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How Sharpies Change School Culture

Surely you’ve heard about design thinking ideology by now -- the human-centered and critical thinking methodology is sweeping the nation in the corporate world, and it has recently made an entry into the world of education.

At its core, design thinking is a mindset based on accepting -- and even celebrating -- failure as a means to creative thought and innovation; this mindset is capable of permeating an entire culture and instilling the individuals that make up that culture with the confidence to take risks in the service of bringing truly innovative ideation to their organization.

Make no mistake, schools are organizations dependent upon the same drive for innovation as businesses.

But, how do you bring a culture that promotes failing forward, creative ideation and risk-taking -- a culture of innovation -- to your school?

With Sharpies.

Okay, obviously not, but let’s use Sharpies as a simple metaphor here. Sharpies are also known as permanent markers, yes? We can all agree. In other words, you cannot undo the permanence of what is inked in Sharpie. You can erase pencil, and even pen, but you cannot erase Sharpie. And when an idea is marked in Sharpie, it tends to stick around.

This is why a lot of design thinking sessions use Post-it Notes and Sharpies for ideation. The small landscape of the Post-it Note makes the breadth of an idea succinct and high-level while the Sharpie ensures that what is written cannot be undone -- more simply, ideas are easily added to the field rapidly, and no idea is kept from the field unless that individual chooses to keep it to him/herself.

The point is, by thinking of every single idea as something permanent enough to have a shot in the world of innovation, you give those ideas a chance to succeed.

By ensuring that every single individual within the school is encouraged to be vulnerable with their ideas enough to where they can take the risk of incorporating them permanently as a practice, you are creating a culture that will become innovative.

It’s impossible for something to succeed if it is never given the chance to be tested for success. Failure is inevitable of course, but you cannot be afraid to fail. Failure is not permanent.

Okay, what are some practices and tangible strategies you can use to bring a culture predicated on risk-taking and growth to your school?

Check out a few quick hits below:

Everyone Has to Believe-in to Buy-in

Culture Starts with School Leaders, Ends with Teachers

Bringing an innovative culture to your school is something you can do as an educator at any level; making sure school leaders set the tone first will ensure school-wide believe-in though.

Do you want to be part of a culture that mentors everyone, is honest, impact hungry and embraces the unexpected?

That’s only possible when everyone buys into said culture and takes the necessary steps toward being supportive, creative and encouraging of critical thinking.

If you’re a teacher trying to bring this culture to your school you can start by bringing it to your classroom. Encourage your students to redefine the way they understand failure, and willingly try ideas that may fail but that may also offer a creative solution to problems they face. Once you and your students embrace this mindset, you can use your classroom as a point of reference for an entire school culture.

If you’re a school leader in search of something different for your school and the teachers and students who inhabit it, then take the initiative with your staff, and make a plan to bring this direction to your school. That starts by first making your staff aware of the desired direction and how it can be brought into your school, and then encouraging and supporting them in taking risks to make that culture a reality.

Teachers and school leaders alike can bring this culture to their school or classroom in a number of ways; the next few headlines will detail some of those ways.

Define What Failure Is

Dismantle risk-aversion and build a risk-taking culture

The traditional mindset defines failure as the inability to achieve results based on certain criteria. A growth mindset defines that failure instead as the stepping stone to improvement, with the very simple adage of: learning from one’s mistakes as a catalyst to that improvement.

However, instead of thinking of them as mistakes, you can categorize failures as attempts that didn’t reach their mark, but that will allow for similar marks/aspirations, further down the road, to be reached.

This is the first step in cultivating a culture that thrives on creativity, and the permanence of the Sharpie metaphor mentioned above. In other words, the risk of permanence becomes something that you look forward to, thereby dismantling a culture whose growth is stunted by risk-aversion.

How is that culture dismantled? With three steps.

1) Define what failure is, and what it is not.

2) Identify why a fear of risk is natural and healthy, and challenge that uncomfortability with healthy risks.

3) Identify the areas where a risk-taking mindset can be implemented.

Start by defining how failure can be thought of as a culture, and develop strategies that help staff to redefine how they think about failure.

Then, understand that humans are innately wired to avoid risk -- because they fear failure -- but that does not mean risk-aversion should define what we do; there are healthy ways to take risks.

Finally, develop strategies for implementing that healthy risk-taking culture into the areas where you’ve identified it is needed most, then implement it.

Encourage Rapid-fire Ideation

Start an Innovation Movement with Unrestrained Ideas

We brought up Post-it Notes and Sharpies earlier for a reason because both can be used in tandem to encourage ideation that is unrestrained by too much in-depth thinking.

Support everyone to be vulnerable with their ideas, Sharpie them to a Post-it Note and share them in an environment where there are no wrong answers, and that welcomes creative problem-solving. Vulnerability and discomfort can be used as a gateway to optimal critical thinking.

When individuals start putting every idea to paper without considering the viability of each idea, but instead focusing on the possibilities associated with an idea, they are able to exist in a world where ideas flow without barriers.

Start with a problem you want to solve, either in your school or classroom, identify the area(s) you need to focus on to solve it and start rapidly proposing ways you can solve the problem.

You will begin to notice trends in the way people propose their solutions, trends you can whittle down even further with more rapid-fire ideation that focuses on how solutions can be implemented. Eventually, you and your team will agree on some ideas that have a lot of potential.

The next step is taking a risk with some of those ideas.

Inevitably, risks will result in failure. School culture is evidenced by how the individuals in that school choose to cope with those failures.

Hold Fail Forward Parties

Celebrate Failure and Use it to Move Forward

Learning how to cope with failure is key. Failure is a bona fide fact of life, but it is not permanent, as we iterated earlier. n fact, moving forward with failed ideas -- revisiting where an idea failed and then redesigning a new strategy that keeps those failures in mind -- is how they continue to evolve and become finely tuned for results.

Recognize that failure is a by-product of experimentation, and that the more we experiment, the more we will fail. However, the more we fail, the more we discover insights that would be impossible without the experimentation that led to a certain failure.

As such, failures should be celebrated as a necessity for innovative cultures. Holding failure parties is one of the ways to do this. When you try something and it doesn’t work, hold a “party” that celebrates not only the fact that you experimented with some new idea, but also that you discovered amazing insights as a result of that experimentation and can now use those insights as a catalyst to your next experiment.

In other words, failures must not only be identified and recognized as a path toward innovation, they must also be analyzed for insights in order to stay on that path toward innovation.

Realizing that failure is a part of success is the first step to staying on the cutting edge; celebrating your constant dedication to that path is one way to ensure that you continue to strive for experimentation until an experiment works, and becomes permanent.


Ultimately, the permanence metaphor comes down to one thing -- a school culture that is innovative year in and year out will be permanent. Permanent to those who work there, and who want to bring truly game-changing ideas to the field of education.

Permanent to the students who inhabit those hallways, and who will one day change the world because they were empowered to be creative and entertain ideas capable of impacting humanity on a scale that is largely incomprehensible currently.

And finally, permanent to the parents that get to watch their child grow in a school culture that does not shy away from risks, and that encourages the future of this world to seek answers to questions we only dream of answering.

Permanence is the mark of something that cannot be undone. Make something permanent in your school by striving for experimentation first.


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