From Now On

A Monthly Electronic Commentary
on Educational Technology Issues

Vol 5 . . . No 2 . . . October, 1995

The Breaking Edge

Note: The order of the following sections does not necessarily make a difference in meaning. You may hop, skip and jump from one to another as the spirit moves you.

What edge?

Innovations come at us like great, crashing rollers. The pace of change is hectic. Innovation is rampant and chaotic. How do we stay on top? How do we ride these waves and keep abreast of all that is new?

Leading organizations forward during these times requires a risk-taking, forward-leaning style which is the antithesis of bureaucratic, status-quo maintenance and management.

"Leading Edge" fails to capture the challenging, questioning spirirt required.

"Bleeding Edge" is entirely too negative and too limited a metaphor.

"Breaking Edge" cuts in many directions. The leader is riding a wave. The leader is breaking through. The leader is challenging and questioning. The leader is out in front and on top.

How do teachers and library media specialists and technology coordinators and tech coaches and directors manage this feat? This article offers more than a dozen strategies to see the waves coming and catch rides on the very best of them . . . strategies to manage chaotic and rampant innovation.

Remember Peter the rabbit

Even though Peter's Mom warned him to stay away from Farmer MacGregor's garden, Peter wasted little time scaling the walls to explore this rich "forbidden" environment. He nearly met his end as the angry farmer chased him, but the message of this story is fairly clear . . .

You are not likely to find innovation if you stick to your own back yard. If you stay home and obey all the rules and warnings (like Peter's sisters), you may miss out on all the fun and adventure. If you let routine be your master, you may not hear Opportunity's soft knuckles rapping on the door.

Melville (Columbia University: Project Bartleby) divided the world into those who went to sea and those who stayed safely inland. To keep on top of the fast-breaking changes which surge through our world, we must be prepared to scale the walls of ignorance, past practice and habit. We must push off from shore. We must mix metaphors and cultivate the garden. Like Peter, we must challenge the old rules . . . question the paradigms and mindsets which have blocked our vision and our thinking.

Throw away recipes and cookbooks

The best dinners usually emerge from the chef's inventive flair and imagination. The surest way to remain stuck in the mud is to keep baking mud pies with the same old recipes. Unfortunately, schools and other organizations are prone to convert new technologies to fit old ways of doing business rather than converting schools and classrooms to take advantage of the special features of the new technologies.

As one example of this trend, Information technologies now make it possible to center classrooms around student questions and investigations. In all too many cases, however, the teacher remains at the front of the room and the technology is brought in to serve the old model of "sage on the stage."

Frequently we design learning labs and spaces with a "smokestack" mentality, lining up the computers in rows which make it impossible for the instructor to see the screens or move from computer to computer. We wedge too many machines into too small a space and block students from working in teams or laying out project work alongside the equipment.

Innovation requires a fresh look and a fresh design.

Think the unthinkable

The unthinkable is likely to happen, but only those who think about the unthinkable may be prepared for its arrival. The unthinkable is likely to rear-end those who plan for the future like the ostrich with their heads in the sand.

"It's unthinkable!" complained one ostrich to another upon learning that they were being groomed as a substitute for sirloin steak.

"It's unthinkable!" complained one dinosaur to another upon sinking forever into the mud.

"Who would have ever thought it could happen to us?" groan the laid off employees of IBM, Sears, Eastern Airlines, People's Express and other miracle corporations of the 1980s.

The technology leader asks what might happen if wireless networks ever really take off big time . . . asks how home technologies might change the nature of learning.

For innovation to "take root" in an organization's daily functioning, a good number of people need to be willing to question "the way it's spozed to be." In some groups, they may be branded heretics or trouble-makers. The top people may try to silence their questions. But silence, in this case, is definitely not golden.

Beware purple hat thinking

Most organizations are inclined to greet new ideas with scorn, doubt and derision. In his Thinking Hats Book, Edward deBono has named six kinds of thinking done by groups, one of which is purple hat thinking - the critical and doubtful questioning which tends to kill off innovation and discourage all but the most avid boat-rockers. If you wish to see new ideas rise to the surface, flourish and bloom, you need to keep purple hat thinking in its proper place.

  • Purple* Hat - Doubting and questioning. Finding weaknesses.
  • Yellow Hat - Seeing the good elements. Looking on the sunny side.
  • Green Hat - Adapting and changing to make more successful. Synthesizing and inventing.
  • Red Hat - Expressing important emotions and feelings.
  • White Hat - Gathering necessary data and information in a balanced fashion.
  • Blue Hat - Deciding which kind of thinking is appropriate at various times.

*de Bono uses the color "black," thereby adding to the majority culture's negative protrayal of the color. I have substituted purple to express the judgment.

Join, join, join

Schools (and most other organizations) have long been isolated and cut off from breaking new developments. They have been "trailing edge." Caught in eddies. Quiet pools away from the main stream. Often stagnant.

One way to beat this is to join organizations you would not ordinarily join to see how those people think about the important questions of life.

Listservs are especially good ways to keep aware of new developments, even if one deletes 97 per cent of the messages. Three hundred messages daily! Perhaps one per week is a diamond? That single message may give you the perfect opening for a major grant. It may alert you to a terrible new virus. It may provide a draft BOE policy so polished it saves you four days of laborious drafting.

Listservs and newsgroups keep us truly "wired" to change and the next series of waves headed toward shore. It pays to join more than you can handle and then install intelligent agents to do the sorting for you.

Keep bad company

This advice does not mean you should go out and find hoodlums and derelicts and drug addicts to replace your current friends. Nothing at all so crazy. It does mean that at least some of your friends, contacts and team-mates better have at least a touch of crazy thinking or diversity in their opinions, life-styles and behaviors. At least some should be willing to "let it rip" a bit while skiing or biking or swimming in the surf.

All groups need solid citizens, but invention tends to come from the risk-takers, the gamblers, the jokers and the fools. If you surround yourself with strait-laced, somber fellows, you are limiting the potential for outrageously good new ideas.

Rock the boat

If you are not making your own waves, you probably will not catch any great ones. Organizations with total balance are probably so stable as to settle into inertia and stasis. They resist outisde pressures for change and fail to adapt as messages arrive indicating that it is "time to get a move on."

Most organizations plan for the use of new technologies in ways that maintain the status quo and waste the potential of the new tools. Such planning is often wrong-headed and wasteful. But it is also the pride and joy of at least one leader or group who think they are doing great things. There are tremendous risks associated with challenging such thinkng and planning, not the least of which is losing one's job, home, reputation and e-mail.

The wise leader rocks the boat without swamping the boat or getting too close to the edge.

Lean forward

We lean forward, poised for the next challenge, eager, hungry, primed and voracious. Like sprinters on the track, we are ready to leap ahead at the firing of the starter's pistol. We streak down our lane, pumping and driving toward the tape. At the last moment we thrust arms and upper body even further out, lunging for the extra inches.

Innovators make things happen. They seize opportunity when it makes an appearance. They make their own when it fails to show. They peek around corners, lift up stones, and explore with passion and abandon.

Lean back

Sometimes it pays to relax, slow down, listen and swing on the porch as life passes by. The reflective stance balances the forward lean. If we do not provide for reverie and day-dreaming, our productivity may be starkly limited. Inventive thought requires incubation as well as stress. We must be able to shift in and out of modes. We lean forward, then back, forward, then back. We rock (the boat?) from one to the other as the mind cooks up a feast of possibilities. It is a creative see-saw!

Scan the horizon

Too many organizations step into the future with their eyes on the ground, one step at a time. The trick is to lift the organizational eyes beyond the horizon and then keep on swiveling like the turret of a tank scanning all 360 degrees to figure out what lies ahead, behind and to the flank.

Surprise may arrive from any quarter. Usually it pops up where we would least expect it. Healthy organizations devote a good deal of time to wondering and watching. They mount the crow's nest and try to look past the horizon. They seek perspective. They step outside the normal order. They peek over the walls of tradition.

"The Art of the Long View" by Peter Schwartz (New York, Doubleday, 1991) provides a superb course in scenario building for those who wish to sharpen their skills in this area.

Hide the plan

Plans are like dams in some respects. Rivers were meant to flow. When we try to superimpose control, we delude ourselves into thinking we can do better than nature. Then the salmon begin to disappear. "Oh!" we exclaim with shock and begin to install fish ladders and other such counter-measures.

Technology plans, unless they are written in the broadest of philosophical strokes (basic learning goals), can hardly chart our course into a future that no one has ever seen. The more specific and pointed they are, the less likely they will survive obsolescence.

One of the worst things that can happen is the adoption of a five inch thick, five year plan. Worse still would be blind adherence to the plan. Far better to view it as a sketch, a working plan which shifts as the organization tries new things and learns. Plans must be living, changing documents. Otherwise, it's best they remain hidden.


In times of Info-Glut, browsing becomes an essential survival skill. When we browse, we cover a lot of ground without stopping to eat or read very much. We want to see what there is at the pot-luck supper before we load our plate, so we move along the table, looking over the food displayed there, knowing we will return for large helpings of the best items. If we started loading and feasting early in the table, we might lose our appetite before reaching the prize dish.

Raised to conduct carefully structured searches with plenty of focus, we must learn to skim the surface purposefully, always mindful that we are likely to suffer from abundance. The challenge is finding the"right stuff."


Grazing allows for some nibbling along the way while browsing. It is the carefully cultivated habit of light repast, the snack, the taste, the sample. We begin to collect information and insight as we move through mountains of data. Nothing heavy. Nothing mammoth. We are still open-minded. We hold off any rush to judgment. We are exploring, wandering even. We have no clear path. We hope the way might make itself clear. If we try too hard, we may miss its signa.


Word searches permit a kind of "net casting" which is powerful and even magical. The WWW search programs seem to gather up all kinds of vaguely associated articles and files. This is no carefully pointed search process. Serendipity is in full control. The technology leader who learns to pose strange and magical search combinations reaches for "wizard " status.

This is more fanciful and intuitive than more formal Boolean searches because the search engines are more sloppy and forgiving. They collect too much and give you a list of vaguely associated items. This is both a hindrance and a blessing. Free association spawns creation but can rapidly drown the thinker in irrelevance.

The main point is to be "on the lookout" for new ideas, new possibilities, new avenues and new inventions. Go to InfoSeek or WebCrawler and type in the word "new." See what pops up!

Ask lots of questions

Questioning is heroic, according to Catford and Ray in "The Path of the Everyday Hero." It is one of the hero's four main skills, they claim.

"It may be heroic," Socrates might point out, "but it may also be fatal."

Some bosses, some organizations and some groups demand unquestioning loyalty, support and compliance. "Get with the program!" they urge.

There once was an emperor who paraded around naked for a long time because no one dared ask a simple question or challenge the fraud of the tailors.

Questions may be the most powerful technology at the disposal of humans. They allow us to fashion new meanings, making sense out of non-sense, order out of chaos, and rhyme out of reason. Questions help us tear apart the old to build the new. Questions are the answer!

Trust your intuition

Intuition might well complain, "I don't get no respect." This imaginative and playful, associative aspect of intellectual functioning is usually ignored and neglected by the serious scholars, psychologists and researchers. It is viewed as "soft" and unreliable. Our culture frowns on decision-making which relies upon intuition. "Shooting from the hip!" is the allegation.

Intuition is especially well suited for the challenge of coping with chaotic and rampant innovation. The hard edge of reason and analysis freezes up when confronted by discontinuous and turbulent change. Logic does not cope well with surprise and chaos.

Get lost

One of my favorite passages in the Tao of Pooh is the scene where the group is lost in the woods. When they are exhausted from trying out various direct strategies to find their way home, Pooh triumphantly goes in the opposite direction that makes any sense and ends up just where they want to go.

Sometimes we are so intently focused on where we have been going that we cannot see new paths and new possibilities. Until we let go of that intensity and wander about for a while, we are cut off from surprise and wonder and discovery.

Some will object that this is folly. Others will call it foolishness. And they will be right. There is a reason that kings and queens hired court jesters and fools, but it wasn't just a laughing matter.

Take a hike

Our productivity, creativity and ability to generate ideas depends upon heavy doses of fresh air and new scenery. Too much concentrated and uninterrupted focus upon task is likely to produce anxiety or the equivalent of "writer's block." The Muse is a hiker. There's something about getting the pulse up which provokes interesting thoughts.

Go on an excursion

It often pays to go far afield, enriching the sensory feast with the strange, the exotic and the unusual. This can a virtual excursion - through a movie or the WWW. But a real excursion to a fascinating neighborhood or unusual environment can do wonders.

In the case of schools, those who would plan for exciting new technological possibilities need to consider field trips to work places who employ technologies in interesting ways. Visiting other schools is frequently disappointing. Bolder insights will often emerge by crossing traditional boundary lines.

Remember to dream

Langston Hughes wrote that "a life without dreams is a barren field, crusted with snow." The waves of chaotic and rampant innovation are likely to pull us down if we do not hold visions of higher purpose. This venture is not about plugging machines into elaborate networks to see how they hum. We are plugging those machines into a network so that human communication can improve. We build a global community and we engage students in a search for truth.

Remember the kids

We must not forget, as we string cable and install equipment, that we are doing all of this to support the thinking and inventiveness of children. Too many discussions about technology and schools focus on boxes and servers and cable and software. The growth and development of children is of prime importance here. It is paramount.

Return to Breaking Edge Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated only in hard copy format for educational, non-profit school district use only. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

Network 609