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Education Opinion

Teachers ARE Innovators

By Tom Vander Ark — April 24, 2017 3 min read
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By Juan Cabrera

One may think that innovation in education always entails using fancy new tech to make a new product or a radically divergent idea, but I think at times we miss a driving force at the heart of innovation – engaging teachers. I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at SXSWedu with Elliott Witney, Molly McMahon and Valerie Lewis to discuss this very idea – that teachers are innovators. Each panelist shared their thoughts on several questions, starting with:

What is your definition of innovation?

Here is what I shared in response.

Before thinking about innovation, I believe you must consider whether you have created the conditions for it to flourish. I have seen some of the most creative thinkers limited by a structure that didn’t work well for them or allow for free-thinking. The conditions for innovation within schools must include:

I believe we also need to truly invest in teachers as the primary drivers for innovation in the classroom. As Sir Ken Robinson says in his book Creative Schools, “Innovation is putting new ideas into practice.” I laud schools and educators that attain great scores, but I also am eager to see how they can inspire and spark innovation.

I also know that we cannot reserve the title “innovator” only for those educators in brand new buildings or with ample resources and technology. Innovative ideas can happen at any school and come from any teacher.

Start Where You Are

How are we creating space for innovation? How are we looking to educators who are in classrooms currently to help transform the future of learning? I think innovation means a teacher who strives to change his/her style to improve engagement and/or to improve the opportunity for understanding and retention of content.

Innovation might mean a teacher is rethinking their schedule to be more inclusive of projects or personalized learning time. I’ve seen this done many times in the El Paso Independent School District, especially as we’ve continued to focus on more active and engaged learning.

Innovation might mean reinventing how to use digital curriculum when planning projects. Teachers like Dan Lesser and Sarah Dominguez at Franklin New Tech do this by taking existing online curriculum and integrating their own ideas into cutting edge projects and experiments for their students.

Innovation might mean a teacher, such as Jill McGee shown in the video below, rethinks the environment of the classroom to better match how students want to learn.

Jill is a second grade teacher at Mesita Elementary and her dual language classroom is full of active, engaged and dynamic younger learners. The flexibility she creates within her instructional day for students is refreshing. This is possible because the conditions are ripe and Mesita leadership invites innovation. Watch my video with her and you’ll get a glimpse at what I mean:

Innovation might mean inviting students to create, build and design a new device to get an object from point A to point B, and then asking them to generate a blueprint using an online design tool. Students at Bonham Elementary in Veronica Allen’s fifth grade class often have experiences that encourage them (as well as Ms. Allen) to think outside of the box and forumalate original ideas and products.

In short, I think we need to be sure the conversations about innovation begin with teachers and students - not with tech tools. Tools and resources help teachers and students bring their innovative ideas to life. We need to focus on creating the right conditions so that teachers feel empowered to take risks and think differently about how they approach teaching & learning. Principals and teachers must espouse the same values that we hope to inspire in students, therefore we must make innovation a priority.

Hoping to bring more innovation to your district? My advice is to start where you are and empower the teachers, students and families around you to think creatively and move forward with innovation where it makes the most sense in your community.

For more, see:

Juan Cabrera is Superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District. For more from Juan, read www.edutransformed.com and follow on Twitter: @JECabrera12 and @EDUtransformed1

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation 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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