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When we think of innovative companies, it’s easy to imagine an open-air tech startup with ping pong tables and free drinks and huge windows and chairs so modern you’re not sure how you’re supposed to sit in them. Sometimes I look at those spaces and think, “Man, I wish schools were more like this.” But they’re not. Schools don’t have millions in startup money flowing into a group of passionate workers. And, while these companies often look amazing, many of the startups go bankrupt within the first three years.

Meanwhile, some of the most innovative ideas are happening in a much more humble environment — in greasy, tiny kitchens parked by the side of busy streets. Food trucks continue to redefine the way we view food through a fusion of flavors that are unabashedly different than typical restaurant flair. Unlike the massive tech startup world, food trucks are often nimble, small, and focused on a very distinct mission.

It has me thinking about the “food truck mindset” and what that would mean for both teachers and leaders in schools.

1. Learn by launching.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, once described his model with creative projects. The best kind of projects could “fail” in the traditional sense but it was okay because you would learn a new craft along the way. So, that podcast never takes off but you learn how to speak and how to edit audio. That book isn’t crazy successful but you improve your craft as a writer.

Food trucks often allow a chef to continue to improve on his or her craft by learning through making. You figure out if it works by sending it to a real audience. Part of why food trucks can experiment so well is that they are moving through the design cycle faster than a typical restaurant. They are able to test things out to a real audience and see if it works. Schools can easily get bogged down by meetings where they are planning about planning. But if they take this “ship earlier” approach, they can test things, modify them, and then create a new iteration faster. Innovation often looks small and humble at first. But good ideas have a way of spreading when people are able to see it in action.

Schools can embrace this idea of “learning by launching” by trying out design thinking.  Students can share their work with the world while also sharing their journey. Teachers can tell their classroom story through social media and blogging.

2. Pivot like crazy.

Because food trucks are smaller and they have less financial risk, they are able to stay lean. This allows them to change things up whenever they need to. The best food trucks learn the art of pivoting — where you keep one foot on the things you are doing really well and then move around, trying new things out and seeing if they work.

Schools often fail to bring about creative change because they run around from program to new program, missing the first side of pivoting. Or, they overcommit to a specific program and try and stay the course too long.

One of my favorite principals is a guy named Tim Lauer at Lewis Elementary in Portland. Full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine and I’m at his house for pizza night almost every Friday evening. But Tim encourages his teachers to experiment. They are always trying new things with the full permission for a lesson, project, or concept to fail. He empowers his teachers to be creative risk-takers and the result is a school culture that values creativity.

3. Be nimble.

This seems counterintuitive, but to do big things, it actually helps to go smaller. In other words, don’t go “all in.” In Originals, Adam Grant points out how some of the most innovative thinkers kept things small when they were first successful. For all the talk of the quick success of Google, they spent years as a small search engine working on creating a better algorithm.

Most food trucks experience the micro-niche paradox, where creating something quirky and weird for a smaller audience actually turns out to be the very thing that allows them to reach a massive audience. Some of the best restaurants I’ve been to began as food trucks. They grew slowly, spending months or even years in an incubation period where they were able to take creative risks with their menus. This period of pivoting kept them nimble and able to transition easily from idea to idea through constant experimentation.

I’m not entirely sure what this means for schools. However, I wonder what it would look like if schools said, “Instead of creating something that works for all students, we are going to create more stuff for smaller groups of students.” Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all approach, they could create systems and programs that meet the needs of a smaller group and allow students to opt-in. They could allow these changes to grow organically instead of trying to bottle up what’s working and packaging it for other teachers.

4. Be unabashedly geeky about your craft.

Food truck owners tend to be unabashedly geeky (even to the point of snobbery) about great cuisine. This devotion to craft is what makes movies great and books great. This intense geekiness often manifests itself in being unabashedly weird as well. Go watch a group of writers hang out. They’re weird. Same goes for birders, cyclists, engineers, or musicians.

If we think about teaching as a creative endeavor, we should have this same devotion to the craft. At the leadership level, this starts by showing teachers true, professional respect for the experience and the expertise they have. But it also involves geeking out over ideas. It means breaking the anti-intellectual staff lounge attitude where teachers say things like, “Well, that’s just a bunch of theory.”

And yet . . .

Teachers are already geeking out over their craft. At any given time on every night of the week there are thousands of teachers engaging in Twitter chats. On any weekend, you will see teachers giving up their free time to attend edcamps. Teachers around the world are forming book clubs and geeking out over the ideas they are reading about — and they are doing this without receiving any formal professional development credit. I’ve been surprised by the teachers out there who are starting book clubs for Launch

Find the Food Trucks

Innovation is happening all over the place. Teachers are experimenting with new ideas. They’re developing new strategies. They’re embracing project-based learning and design thinking. They’re empowering their students to own the creative process. In other words, they are creating their own food trucks and serving something a million times better than the fast food factory fare.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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