-groups and when the team finds a question that is of interest, go for it and stick with it. Questions should be at the epicenter for equity and academic excellence; answers should connect to those strategies that have the probability of yielding a substantial impact on learning.
  1. Take a ‘Bias to action and inspection’ approach.Once you have a driving question, begin implementing ideas and verify the impact of those ideas through various forms of data collection (e.g. surveys, pre/post, focus groups).
  1. Vote with your feet. Find people who want to do this work and don’t exclude anyone who is interested. Once you start, though, stick with that team. If you have more than seven people interested, you may want to create another skunkworks team.
  1. Fishbowl; don’t feed the fish though. Let everyone see your work, but that’s it. They get to listen, for now.

How would one scale the skunkworks “ideation into action” approach across a school and within a system?

Skunkworkers need to share their innovations with stakeholders. One suggestion is to host “exhibition nights” that allow for Q&A and follow up discussions at staff meetings on how such innovation can be infused into the DNA of the school. Feedback is critical at this stage—but only after the ideas, actions, and processes are fully understood.

Ultimately, skunkworks may lead, over time, to a shift in the opportunity and achievement gaps prevalent in schools, leverage student voice, increase the use of higher impact strategies, shift staff and department meeting agendas to focus more time on learning, and begin developing new forms of problem-solving across a system that focuses primarily on learning. Let’s bring the skunks in the school doors!

Written by

Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades.

Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA.

Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction.

He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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