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Leaders in Blended Learning Must Lean into Innovation

If the growth of blended learning is inevitable, does leadership matter?

That’s a question I sometimes get after I give a speech about disruptive innovation and the advance of blended learning.

The answer is yes, leadership is critical. Although blended learning’s growth may be relatively certain, its success in improving education for all students is not.

As blended learning spreads across the country—from teachers flipping their classrooms to schools implementing models to bolster personalization and improve equity—the question of leadership looms large. One thing is clear: successful design and implementation of blended learning will require school leaders to take an active role.

For clues as to what that leadership should look like, we can turn to the success of established companies in launching disruptive innovations that operate dramatically differently from “business as usual.” School heads will likely have at least three, high-level, primary responsibilities for the foreseeable future.

Lean into Innovation

Leaders must shepherd new, innovative learning models that do not conform to traditional teaching methods; they need to allocate much of their time to these fledgling projects as opposed to day-to-day operations. They can afford to do so because established organizations become gradually less dependent on the capabilities of individual people. Their success instead gets embedded in processes as ways of working together coalesce and become essentially fixed within a group that repeatedly does the same task. For example, because it is impossible for a principal to weigh in on every issue, most schools have decision-making processes in place that work without his or her attention. Witness the myriad decisions teachers make every day about everything from learning to classroom management to discipline.

Dramatically new and innovative learning models, however, tend to have ill-defined approaches to making decisions. As a result, make-or-break choices impacting the success of the new methods arise with alarming frequency. What’s more, an established organization’s decision-making processes tend not to apply in an innovative environment. When that happens, leaders need to step in to manage the innovation and shelter innovative ideas from the norms of the established organization that would attempt to rein them in.

Be an Ambassador for Innovation

Blended-learning leaders must also be ambassadors for innovation. Schools at all levels are experimenting with new learning models that utilize time, space, students, and teachers in novel ways in order to personalize and create opportunities for deeper learning. Even when staying on top of all this change is part of your day job--as it is for education funders, analysts and writers, for example--it’s no easy task. Educators will of course struggle to keep up.

Blended-learning leaders are thus ideally suited to share what they learn with teachers in traditional classroom environments. As these leaders lean into innovations within their own school walls, they must carve out time to share knowledge with colleagues who have not yet adopted new models but likely will in the future.

Develop a Steady Rhythm of Innovation

Innovation is a process, not an event. Innovating once and then declaring victory doesn’t constitute the end of the journey. Blended learning uses personalization to improve student outcomes and promote equity. No doubt new innovations will help prepare tomorrow’s students for the complex and promising futures that await them.

Making progress is a hallmark of a healthy society and healthy schools; it models the capacity for lifelong learning that we seek to instill in students. As such, school leaders should strive to develop a steady rhythm of innovation with corresponding processes in place. For example, schools can set up summer labs to incubate and test new approaches to and technologies for learning. Promising ideas can be moved into after-school environments for further development, and different grades, programs, and subjects can adopt the innovations in phases. It’s no coincidence that innovations like Teach to One, for example, were first incubated outside of the traditional school day where there was more room to experiment.

The success of blended-learning programs will likely turn on the qualities of the leader for some time. This in turn will require leaders to lean in and be active participants in creating the learning environments of tomorrow.

Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayon Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (formerly the Innosight Institute), a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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