Mary Cullinane

I attended Mary Cullinane’s presentation this morning. Mary Cullinane, the director of innovation and business development for Microsoft Education Group, served as director of technology and as an administrator at a regional high school in the state of New Jersey. While working at the high school, Ms. Cullinane became intrigued by the opportunity that technology has to enhance the teaching and learning process. Ms. Cullinanethen helped her school become one of the first in the nation to provide every student with a notebook computer. Her Anytime Anywhere Learning Program seeks to provide notebook computers for all 9th through 12th graders. After leaving education, Ms. Cullinane helped to establish a start-up Internet company,, which provides K-12 solutions that improve student performance while providing a user friendly, secure, and personalized environment. Since then Ms. Cullinane has spent the past nine years focused on driving innovative programs and initiatives. Creator of the Microsoft Innovation Center Awards, Ms. Cullinane was also the national manager of Microsoft’s K-12 marketing, programs, and strategic investments. In 2003, as a result of a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and Microsoft Corporation, Ms. Cullinane accepted the position of School of the Future Technology Architect, responsible for driving the creation of a new high school in West Philadelphia. The school opened in September of 2006 and to date has received visitors from over 50 countries and has garnered over 350 million media impressions. In February of 2006, Ms. Cullinane became the Director of the US Partners in Learning Program, responsible for over $35 million of investments in innovative programs around the United States. In January of 2008 she became the United States Director of Innovation and Business Development for Microsoft Education Group. A recipient of the Microsoft Circle of Excellence Award, Ms. Cullinane has spoken at national and international conferences on the topics of educational technology, school reform, and strategic leadership. She spoke persuasively on the topic of innovation, opening with a video of students speaking enthusiastically about their school day. As she noted, “If our students aren’t as excited about what they are doing in our schools, then we need to rethink why we are doing what we are doing.” The purpose of our work is to inspire and make learning accessible and thrilling. In order to do so we need to make sure that we involve ourselves completely in what we are doing, seek to build bridges, take risks. We can start this process by asking the right questions: “are we truly creating learning environments that stimulate our students and prepare them for their future?”

To emphasize how quickly the world is changing, she gave a quick history lesson on 150 million users:


·        The telephone 1876-1965, or 89 years

·        Television 1928-1966, or 38 years

·        Cellular Telephone 1983-1997 or 14 years

·        IPod 2001-2007 or 6 years

·        Facebook 2004-2009, or 5 years


While it took almost 90 years for the telephone to reach 150 million users, it has taken Facebookonly 5 years to reach the same number of users, and yet, many of us are still unfamiliar with Facebook, afraid of it, or unwilling to incorporate it into our teaching.  In sum, with this kind of sweeping change, we need to think differently about the tools we use.  In rethinking which tools we use and how we educate students we need to start with the following questions:


What if:

  • We understood our students
  • We guaranteed no one could fail
  • We knew exactly what we wanted in a learning environment
  • We had resources, commitment, will, and courage to build whatever kind of school we wanted; what kind of school would be build?

 Innovation is the key, and we are well positioned to innovate: we control our governance policy, we control our curriculum, we control all the factors that play into good innovation; now all we need is to be flexible.


“Experience forced on men’s minds the conviction that what had ever been must ever be”  Henry Adams


We can be handicapped by that statement, or we can seek to be adaptive, for we are working with the most adaptive generation we have ever known.


Looking for and creating innovation, ironically enough, comes through process, rigor, and opportunity.  The status quo will no longer due. We need to understand that innovation and disruption go hand in hand.


As much as we would like to think that technology inspires and drives innovation, people are at the center of all good innovation.  Proctor and Gamble is one company that understands that people drive innovation.  On their website they encourage their customers to make suggestions: 60% of Proctor and Gamble’s new ideas come from their customers.  Proctor and Gamble isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know all the answers, so let’s look to our consumers to help us with the answers.”  We as educators need to listen to our customers, our students to hear what they want.


When preparing to innovate a few principles must be kept in mind:

  1. learning is first, technology is later
  2. language is paramount: use the power of language to communicate
  3. lack of process impedes success
  4. be comfortable not knowing
  5. identify the questions and the answers will come


What are we trying to create: a successful learning environment should have the following objectives:

    • continuous: a learning environment cannot be dependent on time and place; the students should be able to learn anywhere and at anytime
    • relevant: a learning environment must have content, curriculum, and tools that are current and relevant
    • adaptive: a learning environment must be a place where instruction adapts to the needs of the individual students


It is all about the process: Introspection, Investigation, Inclusion, Innovation, Implementation, Introspection


Stage 1: Introspection

Before any large undertaking, schools must spend significant amounts of time examining their organizational structure and establishing frameworks for instruction and methodology. Furthermore, they must attempt to define their culture, project benchmarks, and success metrics. In building the School of the Future, we began by creating a yardstick for measuring progress. This approach paved the way for a clearer journey.

Objectivity is a key component to successful introspection. The ability to view one’s strengths and weaknesses honestly can lead to tremendous growth. Without this capability, the status quo prevails. A tool known as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis can help you accomplish this task. By identifying these qualities within your organization, you can plan more effectively, mitigate threats and weaknesses, and maximize opportunities and strengths.

Stage 2: Investigation

Our team has visited numerous schools around the world to see what education-related methodologies and technologies have proven most successful. Our efforts have allowed us to see beyond our own limitations.

An important part of the investigation stage was the creation of an International Advisory Council. Composed of leaders from around the world, the council provided us with an objective viewpoint when we became too close to the project. We learned the importance of having a knowledgeable, outside perspective. It’s OK not to know. Our motto has been, “It’s easy to grow…when you know that you just don’t know.”


Stage 3: Inclusion

This stage identifies the many community stakeholders involved in building a school. In Philadelphia, the list was large. We brought more than 50 people from the community into the process. To ensure the community was well represented, we created five separate organizations. We made the critical decision to bring the community to the table at this point—stage three—instead of at the beginning of the project because we thought it important to complete both the investigation and introspection stages first. The community respected our decision. Philadelphiahas a practice that has proven very successful: “If we are coming into your neighborhood, you are part of the process.”

Stage 4: Innovation

Here is where the rubber meets the road. While many wanted to start building right away, our team held off. We held off on technology development until we had made instructional plans. We held off on classroom design until we had determined methodology. However, once we started, the creativity was explosive.

This stage of the development process is rooted in the idea that we can always be better at what we do, and we must try constantly to improve. In this spirit, innovation thrives. No idea is too small, no thought too outlandish. Everything was on the table. Then, through careful consideration and application of the “educational yardstick” we created back in stage one, we were able to determine what ideas and innovations had true educational value. Those ideas and only those remain. If something could not be mapped to a stage of learning, it was deemed a wasted investment.

Stage 5: Implementation

Vision becomes reality in the implementation phase. Construction begins, the school principal is selected (more than a year in advance of the school opening), the staff is identified and trained, and eventually the doors are opened. Our schedule was considered to be unrealistic. We are building this school on a 14-month construction schedule, which began in March 2005. Not an optimal timeframe, to say the least. Our contractors built in overtime, and everyone understands we will open in September 2006. However aggressive and unrealistic this may be, we are going to deliver on schedule.

Professional development is critical to a successful implementation. A comprehensive professional development plan was formulated during this stage and will commence during the first half of 2006. We will make the full plan available on the School of the Future Web site when finished.

Stage 6: Introspection

The chaotic nature of schools can make introspection difficult. We complete one project and rush to the next, with little time to ponder what we have just done. We must recognize the importance of debriefing and reflection. The time spent on introspection can be as fruitful as the time spent on the work itself. We believe that introspection is the only way to ensure that our goals and success metrics are met. Another key component of this stage is making sure members of our organization are comfortable with being wrong. Honest reflection is only possible when we allow ourselves to admit failure and mistakes. Creating this culture within an organization is critical. A climate of fear or intimidation can hinder honest introspection.


In addition, you need to know your client, your customer, your student: MOTIVE

  • Motivation
  • Obstacles
  • Trends
  • Interests
  • Values
  • Environment




Lessons Learned

  • Be brave, be bold, be thoughtful
  • Money and technology are great, but people are better
  • It’s more than a professional development plan; it is creating a culture of professional development
  • Be comfortable saying “I don’t know” and be self-critical
  • Language matters


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