Photo by Christian Fregnan

A Critical Review of Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak

We desperately need more books about education that make legible the connections between the classroom and the educational system, teaching and pedagogy, the agency of students and the agency of teachers. Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL and the Innovator’s Mindset sets itself an expansive brief, to “look beyond the here and now”, to understand that “Learners are not disabled. Curriculum is. Systems are. But kids are not.” Arguing for an education that is innovative and inclusive, co-authors George Couros and Katie Novak, who apparently met after “back-to-back keynotes”, set the context for the book through Couros’ work on The Innovator’s Mindset, a set of eight characteristics that revolve around acting with a positive mindset: empathetic, problem finders-solvers, risk-takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflection.1This is how they list the characteristics in Innovate Inside the Box Novak then adds a Universal Design for Learning lens at the end of Chapters 5-12, meant to shift our attention to the ways in which systems are disabled – and what we can do about it in our teaching. Ironically, the design of the book around the 8 characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset, rather than the more developed and researched framework of Universal Design for Learning, leaves little room for Novak to make a sustained case for UDL.

While Innovate Inside the Box raises important questions about definitions of success, our changing world, the roles of technology and educational research, and our narratives about the purpose of education, it ultimately views education through the lens of preparation for work, especially as this involves reconfiguring ourselves through adopting a positive attitude and becoming resilient. When it comes to the impact of systemic issues on our agency, Couros and Novak neglect the broader conversations about equity and asset-based pedagogies – that Federico Waitoller and Kathleen Thorius have already put into productive conversation with UDL.

Reconfiguring Ourselves: ‘Positive Attitude Changes Everything’

Innovate Inside the Box presents us with a social efficiency vision of education – prepare students for work following the World Economic Forum’s skills agenda – that was congenial to the administrative progressives, such as David Snedden, from the early 20th century. Dewey mounted a clear challenge to Snedden’s agenda: “The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.” Snedden ultimately won, and his legacy continues in articles in the popular press and from policy institutes. 

The focus on ‘innovation’ predisposes Couros and Novak to write a lot about the economy and job market using vaguely neutral words like ‘change’. After introducing the factoid about ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’, Couros lays out what he believes to be the essential truth behind the numbers: we’re in for ‘change’. Couros writes, “I’ve long believed that change isn’t to be feared; it is an opportunity to do something amazing. Choosing to view change in a positive way makes all the difference between feeling terrified or thrilled.” For Couros, coping with ‘change’ comes down to a positive mindset. Innovate Inside the Box even opens with a quote from Oprah Winfrey to set the stage for an argument about education based on the economic promise of having a positive attitude and resilience: “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you – always.”

It’s one thing to find personal motivation and inspiration in Oprah’s words, and it’s quite another to use them to frame an educational project – building a more inclusive school system through UDL – that is supposed to be about examining how systems induce dis/ability. But instead of turning a critical analysis on systems, Couros and Novak warn us to avoid ‘negativity’: “Often, the negative people around you will stop talking if you refuse to get sucked into their spiral.” Couros tells us his mantra is “Positive Attitude Changes Everything”. 

If positive attitude changed everything, we wouldn’t need Universal Design. Precarity, systemic racism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy are built through policy and require changes in policies – not merely mindsets – to topple them. Sometimes we should be outraged and angry. 

Judith Halberstam writes about the “toxic positivity of contemporary life”: 

“As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us in Brightsided, positive thinking is a North American affliction, “a mass delusion” that emerges out of a combination of American exceptionalism and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions….. As Enrenreich puts it, ‘If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.’ But, she continues, ‘the flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility,’ meaning that while capitalism produces some people’s success through other people’s failures, the ideology of positive thinking insists that success depends only upon working hard and failures is always of your own doing.”

Along with Oprah, Couros and Novak cite the other ‘new prophets of capital’ – Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Thomas Friedman – to orient us towards models of economic success built through positive thinking. In her analysis of the new prophets of capital, Nicole Aschoff writes:2Aschoff doesn’t name Friedman, but he certainly belongs on this list. 

“Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment. … Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. Instead of examining the interplay of biography and history, they eliminate it, making structure and agency indistinguishable. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals. For some people the American Dream is attainable, but to understand the chances for everyone, we need to look dispassionately at the factors that shape success.”

The tension between reconfiguring ourselves and reconfiguring systems could be addressed by seeing the personal as political, to use a phrase from Carol Hanish (1969); or seeing the relation between what C. Wright Mills (1959) calls troubles which “occur within the character of the individual”, and issues which concern the “institutions of an historical society as a whole.” But that’s not what happens. Instead, Couros and Novak don’t seem to explicitly recognize alienation in our society when they write, 

“We live in a world that embraces and encourages variability, the unique mix of strengths and weaknesses that make us who we are. We acknowledge this in restaurants where we enjoy diverse menus and clothing and shoe stores where we expect numerous styles and sizes. The school systems within which we operate, however, have not traditionally embraced variability.”

I suppose some readers will intuitively find Couros and Novak’s sentiment to ring true, and others will be tired from having to explain the ways their own ‘variability’ is still the target of systemic oppression. The consumerist spin on embracing variability may leave many who feel alienated by systemic racism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy to feel more alienated. Even in the consumer context (or especially in), we’re presented with a narrow ideal of what constitutes ‘normal’. When it comes to shopping for clothes, TIME reports that “67% of American women wear a size 14 or above, and most stores don’t carry those numbers,” thus excluding most ‘average’ women. As someone with osteogenesis imperfecta, Kristin Lopez asks “what if you aren’t average?” When Lopez goes shopping, she has to get most garments tailored, when she can afford it. Lopez’s experience leads her to ask, “But when something like finding the right clothing still feels like an uphill challenge, how can a person with disabilities ever not feel like an outsider?

Instead of a broad embrace of variability, people are often accused of playing ‘identity politics’ when they speak about how systems of power differentially impact them the further their identities are from the ideals of white, abled, heteropatriarchy. 

While Innovate Inside the Box touches on several topics that have the potential to drive conversations about systemic issues, such as the “Flint water crisis” – more accurately, a poisoning – and racism at Boston Latin School (I will return to this story), Couros and Novak don’t dig into the systemic problems and instead favor the stories that fit their narrative about positivity and mindset, celebrating social media successes, like Mari Copney’s activism as Little Miss Flint:

“I first became aware of Mari Copeny when she was eight years old. She was living in Flint, Michigan, during the water crisis and became one of the biggest advocates in the community. She has shared her voice on social media and leveraged her connections in the “real world” as well on that community’s behalf. In 2018, she connected with the non-profit Pack Your Back to donate 10,000 backpacks filled with supplies for students in the 2018–2019 school year and, in the same year, collaborated with Pack Your Back again to provide 135,000 bottles of water to residents of the community of Flint.”

Copney is an important activist, and similar to stories Couros tells about Ryan Gosling, her story fits more cleanly into a positive narrative about networking and social media than does the story of pediatrician Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, who faced direct resistance from the government when she exposed the Flint poisoning in a press conference. 

Not leaning our analysis into these issues of systemic racism is actually the least innovative thing we can do. Arguably, the most innovative thinking about UDL lies in its “cross-pollination” with Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (CSP). However, this whole tradition of CSP with roots in critical race theory and intersectional feminism is absent from Innovate Inside the Box and in the over 90 books marketed by Dave Burgess Consulting (DBC), the marketing force behind Innovate Inside the Box, formerly known as Pirate Press. We are encouraged to spend our reading careers inside the DBC box and Twitter chats, while important work on UDL and CRT is telling us to re-think the boxes built by oppressive policies. Couros published Innovate Inside the Box through Impress, his own subsidiary of DBC. While proof-reading the manuscript could have used more attention, it’s hard to say the same about the marketing of the book.3(one of the references calls Jim Carey ‘John Carey’, another incorrectly lists the title of an article as “How do Work Breaks You’re [sic ...continue Couros often seems better positioned to write about self-marketing and branding than education. His previous book tells us how he innovated his own position as Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning and his marketing of The Innovator’s Mindset on twitter through a ‘MOOC’ (his was the only book on the syllabus, and you had to buy it) captured the attention of many teachers who turn to social media for professional development. Each chapter of Innovate Inside the Box ends with a hashtag and questions that encourage us to Tweet in messaging that conflates marketing of Couros and Novak’s book with professional learning: ”When we see sharing with other educators as part of our work, we elevate the profession as a whole.”4Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset: “A common saying in education circles is, “We need to prepare kids for jobs that don’t yet exist.” In ...continue

Reducing room for agency: Between Surveillance Capitalism and ‘What works’

Some of the most interesting conversations about UDL center on how it interfaces with other asset-based pedagogies, which is a point that not only are Novak and Couros silent on, but sometimes they say things that work against critical pedagogies. For example, on Twitter, Novak writes, “It’s not the curriculum you teach, it is how you teach it.” (In the book this is phrased as, “How you teach the curriculum is the innovation”.) How does that stance make sense of the radical necessity to decolonize the curriculum? 

As a Haudenosaunee person, I know the costs of a curriculum that never reflected Indigenous people as anything except relics of the past. As Susan Dion, Christa Johnston, and Carla Rice argue in a TDSB report (2010), “There needs to be active work toward improving course offerings and creating better, balanced, and fairer representations of Aborigial people, cultures, and histories by encouraging the integration of Indigenous thought and perspectives across the curriculum and physical learning environments.” Many of the decolonization movements are led by students such as 10th grader Indygo Arscott in Canada, and students at SOAS in London.

But instead of those critical conversations about curriculum, we’re offered ‘innovation’.

Couros’ focus on ‘innovation’ follows a broader cultural pattern when we’ve been taught to elevate the achievements of Silicon Valley to the detriment of our ability to think critically about the effects of surveillance capitalism. Novak and Couros tell us that “technology is just a tool. If you don’t choose to use it in transformational ways, nothing changes.” A few decades of critical gender and race scholarship on technology tell a very different story and the UD movement in architecture would agree that architecture as technology embody ideologies: “technology is designed in ways that reflect taken-for-granted ideas about what constitutes normal.”

Couros and Novak advance a technological determinist position – society follows along the path of technology, which “is often depicted as neutral, or as a blank slate developed outside political and social contexts” – which Ruha Benjamin counters in her “race critical code studies”. Without these race critical code studies and a critical approach to evaluating educational research (another kind of technology), we often see real possibilities for student freedom squeezed out between the corporate agenda to push surveillance capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff) into schools, and the conservative commentary cloaked as ‘research’ to ban cellphones from classrooms in the name of rigor. 

At one point, Couros and Novak reference Frederick Hess, a pundit from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI), to argue that “research should inform education policy and practice, but it shouldn’t dictate it”. Hess uses an ideological reading of research to argue against reducing class sizes. AEI has received almost $20 million in funding from ‘DonorsTrust’, “Koch Conduit”, to develop “long-term strategies to achieve the goals of furthering public sector privatization through disseminating research, lobbying policymakers…” (Saltman). There are far better frameworks for understanding the limitations and biases of the “evidence based” movement in education, such as the work of Gert Biesta and Lisa Patel, who both interrogate the ways that power influences research and its implementation in ways that reduce freedom for educators and students.  

In order to make experiments work, scientists reduce the complexity and messiness of learning by controlling experimental conditions in the lab. Participants might all watch the same short and unfamiliar TED talk, take notes, and then answer questions, as was the design in the famous study that was supposed to show that writing notes longhand improved performance. Schools also reduce complexity by arranging students in desks, using schedules, and putting students into grade levels. Biesta argues that research only carries over into schools if the conditions of complexity reduction line up: if we have students watch short TED talks and then immediately answer questions in the experiment, we can’t draw any conclusions about whether taking notes longhand in fact benefits performance in schools if we use a different kind of assessment process, such as having students take notes home, synthesize them, and then write an essay a week later. In both labs and schools, complexity reduction is always about which variables we decide to reduce and why – and about who gets to make those decisions. Biesta argues that, “since any attempt to reduce the number of available options for action for the ‘elements’ within a system is about the exertion of power, complexity reduction should therefore be understood as a political act.” UDL is in many ways about expanding options that have been reduced, and thus Biesta provides a productive framework to understand educational research in relation to UDL. 

Patel interrogates who wields power through research, and she argues that those power relationships between the researchers and the subjects follows colonial lines. Researchers tend towards using lenses that pathologize and find deficits in their subjects. Patel argues that researchers need to be answerable to the subjects of their research: “Answerability means that we have responsibilities as speakers, listeners, and those responsibilities include stewardship of ideas and learning, not ownership. As educational researchers, how can we become and stay fundamentally answerable to the core endeavor of learning, not test score production or unachievable achievement in a stratified society?” What’s the answerablility of The American Enterprise Institute back to communities when it argues against reducing class sizes?  

We need to be equally savvy about the ways that EdTech and surveillance capitalism is pushed into schools, since those corporate agendas also lack a fundamental answerability towards us as subjects and users. As Chris Gilliard argues, “When we draft students into education technologies and enlist their labor without consent or even their ability to choose, we enact a pedagogy of extraction and exploitation. It’s time to stop.” Far from being neutral, Ursual Franklin tells us that “technology is a system” and “technology also needs to be examined as an agent of power and control”. Audrey Watters builds on Franklin’s ideas to argue that “we have confused surveillance for care”. Watters asks, 

“But do our ed-tech practices ever actually recode or subvert command and control? Do (or how do) our digital communication practices differ from those designed by the military? And most importantly, I’d say, does (or how does) our notion of intelligence?”

Couros and Novak do not raise these critical questions and when they tell us that “school is about more than the future of work”, they also idealize the world of work, claiming “there is a lot we can learn from the world of work that we can apply to our school context”. 

Couros uncritically cites Google for supposedly not using GPAs during their hiring practices as an example to prove we no longer need grades, yet according to Google’s diversity record, men hold 79% of leadership positions and only 2% of employees are Black. Clearly, we cannot simply trust tech companies with decisions about who is intelligent. 

What else could our world of work teach us about school? Couros relies on Thomas Friedman to make an argument about the value of knowledge and being ‘creators’, yet the reality of the knowledge economy according to The Global Auction is that “if knowledge is a key source of company profit, then the task of business is not to pay more for it but to pay less.” Corporations have found ways to extract knowledge from their employees and turn it into profit. “Digital Taylorism enables innovation to be translated into routines that might require some degree of education but not the kind of creativity and independence of judgment often associated with the knowledge economy. To reduce costs and increase control, companies are eager to capture the idiosyncratic knowledge of workers so that it can be codified and routinized, thereby making it generally available to the company rather than being the property of an individual worker.” 

Any agenda to prepare students for work, especially when wrapped in the language of ‘creativity’ or ‘innovation’, ultimately limits our ability to think critically about the ways that work relies on reducing individual agency in favor of profits. 

The lack of criticality about the relation between school and work becomes a problem when it is combined with an unrelenting focus on mindset, which psychologizes and individualizes what are systemic problems.  And innovation is about the last thing we should reduce to a ‘mindset’. As Mariana Mazzucato argues in The Entrepreneurial State, our ‘free market’ economy disincentivizes the investment in Research and Development, instead generating welfare for the wealthy through the “socialization of risk, [and the] privatization of reward.”  As the economy became increasingly financialized through the neoliberal reforms, many corporations, such as those that work in clean energy, spend more money on buying back stocks than they do on R&D. If there’s an ‘innovator’s mindset’, it bound up with the optimism of dispossession by accumulation and market logic as much as it’s bound up with positivity. 

In this light, we need to critically read the endorsement of David Rose, a founder of UDL, for Innovate Inside the Box: “No one articulates a more compelling, a more urgent, or a more motivating vision of education—for both teachers and their students—than George Couros.” It’s hard to square Rose’s endorsement with what he says in a critical dialog in the Higher Educational Review: that in order to make sure that UDL does provide “better access to oppression”, we need to make sure that “social justice and culturally sustaining practices are critical foundations for the development of any other expertise”.  The other participants in the dialog – Joseph Michael Valente & Susan Baglieri (dis/ability studies) and – Gloria Ladson-Billings, Django Paris, H. Samy Alim (CSP) – articulate a truly moving and urgent vision for education. Our notion of intelligence largely fits what was designed through the U.S. military as Audrey Watters argues, and Gloria Ladson-Billings adds that “Eugenics continues to play a role on the construction of the human subject. Who is the good child? Who is the healthy baby?” UDL and CSP are both able to challenge those ideas of normalcy, and as H. Samy Alim argues, not only are we dealing with ableism, heteropatriarchy, and racism as separate problems, we’re especially dealing with the intersections of those oppressions and so UDL and CSP ought to “create strategic alliances against exclusion” and to “debunk the normative center of schools”. But both UDL and CSP have more to offer than removing barriers. At heart, they are as Susan Baglieri argues, asset pedagogies: “it’s not only about access. It is not only about barriers.” We also need to recognize “the assets that disability experiences bring”. This recognition is part of a larger political project that goes beyond what Django Paris identifies as “simple notions of resilience” that leave out “the political underpinnings of work for social and cultural change.” We need to “understand young people as whole, not broken.”

Cross-pollinating UDL with Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies

Novak introduces us to UDL with an imaginary “one-size-fits-all cookout”, a poorly planned party that fails to consider the three pillars of UDL: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. However, the chapter doesn’t provide her the space to translate the analogy into what UDL might look like in an education that is “proactive about identifying and eliminating barriers”. Bringing Couros’ language of ‘innovation’ to UDL often adds little to Novak’s arguments: 

“An expert learner is not a student who takes practice standardized tests ad nauseum, but one who becomes an expert at being an innovator by understanding the purpose of goals and standards and working toward those standards in ways that matter.” 

Why not simply say the student has become an expert learner rather than innovator? If ‘innovator’ comes to mean working intelligently and creatively towards goals, then all humans have always done that anyways. Does Couros supply a more substantial definition of ‘innovator’s mindset’? 

Couros positions the ‘innovator’s mindset’ to be constantly beyond what Carol Dweck envisioned in her work on growth mindset. But rather than grounding his argument in Dweck’s research, Couros relies on a chart from a book called The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock. Misinterpretations of Dweck’s research have become so abundant that she has written about the false growth mindset, and Couros adds to the false representations of Dweck’s research by suggesting that having a ‘growth mindset’ stops short of people actually acting in the world. 

“Developing a Growth Mindset is crucial, but we can’t stop there. A Growth Mindset is a stepping stone on our journey from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing.’ Knowledge is extremely important, but doing something with your knowledge is more important than ever.” 

There are lots of critical things to explore about growth mindset, but an opposition between knowing and doing isn’t one of them. This opposition between knowing and doing is part of the long, nasty hangover of Western epistemology from Plato through Descartes. Dewey and other pragmatists knew better. In Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Dewey argues against the longstanding Platonic bias of epistemology: “We tend to think of it [knowledge] after the model of a spectator viewing a finished picture rather than after that of the artist producing the painting.” It’s this spectator bias that explains why we don’t routinely recognize the knowledge embodied in our hands – sewing, cooking, caring for a baby or an elder, welding  – especially when that activity gets our hands dirty.5See this volume on the co-construction of technology, gender, and race.

If the false opposition between knowing and doing makes the ‘innovator’s mindset’ a shaky framework, then why adopt that instead of UDL, which is grounded in a more emancipatory understanding of dis/ability? 

Novak tells us that the essence of UDL is the view that “Learners are not disabled. Curriculum is. Systems are.” However, a critical analysis of dis/ability largely drops out of the picture after that. The UDL examples in Innovate Inside the Box don’t directly address how to make inclusive goals out of standards, nor do they dive into the details of designing and using more inclusive assessments.6Waitoller: “We use a slash to denote dis/ability as not an individual trait but, rather, a product of cultural, political, and economic practices ...continue

In contrast, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice by Meyer, Rose, and Gordon (a book recognized as the core statement about UDL, which you can read for free) walks us through how educators actively change their practice to become more inclusive and helps us weigh choices in terms of how we create unnecessary barriers:

“… we might want to assess students’ progress in identifying thesis statements in written essays, an applied skill. The construct or target skill is the ability to recognize a thesis statement and its component parts. The assessment task might be to highlight all parts of the thesis statements in two essays. Would it be appropriate to provide a rubric or checklist specifying the components of a good thesis statement? Would it be appropriate to provide text-to-speech support? Since the construct is an applied skill, it would be appropriate to provide both of these. That way, the assessment would not conflate memory of what makes a good thesis statement with students’ ability to identify one in context. Nor would the assessment conflate word decoding with the targeted construct. Support using construct-irrelevant factors (working memory, recall, and word decoding) makes the assessment of the target construct more accurate.”

In contrast, Novak’s explanations are thin on the kinds of details that show how UDL amounts to more than providing students with options. As one example, Novak explains how we can use multiple means of engagement to address the ‘innovator’s mindset’ trait of being observant:

Co-create lessons. Before diving into a unit on The Old Man and the Sea, I asked students to go online to find projects, activities, and lessons that aligned to the work we were doing. They were encouraged to network with friends, ask their parents for advice, and examine standards. Together, we built lessons that aligned to standards and empowered them.”

What makes this UDL? How does it involve “proactively building supports that will ensure that individual differences do not mitigate access and engagement”? (Dave L. Edyburn

To be honest, I had to go do a lot of reading about UDL elsewhere to get a good sense of how people use UDL as a lens in their practice. After reading more widely about UDL, I definitely believe in the power of what UDL offers. For many years I’ve worked to design and teach in an inclusive Language Arts classroom which aligns with the principles of UDL, even though UDL wasn’t my particular theoretical orientation. 

Instead, my theoretical orientation as an English teacher has been guided by considering how choice motivates students to read and write. Rudine Sims Bishop’s Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors has made me think critically about what texts we offer students. I have also had the privilege of working closely with learning support teachers (Kelly Johannessen) who always pushed me to ask: Can we get that text in audio format also? What about students who need something at an easier reading level, but that still presents complex ideas? What about students who don’t remember how to take notes? What about students who forget what a ‘metaphor’ means? What about students who need more time? What about students who express their ideas better verbally than in writing? 

In my own practice, I default towards making options available to everyone, even though many of those options arose from considering how pedagogical choices might construct barriers for students with learning dis/abilities. As Jesse Stommel argues, students shouldn’t have to “out themselves as disabled” to access those things that make a course inclusive. For example, when people implement blanket bans on laptops in lecture halls, then students who require laptops have to do the extra work of advocating for themselves and all of their classmates then know that they have some kind of dis/ability. 

Years ago I learned from Elaine van der Geld (and we still work together) to make instructions more accessible to students through projecting a daily agenda in PowerPoint. Rather than having to remember or write down what they  needed to do, students could refer to the slide as a checklist. The checklist would also remind them of where to look for resources. Now, this practice has now evolved into a shared, live, editable-by-students Google slide show that benefits all students by anticipating barriers and designing around them. We use these agendas to provide links to organizers, examples, videos that explain key concepts, reviews of background knowledge, and a wide variety of texts for students to read about the topics and themes we study. 

However, UDL is only part of the picture of what inclusive design should encompass. A truly inclusive classroom represents the lives of all students in its curriculum and actively challenges the racist, ableist, and heteropatriarchal assumptions about who is intelligent and what is normal. Beyond providing a wide variety of texts to read, I also teach students critical lenses such as feminist theory and anti-racist theory so they can conduct their own critical analysis. The same design that I use to allow students to click on the links in a slideshow to read a text at their level, also allows me to present them with a large body of critical theory in various formats – print, audio, video – that they can use as lenses to read the world. 

We live in a time when these inclusive practices are actively mocked in prestigious, mainstream outlets like the New York Times, which tells us that the battle for equity is “a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.” Platforms like Youtube direct people to increasingly extremist content to drive clicks. We desperately need visions of pedagogy that aren’t silent on these political issues of inclusivity, equity, and the purpose of education. 

Positivity, Resilience and the Purpose of School

When they talk about the “bigger purpose” of school, Novak and Couros quickly link “learning to communicate through video” to YouTubers making money and other “countless careers around the globe.” As an example of creativity, they say that infomercials are “a treasure trove” as is SharkTank. Many of Couros and Novak’s sources, such as a couple of Ryan Gosling’s Tweets and a quote from ‘motivational speaker’ Alex Den Heijer, reflect an engagement with the spectacle of celebrity, boot-strap style positive thinking, and listicles: 

YouTube’s top earner is a 7-year-old who made $22 million playing with toys 

7-year-old YouTuber to get his own show on Nickelodeon 

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett And Oprah All Use The 5-Hour Rule  

Google: GPA’s are worthless

Why we have our best ideas in the shower

Why negative people are literally killing you

John [sic Jim] Carrey reflects on father in Iowa Commencement Speech  

Spanx founder Sarah Blakley’s favorite mistake

Overall, I counted 112 references in Innovate Inside the Box, 11 of which are to people in the Pirate Network. Couros’ own Innovator’s Mindset gets mentioned 34 times in the main text of the book! After stripping away the newspaper articles and listicles, there are only 45 educational references (including blogs, journal articles, and one or two TED talks). From another angle, only 12 of the total sources are books, and two of them are by Sheryl Sandberg. Only six of the books come from the field of education, and four of those books come from the Pirate Network. (The only other books about education are The Growth Mindset Coach and Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice – which you should read.)

The chapter on ‘Resilient’, one of Couros’ 8 characteristics of innovators, references just one article that is plausibly written by an expert on resilience, and the other references are to Jim Carrey’s commencement speech, the founder of Spanx, Sheryl Sandberg, a Pirate author, and a story about a student at Boston Latin School who fits Couros’ vision of being “solution-focused” and making “the positives so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.” Couros and Novak summarize Sossou’s story: 

“Phillip Sossou, a senior in 2016 at Boston Latin School, showed resolve and dedication to making his school a more inclusive and better space after the community had received ‘negative press in response to allegations of racism.’ Over a four-month period, Sossou took time to draw a portrait of all 411 seniors in the class with the intention of showing their uniqueness and creating a more inclusive environment for the entire community. If you remember in Chapter 5, former student Natalie Hampton shared that it only takes one person to change the world, and Sossou decided to be that one person for his school. … Resiliency is sometimes bringing people together when it would be much easier to push them apart.”

Couros and Novak praise Sossou for his choice to “create something good” when “it would have been so easy to do something negative.” However, according to the Boston Globe, the narrative isn’t quite as neat as Couros and Novak make it out to be: “Sossou … said that when he began the project, he just wanted to get better with charcoal. ‘But after that, the whole thing became altruistic,’ he said.” 

If the turning point for Sossou was “negative press”, what actually happened at Boston Latin School (BLS)? According to WBUR, the “negative press” was well-deserved:

“The investigation, launched last March [2017] by the U.S. attorneys office in Boston, found that BLS administrators ‘generally treated reports of racial harassment and insensitivity with insufficient seriousness and paid inadequate attention to the school’s overall racial climate.’ It also found that the school’s handling of a November 2014 incident was in direct violation of the Civil Rights Act. In that incident, a non-black male student threatened a black female student with a racial slur and a reference to a lynching.”

So was Sossou the “one person for his school” who decided to “create something good”? Not by a long shot. Two Black female students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, became 2016 Bostonians of the Year after they “launched a campaign last January [2016] that placed the racism faced by black students at Boston Latin School in the spotlight. Their advocacy has since been honored by the Harvard College Women’s Center and The Boston Globe.”

So why does Sossou represent ‘resiliency’ in Innovate Inside the Box and not Noel and Webster-Cazeau? After all, it was Noel and Webster-Cazeau’s campaign that “lead to an investigation of the school by Boston Public Schools, as well as a citywide discussion on race that culminated in the resignation of the school’s headmaster, Lynne Mooney Teta, in June. Just last week [2017], the school appointed a new headmaster ― who happens to be a black woman and BLS’s first headmaster of color.”

There’s a wealth of critical literature on elevating ‘resilience’ among students as a character trait because of its tendency to rationalize systemic disparities and act as a “distancing move” to avoid confronting systemic issues. Paul Thomas is an essential source on this topic.  

Sossou fits Couros’ and Novak’s narrative about “making the positives so loud” in a way that Noel and Webster-Cazeau apparently do not. Perhaps public criticism – even if it’s from empowered students – is too negative? Or perhaps the story of Noel and Webster-Cazeau falls outside of the filter bubble that Innovate Inside the Box exists in?

I’m not sure that the answer matters. What’s at stake is not the personal reading habits of the authors or their view on what ‘positive’ activism looks like, but the construction of a broader educational discourse that brings together asset pedagogies with a vision of the future outside of the box that is the neoliberal imagination.

***** Credits: 

Thank you to the following people on Twitter who suggested resources: 

Rusty Bartles, Mike Caulfield, Cody Miller, Melissa Emler, DrJoyBJo

Thank you to Jennifer Binis and Christie Nold for providing critical feedback on a draft of this review. 

References   [ + ]

1. This is how they list the characteristics in Innovate Inside the Box
2. Aschoff doesn’t name Friedman, but he certainly belongs on this list.
3. (one of the references calls Jim Carey ‘John Carey’, another incorrectly lists the title of an article as “How do Work Breaks You’re [sic ‘help]’ your brain?”,  and “August 23, 1015” is listed as a date for one of Couros’ own blog posts)
4. Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset: “A common saying in education circles is, “We need to prepare kids for jobs that don’t yet exist.” In 2011, with that goal in mind, my superintendent, Tim Monds, and I created a job title: Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning. It was a position that didn’t exist in our district (or any other district we knew of at the time). … “I took on this position knowing that it was a bit of a risk. The risk came from the fact that there were no specific job requirements, only the expectation to help the district move forward.”
5. See this volume on the co-construction of technology, gender, and race.
6. Waitoller: “We use a slash to denote dis/ability as not an individual trait but, rather, a product of cultural, political, and economic practices (Davis, 1995). This understanding does not deny biological and psychological differences, but it emphasizes that such differences gain meaning, often with severe nega- tive consequences (e.g., segregation), through human activities informed by norms (Davis, 2013). Dis/Ability is also an identity marker that includes ways notions of ability are relied on and constructed in tandem with other identity markers (e.g., gender, race, language) (Gillborn, 2015).”
I footnotes