Education Opinion

Launching Innovation through Teacher to Teacher Learning

By Justin Reich — November 21, 2016 4 min read
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Launching and Sustaining Innovation Through Peer Learning

This is the first 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.

For the last ten years, I’ve been studying the diffusion of innovation in K-12 schools and higher education, especially how teachers adopt new approaches to using technology in classrooms. Schools across the country and the world have made major investments in broadband, laptops, and other technologies in the hopes of improving student learning. In many places, big investments in technology have led to few real changes in teaching and learning, and it’s only in a very few schools and districts where we see substantial, widespread change in practice. What accounts for the difference? What happens in the schools where teaching really changes?

The first thing to recognize is that changing teaching is hard. Experimenting with teaching is like trying a new high-wire trick in front of a live audience without a net. In many fields, we have practice spaces that let people improve their skills in low-stakes settings: the rehearsal hall before the recital, the practice field before the stadium, the dancer’s barre before the ballet. Teachers typically can only practice, rehearse, and learn with the students in front of them. That’s scary, and it helps explain why instructional change is slow.

But in every school I’ve ever visited, there is always a group of teachers willing to chart out into the unknown. They are willing to stay up late planning, toss out old lesson plans, and try something new. They can appear anywhere in a school, in the third grade, in the history department, in the science department, or a few close friends of the tech director. There are always folks willing to innovate, willing to experiment.

The second thing to recognize when trying to support changes in teaching is that the number one influence on teacher practice is other teachers. Educational sociologist John Diamond interviewed teachers and asked two kinds of questions, who influences the content in your course and who influences the pedagogy of your teaching? And teachers said that there were many different influences on their content choices--but overwhelmingly the number one influence on teacher practice was other teachers.

That’s a big deal for launching and sustaining innovation--especially if you are a school administrator. Innovation diffusion happens not through top-down formal mandates--not through demanding that people teach differently--but through peer-to-peer networks of teacher learning.

In every school there will be a group of innovators trying new things and conducting experiments in their classrooms, and some of these work brilliantly and some of them flop, but in every case, teachers learn. And usually it’s not just one teacher who learns, but the department head or instructional technologist who helped with the project, or an assistant principal who figured out how to handle possible disciplinary issues, or a library media specialist who found new resources.

Then, ideally, these folks share what they are learning with others in the community. Maybe it’s through a professional learning community, or at a department meeting, or just hanging out in the teacher’s lounge or the in Dunkin Donuts before school starts. As new pilots and experiments become more widely known, then more people start planning their own initiatives, and a group of early adopters is joined by people my colleague Peter Senge calls the “patient pragmatists”, and then there are more experiments, more sharing, and more learning. All of this is driven by peer-to-peer teacher learning.

And here’s the thing, even when a new instructional improvement initiative is supposedly schoolwide or districtwide, even when in theory everyone is supposed to adopt a new initiative in the same way and at the same time, things still basically look like this--a few folks out on the sharp end of innovation and other folks taking a more measured approach to deciding how much and how quickly to change their teaching. Change happens in a cycle of experiment, experience, planning, and more experiments.

There are at least two important consequences here. First, all of the actual change in an instructional improvement initiative is entirely dependent on teacher experimentation and teacher learning. You can’t have new practices without teachers and librarians and other instructional folks putting those practices in action. And you can’t spread those practices without teachers sharing and teaching one another. Teacher leadership is absolutely essential to starting, scaling, and sustaining new practices in school. Full stop.

If you are an administrator, one part of your job might be getting shoulder to shoulder with teachers in classrooms--designing new units, co-teaching new lessons, and providing coaching and observation feedback. But your most important role is providing the time, resources, encouragement, and support to accelerate this cycle. Your job is to empower teachers so that they can conduct experiments, share and learn with colleagues, and then plan further experiments.

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.