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Four Ways School Leaders Can Support Innovation

By Justin Reich — November 29, 2016 7 min read
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This is the second post in a series based on the new free online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught by MIT faculty Justin Reich and Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders--teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents--through fundamental principles of launching and sustain innovation in schools. It launches January 17 and you can register now.

Schools often try to plan their way to innovation: devise a strategy, rollout it out to teachers, and support a high-fidelity implementation. In most cases, though, innovation is the result of iteration rather than central planning. Teachers figure out how to improve teaching and learning through a cycle of experiment, reflection, and adjustment.

One way to think about school leadership, therefore, is to think about how you can help teachers move through that cycle of iteration and innovation more effectively, more efficiently, and more joyfully. Administrators have four powerful places where they can “grease the gears” of this cycle: creating an R&D budget, supporting opportunities for team learning, creating spaces for broader teacher sharing and learning, and building consensus around a shared vision and shared instructional language. In the video and text below, I describe these four places.

Building an Research and Development Budget to Launch Experiments

What’s the R&D budget in your school? How do you allocate time, resources, and energy to support teachers in trying new things?

As a school leader, the first resource that you can offer innovative teachers is your enthusiasm and your protection. Whenever I start working with teachers in a new school district around innovation initiatives, I always ask the principal or headmaster or superintendent to come to the first professional development session and offer a benediction of sorts. One part of the benediction is to offer encouragement and support for the new initiative, but the second part is to offer cover and to say, “Look, learning takes time, and not everything you try is going to work. But as students have questions, as parents have questions, you can count on me to have your back, and support you through these changes.”

How can you find more time, more money, more resources to give to teachers as an R&D budget? Can you give a teacher a one-course release for a year or half a year to do some extra research and experimentation in a department? Can you pay teachers for their time over the summer to work together?

One of the largest untapped resources for innovation in schools are students! In many technology initiatives, schools have realized that they will never have the budget to hire enough support staff to meet all of the tech-support needs of their teachers, but there are lots of kids in schools who would love to help their teachers create better lessons and classrooms using technology. So schools around the world are organizing these great student help desks where teachers can not only get tech support, but real instructional design support.

Helping Teams Learn from Experiments

The second entry point is around team learning. When teachers are experimenting, how do we maximize opportunities for teams to learn from one another. Two particularly powerful practices here are Looking at Student Work and instructional rounds. Looking at Student Work involves closely examining representative pieces of student work, and asking questions about why kinds of learning students are doing, what kind of evidence can we find of student learning in their assessments. Teams usually use specific protocols that help keep people focused on evidence of student thinking and understanding. These are really powerful pathways into understanding learning. The second practice is classroom observation and instructional rounds. The idea here is to let teachers get into each other’s classrooms to see innovation happening, and the goal There is lots written about looking and student work and instructional rounds, and we can share resources with you, but the main ideas here is that we need to help teams that are engaged in new practices figure out how to make sense of them.

Creating Opportunities for Sharing Across Learning Communities

For the third entry point, school leaders need to create spaces where teachers can share with one another. How much time in faculty meeting is spent on announcements that you could just print out for people and have them read? How can we devote all of that time to celebrating and sharing practice, to let teachers who do cool things show them to their colleagues?

How can you create informal learning spaces for people to gather? Here in Boston we have the Lila G. Frederick Pilot School which was founded by Deb Socia, a leading advocate for technology access for students in poverty-impacted communities. Deb used to run Bagels and Laptops, where every Wednesday she’d buy a big bag of bagels and invite one teacher to share work for 15-20 minutes before classes got going.

There are schools where administrators are experimenting with models of teacher-led professional development like EdCamps. EdCamps are conferences or professional development days which have learning sessions but they aren’t planned in advance. Rather, participants make suggestions for what they most want to discuss and learn more about, and then teachers get a chance to share with one another. It’s a forum that privileges teacher to teacher learning and sharing.

In 2015, I spoke at the Technology-Enabled Learning and Leading conferences hosted by the Peel School Board outside of Toronto. The conference included a teaching faire, where teachers and instructional coaches set up booths, posters, and demonstrations their work. Teaachers find these opportunities to share and learn incredibly energizing.

Guiding Innovation with Shared Vision and Shared Instructional Language

The fourth entry point is about guidelines and guard rails. One risk of encouraging experimentation is that it can go in a million different directions. This is one of the central risks of innovation in America schools, that it’s happening all the time, but it never comes together. We have a culture in schools of radical teacher autonomy where every teacher closes the door behind them and does whatever they want, and in too many cases that means that innovation happens in classrooms, but not in departments, not in grade level teams, and not in whole schools. Great teachers retire and their insights and wisdom retire with them

Effective school leaders help ensure that innovation has a trajectory that’s guided by a shared vision and a shared instructional language. Ideally, teachers have a sense that they are encouraged to innovate and experiment but particularly encouraged to try to improve the shared goals of the school. Basically, it’s like giving teachers a canvas and a frame in which innovation can happen in ways that connect efforts.

Collaborative innovation also benefits from a shared instructional language, from a common way of describing what good teaching and learning looks like. There are lots of ideas, and systems, books, and experts that can help as the foundation of this shared instructional language- Understanding by Design, or Teaching for Understanding, or First Principles of Instructional Design, or Universal Design for Learning, or Teach Like a Champion, or Project-Based Learning or any one of many other languages of instruction.. and there are plenty of schools and districts that create their own shared ways of described great teaching and learning.

I favor some of these approaches over each other, but I actually think it’s less important which language schools choose and more important that they choose a language. It’s more important to get one system right than it is to get the one right system.

When there are some guardrails and guidelines for innovation, that’s a foundation for teachers to share, collaborate, and improve together.

There will never be enough administrators in a school building to do all of the classroom work needed to be done to truly have innovation thrive. School leaders need to focus their attention on creating the conditions where teachers have the resources, courage, and support to experiment with improving their practice, and then the space to share what they are learning with other educators.

Register now for two free upcoming edX courses for educators and school leaders:

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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