Original Ideas Couched in Familiar Words

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What makes “change” effective? I used to ask my students this question in the School Improvement course at Teachers College. There are all kinds of changes from whole school reform to new signs in the hallways but what makes change effective? Of course the answer has to do with the solution it presents and the way in which it is accomplished. But after we ran around some examples together, the complexity of change revealed itself. Change is much harder than it looks, and by that I mean that change is easier to propose and harder to accomplish.

One of the complexities of change is the having of wonderful ideas, a phrase from one of my teachers, Eleanor Duckworth. Schools can support student thinking but does this lead to the having of someone else’s wonderful ideas or to having one’s own original ideas? The answer is a messy one, as it leads to both.

In a wonderful book that has been a best-seller on the NY Times list, Adam Grant offers some clarity on the having of original ideas. A great teacher at the Wharton School of Business, Adam’s book helps us to see how some ideas get through and others fade away as soon as they are suggested.

“This extraordinary, wildly entertaining book sheds new light on the Age of Disruption. What does it take to make a meaningful difference? And how can you apply this insight to your own life? By debunking myths of success stories, challenging long-held beliefs of process, and finding commonality among those who are agents of profound change, Adam Grant gives us a powerful new perspective on not just our place in the world, but our potential to shake it up entirely.”
—JJ Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, co-creator and executive producer of Lost, and cofounder of Bad Robot

Some would argue that schools have been set up in the industrial model of replication, where students replicate what they have been told, what they have learned, and what others have said. And although I see lots of evidence of that, there is some utility in reading, understanding and replicating other people’s ideas. The trick is to then recognize your own, original ideas, and couch them in familiar words for others to hear. In Adam’s book he talks about the executives at Disney who didn’t understand the writer’s proposal for a new movie about lions in Africa. Disney only used oft-told stories, not new ones. But when someone explained that the Lion King was Hamlet with Lions, the executives green-lighted the project. Original ideas couched in familiar words turned the trick.