School & District Management Opinion

Spirals of Innovation in Schools - From Pockets of Excellence to Sustained Change

By Beth Holland — March 08, 2016 5 min read
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To be successful in a knowledge economy, students will require the ability to complete non-routine tasks, solve unstructured problems, and employ technologies for communication, collaboration, and creation (Autor, & Price, 2013; Collet, Hine, & Plessis, 2015). Unfortunately, current classroom practice does not always support the development of these skills. Even if teachers and students have access to technology, they may lack the knowledge and experience to use it for creation, analysis, and synthesis (Reich, Willett, & Murnane, 2012). And even if a teacher possesses the willingness to change their practice, without the support of their broader school community, that sustained change may not be possible (Zhao & Frank, 2003).

In a recent post on this blog, Ann Feldmann described the efforts in her district to initiate and foster new classroom practices that would promote creativity, curiosity, and individualized learning. She illustrated how an organizational culture of innovation promotes ongoing learning, celebrates failure, encourages risk, and champions change (Shepherd et al., 2010). This relationship between the organizational culture of schools and the beliefs of individual teachers as well as administrators ultimately starts - or stops - what Shepherd et al. (2010) refers to as entrepreneurial spirals. Within the context of a district, these spirals might occur at multiple levels, beginning in the central office or a single classroom; and they may be perpetuated, or thwarted, depending on the mindset of the leaders as well as the individual teachers. By better understanding these entrepreneurial spirals, it may become possible to identify ways to sustain systematic change.

Initiating an Entrepreneurial Spiral

An entrepreneurial spiral might begin when a principal, superintendent, Director of Technology, etc. learns of a new concept, strategy, or technology, and then strives to get the remainder of the organization on board. As these new ideas gain traction, and the leader gets a sense of success, then they have the confidence to keep pushing more innovative or entrepreneurial ideas (Shepherd et al., 2010). Recently, I worked with a district that has successfully implemented a 1:1 iPad program under the leadership of the central office. With the technology now in place, the district-level administration wants to push towards even more student-centered learning. Because of their previous success, these administrators possess the confidence and mindset to continue innovating within their district.

Teachers bring a set of values and beliefs to learning which then drives their willingness and ability to enact change in their classrooms (Opfer, Pedder, & Lavicza, 2011). When educators experience some form of professional development or receive an infusion of technology, they might begin an entrepreneurial spiral from the bottom-up. However, to perpetuate a spiral requires strategic and structural support at the administrative level (Shepherd et al., 2010). If the leadership does not champion the innovation or provide the resources to continue it, then the initial effort often results in “islands of innovation” where some excellent teachers embrace new practices while others continue the status quo (Albion, Tondeur, Forkosh-Baruch, & Peeraer, 2015).

Stopping an Entrepreneurial Spiral

Whether due to a previously-held belief, or the overwhelming influence of an external factor such as state-mandated assessments and curriculum, if an administrator does not believe in the feasibility of the innovation promoted by the members of the organization, then the entrepreneurial spiral stops (Shepherd et al., 2010). In the past several months, I have heard this frustration voiced by educators across the country. These teachers desperately want to implement new classroom practices, yet they feel hindered by the beliefs of their administrators and the pressures of competing priorities.

Beyond a lack of strategic support, a break in the structural context can also stop an entrepreneurial spiral. In this instance, an administrator either directly punishes innovative behavior, or members of the organization perceive the threat of punishment (Shepherd et al., 2010). Even if not explicitly stated, an overemphasis on external factors such as standardized tests can cause innovation to cease. While conducting observational research, this concept became salient during a professional development workshop. Despite the entrepreneurial beliefs of the district leadership, as well as the innovative mindsets of some of the building principals, several teachers felt thwarted in their efforts to continue the entrepreneurial spiral. In these instances, the spiral broke with building-level leadership. The teachers in a few of the schools did not feel as though they had either the strategic or structural support to innovate in their classrooms. They felt stifled by the lack of available technology as well as an overemphasis on curriculum mandates. While the central office leadership started the entrepreneurial spiral, and certain teachers and schools have perpetuated it, sustained, systemic change has not come to fruition because of these breaks within the overall ecosystem of the district.

In a district-level ecosystem, multiple - and potentially overlapping - spirals may be at play between the central office, separate schools, and individual classrooms. If the administration does not value the entrepreneurial and innovative thinking that originates within the organization, then it stops the efforts at the organizational level. At the same time, if the teachers do not have the requisite structural and strategic support, then they may not be able to break out of their “islands of innovation.” If we really want to change classroom practice such that we can prepare our students for the requirements of the knowledge of economy, then innovation will have to occur from both the top-down and the bottom-up.


Albion, P. R., Tondeur, J., Forkosh-Baruch, A., & Peeraer, J. (2015). Teachers’ professional development for ICT integration: Towards a reciprocal relationship between research and practice. Education and Information Technologies, 20(4), 655-673. doi: 10.1007/s10639-015-9401-9

Opfer, V. D., Pedder, D. G., & Lavicza, Z. (2011). The role of teachers’ orientation to learning in professional development and change: A national study of teachers in England. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(2), 443-453. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2010.09.014

Reich, J., Willett, J., & Murnane, R. J. (2012). The state of wiki usage in U.S. k-12 schools: Leveraging Web 2.0 data warehouses to assess quality and equity in online learning environments. Educational Researcher, 41(1), 7-15. doi: 10.3102/0013189X11427083

Shepherd, D. A., Patzelt, H., & Haynie, J. M. (2010). Entrepreneurial spirals: Deviation-amplifying loops of an entrepreneurial mindset and organizational culture. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 34(1), 59-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2009.00313.x

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