I have struggled for a long while with the term “innovation” as relates to schools. I feel that the term itself is fraught with potential for misunderstanding and talking at cross purposes. Instead of continuing to avoid using the term innovation, I’ve decided to embrace it by using this blog to thoroughly explore school innovation. I invite readers to contribute their thoughts both in the comments as well as being featured in an interview where they share their own examples of innovative practices, experimentation and ideas.

10 Things I Believe About School Innovation:

  1. Innovation is a mindset. It’s about problem-finding and an openness to all ideas. It’s about trying things and discovering what works.The foundation of the innovative mindset is being open to not-knowing and being curious about what’s not working.
  2. Innovation starts with why. It’s not always easy to be an innovator. Staying grounded in why we’re doing what we’re doing helps us stay the course and keeps us from getting distracted by shiny objects or other people’s fears. As Simon Sinek famously teaches, all great leaders start with why. It makes sense that all great innovation also starts with why.
  3. Using digital devices in the classroom does not, on its own, constitute innovation. Digital devices have obviously changed the way we live and work. They must impact the way we teach and learn. However, it is entirely possible to bring iPads or other digital devices into a classroom and substitute digital worksheets for paper ones while keeping a teacher-centered environment that does little to promote self-directed learning.
  4. Innovation is not a box you check off or something you schedule from 2-3 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays. In their desire to provide innovative learning experiences to their students, some schools have attempted to schedule it. For example, when I first started working as a school technology coordinator, one of my roles was to teach computer lab classes as a “special.” Our school quickly adopted Chris Lehman‘s aspirations for technology, that it be “like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.” Try to imagine using oxygen only at certain times of the day or week.
  5. Innovation will look different in different schools. If #1 is true and innovation is about problem-finding, then it stands to reason that different schools will find different problems to solve. This doesn’t mean schools can’t or shouldn’t learn from each other (they definitely should and must!) or that a solution to one problem can’t inform approaches to different problems. However, schools exist for the education and growth of human beings, and human beings come in a wide and beautiful variety. If this is true, then it is also true that…
  6. Innovation doesn’t come in a box. We love boxes! They’re so comforting and contained; in many circumstances, they’re highly useful. We wish we could purchase the magic “box of innovation.” We have to let go of the idea that this magic box exists. Only through doing the hard and uncomfortable work will we be able to understand how to innovate our schools. [On a related note, students don’t come in a box either. Neither does learning. Boxed solutions are never better.]
  7. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not innovating. Part of the innovative mindset is learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It can be done! When we get in the habit of pushing outside of our comfort zone, our “learning zone” grows and we become able to hang out where the magic happens.
  8. Innovation can be gradual. I think one of the most famous sayings about innovation is Henry Ford’s oft-quoted, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” While it is disputed as to whether Henry Ford ever actually said this, the idea it conveys is that we can’t innovate slowly while building on what we already know, do or have. The truth is that you could also choose to look at a car as a faster horse. I think the idea that you have to reinvent everything all at once in order to be innovative acts as a block for many people who are willing to change but want to do so while still feeling their feet on solid ground. I love how Heidi Hayes Jacobs frames this idea in Curriculum 21. She recommends “growth” as opposed to “change” and urges schools to think critically about what to keep, what to upgrade and what to throw away.
  9. Reflection is not optional I believe that just trying things without taking the time to deeply and purposefully reflect is not innovative. Innovation might seem risky, but it’s thoughtful risk as opposed to impulsive and ungrounded. Reflection might seem time-consuming (it is) but it’s the secret sauce that creates real possibilities.
  10. Sharing…also not optional I am of the strong opinion that innovators naturally share as part of the process of reflecting and iterating. We learn in a deeper way through the practice of articulating our learning to others, reviewing our data for publication and taking the more objective point of view that is required when we share our work with the world. Of course, sharing also opens our work to the possibility of feedback, as well as the opportunity to connect with others doing the same or similar work.

What do you believe about innovation in schools? What would you add to this? Please share your ideas in the comments so we can create, together, a workable understanding of what we mean when we talk about innovation.