Surf Lessons for Educational Innovators

Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.

- Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance

I was facilitating a workshop recently with a group of brilliant educators who were tasked with imagining the next phase of their collaborative work. Despite engaging them in various improv and design-thinking activities to encourage them to open up, take risks, and explore new possibilities, they were stuck.

When I asked what was holding them back, they shared that the group lacked trust in each other and they were uncertain about the nature of their future work. Once these doubts were out in the open, we had a rich discussion around their goals in the next phase of their work and we began to focus in on areas that could be reimagined. We did various activities that gave them an opportunity to work through some of their trust issues and ultimately they were able to come up with some groundbreaking ideas that they are piloting now.

On my way home from the workshop, I kept thinking about the important role that trust and the uncertainty of stepping into the unknown play in innovation. I was brainstorming other activities that I could include to bring these components into our workshops and I was immediately reminded of a surf trip I went on with some friends in Mexico.

What can surfing teach us about educational innovation? Here are three lessons:

Trust your group

On this particular surf trip, we were exploring an area in Mexico that was unknown to me. One of the surfers in our group knew of a perfect wave located at a river mouth that was only accessible by driving along a bumpy dirt road, then scaling a rugged cliff, and paddling through a fast-flowing river. We had to trust our guide and each other to reach the wave safely.

Embrace uncertainty

I have to admit I was scared as I gripped the cliff with one hand while carrying my surfboard in the other, and my fear escalated as I paddled as fast as I could to reach the river mouth. I stayed calm by focusing on my breathing and counting my strokes. Our group stayed together and encouraged each other to keep moving forward, even though the wave wasn’t yet in sight.

Stay present

When we all finally paddled to the river mouth and reached the wave, we were rewarded with one of the best surf sessions of our lives. It was a smooth, beautiful, fast-breaking wave that seemed to go on forever. We cheered each other on, played around on each other’s boards, and smiled ear to ear until the sun set. One of the aspects I love most in surfing is that you have to be so present and focused when you decide to paddle into a wave and stand up. As soon as your mind wanders and you think of something else, you fall.

Now I’m thinking we need to add surfing activities to ISKME’s education program. Luckily our offices in Half Moon Bay, California are located just a short walk from Mavericks, a world-renowned surf spot (see video below). So what do you say educators, are you up for some surf lessons?

September 11, 2014