By Kyle Wagner

This year, when I returned from my first ever SXSWedu conference, I was still “nerding out” over what I saw for weeks to come.

Robots neatly packaged and programmed to follow a sequence of lines. Learning Management Systems organized and collated to support the dissemination of course content. Online curriculum written and scaffolded to deliver fixed projects to engage students in mathematical principals. And finally, virtual reality glasses created to immerse students in alternate worlds.

I was swept up in the spirit of innovation. After speaking with many other innovative leaders, it was clear they were as well.

We all wanted to learn about the greatest innovations with the hope of bringing them back to our own educational contexts.

Asking the Right Questions

It wasn’t until my final session the final Wednesday afternoon that I realized I was asking the wrong question.

The session was titled, “Big Ideas in Big Districts,” with the stated purpose to “discuss implementation of big ideas within large districts.”

The facilitators of this workshop wanted participants to shift the question away from “What innovation will have the largest impact in our district?” and instead, explore, “How can we ensure we have the conditions in place to effectively implement big ideas in large districts?”

The Raw Data

The truth is, most schools rush into innovating without putting the structures in place to support it. Educators get swept up in the lure of fancy, shiny new toys, but when the dust settles they realize they haven’t made the large-scale impact they were hoping for.

I’m definitely guilty as charged, but I’m not alone. According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly 70% of change initiatives fail.

That’s crazy.

In other words, for every student that has a truly transformative piece of technology placed in his or her hands, three more leave the experience no better off.

Five Conditions Necessary for School-Wide Innovation

While I won’t claim I have the entire answer for integrating innovation within schools, I believe I have found some structures that help contribute to their success. They are based on my experiences in working with some of the most innovative schools, and on a number of interviews and research projects I’ve undertaken with leading educators.

1. Clear Mission/Vision

Many educators introduce innovation to their schools without linking them to learning outcomes. Maker Spaces, robotics labs and STEM programs are thrown up in corners of the school without an explanation of how they relate to the school’s mission.

The false assumption is that by getting students to complete more hands-on projects, school will naturally have more meaning. And while this might be true in the short term, by not attaching this innovation to deeper learning goals it becomes just another “shiny object” or “toy” that loses momentum before the successive school year.

To ensure the success of new innovative measures, schools must first engage their community in clearly defining shared outcomes for student learning. After a series of engagements, they should narrow these hoped outcomes down to a few they feel confident in delivering well. This will give any innovation that is introduced an appropriate context.

For example, if the desired outcome is for students to develop innovative solutions to community infrastructure problems, then a maker space focusing on innovative design falls in perfect alignment.

2. The right pedagogy

At SXSWedu, a prominent member of the Edtech community made the statement, “Lead with learning, not technology.”

I love this.

If we want our innovations to have the greatest impact, we have to lead with learning approaches that are proven to have the greatest impact. Innovation must be embedded seamlessly into curriculum and not exist as an “add-on.”

The innovative group ‘Real World Scholars,’ an organization that promotes entrepreneurship in schools by providing funding and support for classrooms, understands this truism. For them, innovation is introduced as a natural by-product of the greater pursuit–creating small student-run businesses to solve community problems. Students learn chemistry to create natural, non-toxic soaps, and then learn screen pressing to market this idea to the surrounding community.

These innovations were integrated as a natural accelerator of a greater, more transformative goal. So too should be innovations you introduce within your school or district.

3. A supportive schedule

One of the biggest obstacles to innovation in our schools is the proliferation of fixed, inflexible schedules, which does nothing to support the emergence of new ideas. Currently, we ask teachers and students to innovate twice a week, in 45- minute blocks of time. Similar to the way in which we have isolated subject-specific disciplines, we have also isolated innovation. But innovation lives on the fringe, usually reserved for elective periods or after school clubs rather than as part of the core curriculum.

But innovation lives on the fringe, usually reserved for elective periods or after school clubs rather than as part of the core curriculum. Innovation cannot thrive within such constraints.

Like anything else we deem to be valuable in schools, we need to provide time to allow innovation to thrive. Time needs to be allotted for the planning and implementation of–and reflection on–our innovative measures. Curriculum coordinators, teacher leaders and middle managers need to come together to offer this time for teachers. If not, students will have a bunch of half-completed projects that look nice on a shelf in their room, but fail to make a noticeable impact.

4. Autonomy

Teachers need a certain degree of autonomy if innovation is going to fly.

Adam Chagares, a courageous VP in the MiddleTown City School District–a district ranked by Getting Smart as one of the top school districts worth visiting–discussed this idea with me.

His district has a one-year buffer for any innovative measure that is introduced. In other words, they allow teachers one year to experiment and iterate before they measure the impacts of the innovation on student learning. This allows teachers the autonomy necessary to experiment without the fear of failure.

5. Collaborative Teaming Structures

If innovation is going to fly, we have to make it a collaborative experience. This is how the real world operates. When Apple is on a quest to design the iPhone 8, it involves the integration of engineers, programmers, graphic designers, middle managers, digital marketers and product developers. The product is strengthened by each group member’s insight and expertise.

We should introduce the same collaborative teaming structures in our schools.

If school leaders heed the advice provided in “condition #2,” this should be a natural extension. When given time to meet across interdisciplinary teams, teachers should look at both their curriculum and shared learning outcomes to design innovative experiences for their students.

In Closing

Innovation is exciting! It ignites passion, enhances experiences, and transforms student learning. It is our job as school leaders to create the conditions that allow this innovation to thrive, and establishing these five conditions can help us do so.

For more on school improvement through innovation, see:

Kyle Wagner is the founder and lead consultant for “Transform Educational Consulting.” Follow him on Twitter at @kwagssd3.


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