Google Innovators: How to Build a Moonshot.


Note: This is the first in a series of posts in which I am processing my experience at the Google Certified Innovators Academy in Mountain View, CA. in February. I’m grateful for this inspiring experience and look forward to sharing with the Cohort 21 and Greenwood communities over the next year. For more details on my application to the program, see my last post.

“Most teachers did not go into the business of education because they love risk…if the adults in school feel compelled to portray themselves as all-knowing, they are unlikely to take real risks in their own personal and professional growth.” (Grant Litchman, #EdJourney, p. 52-53)

How do you inspire a room full of teachers to become renegades? To break the rules and try something new? How do you convince them that they have the power to make the impossible possible in our education system?

Introduce them to Gina Rosales from X, a company that proclaims  “We’re a moonshot factory. Our mission is to invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that we hope could someday make the world a radically better place.” In other words, they make the impossible possible by inventing things like the self-driving car and hot air balloons that bring internet access to remote communities.

xGina started by talking about disruptive innovation by using a fitting analogy about the invention of the light bulb:

Imagine that it is the mid 19th century. You are working furiously trying to invent develop some brilliant idea. However, your candles keep burning out and you need a solution to enable you to work after dark. Three ideas are brought to the table:

  1. Buy more candles and keep replacing them so you can work longer hours.
  2. Make a fatter candle that will last for a really long time.
  3. Invent the light bulb.

Gina challenged us: “don’t think about fatter candles, think about light bulbs.” In other words, how might we develop disruptive innovations in education?


Image courtesy of David Hotler.

Gina’s talk included many points about how they work at X that can be applied to education, both in the macro sense (how might we innovate across the system) and in the micro sense (how might we inspire our students to think differently within our classrooms). Below are some of her key points, and how they inspired me to think about shifting education. As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I’m sure the Cohort 21 community can help develop some answers…

Inspiration from X X in Education
Think about big ideas…moonshots.

“One of our most important principles is to run as fast as we can at all the hardest parts of a problem, and try to prove that something can’t be done. We want to force ourselves to learn. We actively embrace failure: by making mistakes, we make progress. In this way, our ideas get stronger faster, or we discard them and move on to new ones.” X

How might we inspire students to think about big ideas, rather than simply remembering other people’s ideas?

As Seth Godin points out in his book What To Do When It’s Your Turn “The prevailing system of the educational-industrial complex puts the fear of a ‘C’ in us. The entire point of twelve…years of our lives isn’t to learn anything, it’s to get an A. Is it any wonder the thirst disappears?”

We need to allow students to be thirsty, to help them keep their curiosity and help them believe in their ability to create real solutions to real world problems while engaging in important discussions with their community.

Fundamentally change the way you work. How might we breakout of the “cells and bells” models of education where students travel from silo to silo learning about different subjects that seem totally disjointed?

We need to change the way that schools are designed, in order to change they way students and teachers work.

How you sell your product is as important as the product itself.

Example: The Google Self Driving Car project team reached out to the community to have them design the exterior for the car in a project called paint the town. This helped to get these important stakeholders to engage in the project.

How might we sell new ways of learning to our students?

As I’ve been discovering through my Cohort 21 action plan this year, not all students are ready for this shift. We need to prepare them when they are young before they are trained to follow a system that doesn’t work.

David Kelley said that he believes students lose their creative confidence as young as grade 4 because schools don’t let them develop their own ideas. We need to prevent that from happening, but we need to get parents, administrators, teachers, and most importantly students on board.

Surround yourself with people who believe that the impossible is possible. Gina called them “Peter Pans with Ph.D.s” How might we change the way that teachers connect to other like minded teachers?

I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by SO MANY “Peter Pans” here at Cohort 21, from the Klingenstein Institute, at Greenwood College and now through the Innovator program. We need to ensure that all teachers have a “tribe” that inspires them to continually adapt their teaching practice.

Cognitive diversity is key for a successful team. You need to have people who think in different ways How might we encourage cognitive diversity in schools?

This made me think about how we stream our students, often separating those who are so called “academic” (aka “smart”) from those who are “applied” (aka not as “smart”). How can we help students and teachers realize that there is no such thing as smart and not smart, but just that people are different kinds of smart? I feel fortunate to teach a class that contains a mix of academic and applied students and in a school that supports all learners. I see everyday in my classroom how a student who doesn’t identify as being “smart” is actually brilliant when it comes to solving problems. We need to celebrate cognitive diversity, rather than promoting a culture that results in have and have nots.

Make a new prototype every day.

For example, when creating the Google glass, the team developed a new prototype everyday in order to push it forward quickly.

How might we build schools that are more agile and encourage teachers to test new ideas and fail?

When teachers are most concerned about having their students pass standardized tests, or passing their own teacher evaluations, how can they be confident to try new approaches in their classroom?

In the classroom, how might we help students take risks and fail? What if we designed evaluations to be iterative, rather than so focused on a final product? Is it effective for students to expend all of their energy on a single idea in a big, end of unit project? Why not have a series of small micro-projects that encourage students to think experimentally?

You need a “kill team” to poke holes in your ideas. How might we encourage students to help push each other’s ideas forward?

My grade 12 students are currently working on a large project that requires them to develop their own solutions for redesigning a significant portion of Toronto’s waterfront. Throughout the iterative process, students regularly critique each other’s work. It has been incredibly effective in helping them move ideas forward. What else can I do to encourage collegial conversations amongst students?

If you are not excited about it, no one will be. How might we design more exciting learning experiences?

When was the last time you were really excited to give your students that unit test? Think about your most memorable learning experiences. I bet none of them involved a worksheet.

I generally don’t give tests in my classes, but on occasion, I will have students complete Assessment For Learning quizzes to help them learn content. (Here’s a great article on how taking a test can help you learn – it changed the way I approach testing in my class). However, following in the tradition of @gnichols, they are not called quizzes, but “Celebrations of Learning.” I play music, bring in snacks and generally get really pumped for students to write the quiz. You’d be surprised about how much this actually works for getting students in the right mindset for the quiz. But that’s beside the point. Quizzes are not really exciting. 

Apart from these short quizzes, students demonstrate their learning in project based learning activities that are connected to the community. I come across ideas in the news, from local non-profits, architecture firms, etc. and if it gets me excited, I bring it to my students. For example, in Toronto there is currently a big debate about the future of our elevated expressway, the Gardiner Expressway. Some want to tear it down, others couldn’t bear to have a commute that is two minutes slower. Just like the general public, students in my class have strong opinions on the topic and when the topic came up one day in class there were heated debates. So, I am throwing out last year’s final “exam” and challenging the to redesign the Gardiner as their final for the year. I’m excited about it. And so are they.

To wrap up, the big points from Gina’s presentation on how to build a moonshot:

  1. Have an inspiring mission.
  2. Build a team of “Peter Pans with Ph.D.s” who believe the impossible is possible.
  3. Yes, and…
  4. Prototype, prototype, prototype
  5. Think 10x not 10% when it comes to change.

I was surrounded by fellow risk-taking teachers at #MTV16, and each of us walked away more inspired to reach for the moon. Thank you Gina for this inspiring start to our Innovators Academy!

More to come in my next post, which will share ideas from Kevin Brookhouser, author of The 20 Time Project and founder of In the meantime, I think it was synchronicity that this song was playing on every radio station in California last week. After all, we are education renegades, right?


5 comments to “Google Innovators: How to Build a Moonshot.”
  1. In a word… unreal! So happy to have you as a part of my “tribe”. It must have been an amazing time and to be a part of an amazing community.

    You touch on so many points here and I think that any teacher in any school can’t walk away from post other than feeling inspired! I’m going to find Gina on Twitter and I look forward to your other blogs!

    • @ddoucet, you are too kind. Glad that I’m able to share some of the wisdom of the Googlers with my “tribes” though. If you find Gina on Twitter, let me know – I couldn’t locate her. Also, you should apply for the next round of Certified Innovators, you’d fit right in!

  2. This left me with goosebumps. You are my rockstar hero girl, my friend! I’m running a design thinking protocol tomorrow and I’m talking about moonshot thinking…what inspiration you have provided me with!

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