The One Thing Innovative School Leaders Should Do Before School Ends

By Jason Green

There are precious few days of school left in most districts. For school leaders who have been hoping to kick off a new, student-centered approach to teaching, that means you have to act fast if you hope to build momentum or set a foundation. The whole idea of personalized learning may seem like a long and daunting task – but there is one small strategy (and four simple associated steps) that can lay the groundwork.

This one strategy is called “generativity.”

We at Learning Innovation Catalyst define generativity as the ability to continuously generate growth through self-reflection, shared reflection, and iteration. (We base this on our research with Dr. Arnetha Ball at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.) Some may call it a culture of design thinking or growth mindset, but we believe generativity is closer to the actual core of these two mutually beneficial ideas. Generativity is what allows a community, and all of its parts, to see themselves as self-driven, self-resourced learners. Building awareness of generativity is one of the first tiny, almost unnoticeable, incremental steps into true 21st century learning. The good news is: Every school leader still has it in them to take the four simple steps that build this awareness. Here’s how:

Publicly commit to doing something you don’t know how to do

Before school’s out, make it known that you will learn one specific, new thing before your Last Day. This could be anything you’ve been interested in but afraid to attempt. For example, using a new app, playing a digital game with your students, running a virtual meeting via your learning management system or other digital platform, or any skill that feels uncomfortable or intimidating.

Letting your staff know what you plan to do allows you to be seen as vulnerable. This may be the most important thing any leader does to earn teacher buy-in on trying progressive teaching methods. Teachers want to see you doing what you will ask them to do. They want you to be the lead learner who allows them to feel safe and supported as they stretch themselves and their practice. Watching you model this behavior will show them – not tell them – that it is okay, it is encouraged, and it is worth the risk.

High School Principal Joan Mosley in Brooklyn recently accepted this challenge. She publicly committed to learning a new digital workflow. The workflow had been around for over three year,s and one of her teachers believed it was the key to creating a student-centered learning environment. However, Mosley was starting from scratch on all the asset and assignment features. “Teachers were surprised that I was completely okay with sharing what I didn’t know and learning from others,” said Mosley, who was open with teachers about where she was in her experience.

Share status updates

Follow up on your public commitment with public updates on the status of your learning. This step demonstrates that it’s common to encounter moments of triumph and trial along the way.

Mosley’s journey reflected this when she hit initial stumbling blocks. She remembers that talking about where she was brought the team together to help her. “Teachers were lining up to show me ways to effortlessly become proficient in the tools that we were exploring,” she remembers.

Celebrate the attempt

Whether or not you were entirely successful (it’s almost better if you weren’t successful), publicly recognize the investment of time, energy and considered focus you gave to this project. Consider a “Golden Plunger” award given out at staff meetings. This reframes failure as an opportunity to learn and builds a culture of being willing to try and fail. Most of all, it builds awareness of the benefits of trying-and-succeeding or trying-and-failing. No matter what, it begins to instill trust. You trust that someone who aims to walk and instead crawls or wobbles is not disappointing but learning.

As science entrepreneur Astro Teller said in his 2015 TedTalk, “The only way to get people to work on big, risky things – audacious ideas – and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first, is if you make that the path of least resistance for them. We work hard at [Google] X to make it safe to fail.”

Mosley agrees, noting, “Teachers realized that our learning environment is a safe space where knowing everything is not possible and where everyone is a lead learner. The act of learning together created an exciting environment of starting something new as a team, which minimized the risk of being identified as a failure.”

After the attempt is over, you might commit to trying again. You might commit to trying another application of something new entirely. The key is to build on the learnings, stay active and not abandon the idea or accept the assumption that if it didn’t work once, it will never work.

Ask teachers to join you

Extend an invite to all teachers to realize the benefits of trying something – anything – new themselves. Instill the importance of not overthinking it. The journey will be similar whether they choose to attempt a station rotation classroom or how to use a new digital tool, like Flipgrid or Screencastify. The idea is to just take action, be in motion and actively extend into uncharted territory.

Mosley says doing this established “a culture of trust in our community.”

She elaborates that, “This enabled our team to feel comfortable moving through multiple iterations of the plan, opening doors to share practices and created new leaders in our community who previously sat on the sidelines unaware of their untapped talent to lead others towards exciting changes for students and our school.” This is the baseline for a culture of generativity and what will propel schools into more adaptive, more personalized teaching practices. And it all starts with one simple strategy.

In conclusion

Now it’s time to act. When it comes to generativity, it’s about doing. And it’s about ensuring the doing is made available for all to see. As with anything that leaves a lasting impression on us and our teams, the keys to success are transparency, vulnerability and enthusiasm. The easy part is that it only takes one person: you. There are no meeting invites, no collaborative documents or group projects. You already have everything you need to get started before school’s out.

Jason Green is Co-Founder of Learning Innovation Catalyst (LINC). Connect with him on Twitter: @jasontoddgreen

A version of this post was originally published on EdSurge.

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