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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 24, 2017 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can school leaders (directors, principals) support curriculum innovations?

We all know that it can often be easier to stick with the familiar than to try something new. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, but we sometimes do it anyway.

The same thing holds true with curriculum—some of us have been teaching the same units for years and can feel threatened when a new plan is suggested. The next three posts in this blog will be discussing how administrators can best support these kinds of curriculum innovations.

Today, Dr. Sanée Bell, Mark Estrada, Sally J. Zepeda, Adeyemi Stembridge, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, and Daniel Venables contribute their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée amd Mark on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Readers might be interested in these past columns that also approached the idea of innovation in schools:

Response: Dos & Don’ts of Implementing New Ideas in Education

Response: New Education Ideas Must Not Be ‘Just for the Sake of Change’

Response: Teachers Must Help Determine New Ideas Being Implemented

Response: ‘Educators Are Suffering From Innovation Fatigue’

Response: Education Innovation Is Like A ‘Stradivarius Violin’

Response From Dr. Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston, Texas. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

As a campus principal, it is my job to create an environment that encourages and supports curriculum innovations. Teachers must be given permission to take risks and be supported when they fail. The culture of failure should be one that is embraced and seen as a gateway to success. Being able to help teachers create learning experiences that are relevant to the real-world supports curriculum innovation. The written curriculum is a learning guide that is brought to life by classroom teachers. Understanding that the curriculum is a vehicle for learning experiences is critical in the teaching and learning process. Below are three ways principals can support curriculum innovations in their schools.

Innovation Cannot Be Standardized. Principals need to understand that curriculum innovations will look different depending on the setting. Context, readiness, and resource availability will often determine the level of innovation. The one thing that can stifle curriculum innovations will be the attempt to standardize those innovations. Innovation is an organic process that will evolve and oftentimes cannot be quantifiable. Principals need to understand the messiness of curriculum innovations and help teachers be comfortable with the open-ended process.

Focused Innovations. Principals need to be careful of falling into the innovation flavor-of-the-month trap. Patience through the process is important to sustaining curriculum innovations that have a systemic impact. Helping teachers to stick with the problem of practice they are seeking to improve helps to build perseverance, grit and ownership in the process. Maintaining focus during curriculum innovation develops the cognitive capacity and fortitude that is needed to ensure that the innovation has a lasting impact on student learning.

Model the Way. Innovation is hard to define. Principals must give teachers models that promote curriculum innovation by modeling the way. When teachers see principals creating innovative solutions to problems, it helps them to think outside of the box when solving their own instructional issues. Helping teachers identify instructional problems of practice is a great place to start the conversation about curriculum innovation. As the principal, asking teachers probing questions and providing specific feedback will help them through the innovation process.

There is not a silver bullet or detailed plan for designing and implementing curriculum innovations. However, the suggestions listed above create the conditions where innovative ideas can be developed, nurtured and flourished.

Response From Mark Estrada

Mark Estrada is the principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas. He has experience as a middle school social studies teacher, middle school instructional administrator, and elementary principal. Mr. Estrada is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader and Doctoral Fellow at The University of Texas-Austin Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP). Follow Mark on Twitter @22southpaw:

With the rapid advancements in technology and the changing world, everyone is talking about innovation, and education critics and practitioners are deeply ingrained in this conversation. Most people can agree that we have to continue to change and adapt to meet the needs of our students, but it is easier said than done. Below are a few examples that I have experienced in school leaders supporting curriculum innovations.

  • School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

    • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset
    • Create space and time for new idea development
    • Build time for self-reflection
    • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

  • School leaders and teachers should support a “fail forward” attitude. This attitude understands that when you take risk, the outcome may not turn out how you want it to the first time but with work, adjustments, and support you can find success with new ideas.

  • Shoot bullets, then cannon balls: When implementing new innovations, be strategic with the initial investment to limit the chance of overwhelming teachers without first getting their buy-in and support from seeing the idea have success. This approach will also support sustain the idea over time.

  • Celebrate effort and success! This is probably the most important because as a leader you are publicly praising innovative successes and the effort that went into an idea that needs to be tweaked. Here are some ideas to celebrate innovation.

    • Use social media to recognize innovation

      • Create a district/campus hashtag
    • Include recognition for innovation in district/campus newsletters
    • Highlight innovation at the beginning of staff meetings
    • Write personalized thank you notes to staff members demonstrating innovative thinking
    • Recognize teachers in front of their students and let the students know what an awesome teacher they have and the hard work and creativity they bring

Supporting innovation can be challenging and scary for leaders and teachers alike. The key is developing the trust needed to do the work. By utilizing the above mentioned ideas you are well on your way to developing the culture needed to support innovation.

Response From Sally J. Zepeda

Sally J. Zepeda is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy at the University of Georgia. Her latest book, Job-Embedded Professional Development: Support, Collaboration, and Learning in Schools (NY: Routledge), places teachers, leaders, and other school personnel at the front of the class with its exploration of numerous approaches and models of job-embedded professional development:

Innovation of any type signals change. For teachers, innovation would likely include making modifications to the “what” and perhaps the “how” of what is taught. Innovation in teaching and curricular configurations can be large or small. Although state and national standards influence local systems and the adopted curriculum that serves to guide and pace what is “covered” across grades and subject matter, teachers need to be the drivers of change in their classrooms. Teachers by their very nature want to tinker; they want to adopt and adapt the how and what of teaching to meet the needs of students and to pique student interests. To prepare students for the next century and beyond, schools need teachers who can model change and adaptation as the new norm for learning.

The push for digital and personalized learning environments falls in place with the ideas of change and innovation.

Leaders can either support and encourage innovation or squash it in a manner that could possibly promote Stepford teaching—all teachers following the same scripted monologues in the classroom, perpetuating rote learning for students. We certainly cannot prepare the next generation of learners with teachers who are not risk takers, who are not innovating instruction, curricular content, and classroom arrangements.

Effective teaching thrives when principals create a culture of practice that in the end creates readiness for classroom transformations for innovative instructional practices, using real-time progress monitoring, and sets up safety nets for safe landings.

The following ideas can support leaders as they promote purposeful innovation in the classroom.

Build on strengths: Innovation begets innovation. Effective leaders tap into the strengths of their teachers, encouraging the sharing of their innovations with other teachers by modeling classroom practices, coaching others as they implement innovation by doing something new and novel or engaging in conversations about lessons learned from practice. Embrace, support, and promote teacher leadership.

Support job-embedded learning: Teachers learn best through the very work they do. Effective leaders provide time for teachers to collaborate with their peers because teachers are more than likely to innovate if they can learn from each other. Teachers learn by examining the results of student work, reading and discussing a book, engaging in action research, and a variety of practices that promote teacher collaboration.

Provide coaching and other types of support: Teachers who create innovative learning environments for students experiment with practice. Teachers learn by examining the impact of their efforts. A peer coach can observe practice and give feedback not as an evaluator but as a friendly critic. Teachers who coach as well as leaders need to engage in conversations situated in practice.

Create collaborative cultures: Leaders create a culture that supports coaching, conversation, and a fault-free atmosphere where teachers are not afraid to take risk, fearing failure. The very high-stakes nature of schools has put us all on alert. Teachers put a great deal of effort following a curriculum that contains content that will eventually land on a high-stakes test that will, in turn, have impact on the summative evaluation. Given this tension, some teachers are not so willing to innovate for fear of putting their careers on the line in the name of student achievement. Reach out and encourage the failures and celebrate those as well as victories in the classroom.

Remove barriers: Leaders encourage teachers to be creative and to take calculated risks by removing barriers, and they do this by providing as much time as possible in the day for teachers to plan and work collaboratively. Leaders link resources to teachers so they have supplies—digital learning tools for students and teachers. Time during faculty meetings is used for professional learning and conversations that forward teachers being more effective in the classroom. The fire drill schedule can be sent through an email and the school calendar can be shared on an electronic platform. Space is made available for teachers to meet. And the big one: teachers are buffered from work—not directly related to student learning—that a clerk or a parent volunteer can accomplish.

Supporting teachers will result in more collaborative and generative problem-solving and reflection about practice and more than likely, the outcome of innovation would be tied directly to students by making learning more relevant and personalized.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

There is a fabulous TEDTalk by Simon Sinek that offers a compelling hypothesis in explanation of the success of some of the world’s most innovative companies. In essence, the theory goes, these companies are driven by purpose—i.e., an abiding understanding of WHY they exist—which, in turn, informs both HOW they engage their organizational raison d'être and also WHAT they are intended to produce. Similarly, the core purpose of schools is to create a space and context for teaching and learning that rigorously engages students, and school leaders have a responsibility to support curricular and pedagogical innovations by supporting their staffs to grow the school’s capacity for engineering rich learning experiences for students.

The most critical support for curricular and pedagogical innovation is guidance in the ongoing clarification of rigor and engagement. The learning needs of students evolve fluidly, and this necessitates a constant commitment to update and upgrade instructional methods. Authentically innovative instructional environments are dynamic pedagogical spaces, and effective school leaders are ever mindful to push back against a complacent over-reliance on instructional strategies merely because they were successful in the past. Too often, schools lack current clarity and local references for rigor and engagement. These shared references are absolutely necessary to unlock the mindsets of teachers who have the capacity for profound and meaningful curricular innovations because where there is a consistent understanding of rigor and engagement, teachers are more empowered to make the innovative choices that will best enhance students’ learning opportunities.

The most effective school leaders are able to inspire staff to think like designers. To support a designer-mindset, school leaders should send a focused call for ideas for innovative approaches to a problem of practice—particularly as it pertains to rigor and/or engagement. The merit of a curricular innovation should be judged in terms of its capacity for responsiveness (i.e. to meet the specific learning needs of YOUR students). It is important that school leaders intentionally create formal spaces for collaboration and design including sharing of ideas about promising practices... and to then join in the process themselves. These spaces can take many forms; but I think the practice of “Lesson Studies,” where learning experiences are designed and then (ideally) co-taught, provide the richest opportunities to plan with an emphasis on rigor and engagement. It is especially powerful for teachers to see their own school leaders invested in co-planning and co-teaching exercises. These collaborations are uniquely effective practices not only because they send clear signals throughout a school community that school leaders value the thoughtful effort necessary for supporting curricular innovations but also because they close gaps between how teachers and school leaders understand the needs of students and the specific challenges presented in the context of any given instructional environment.

To punctuate the experience, school staff can lead PD to unpack promising practices developed in Lesson Studies and illustrate how the concepts of rigor and engagement inhere in the learning experiences designed for students. The critical element of the experience is collaboration. In this way, innovations are less likely to be viewed on a static success/failure continuum but rather as a process for continuous growth and improvement toward meeting the needs of students. The efforts inherent in curricular innovations are absorbed into the context of an instructional community rather than personalized as the innate abilities of individual staff persons, and innovations move the instructional environment toward its essential purpose of supporting the learning needs of all students.

Response From Kenneth Baum & David Krulwich

Kenneth Baum and David Krulwich are, respectively, the former and current principals of the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, a public school in the Bronx, N. Y., serving grades six through 12. They are co-authors of the new book, The Artisan Teaching Model for Instructional Leadership (ASCD 2016):

Innovation in any field comes from experimentation and collaboration. School leaders therefore who want to spur curricular innovation need to create a culture where teachers have the time to—and are encouraged to—collaboratively plan and try-out new lessons, units, and approaches. Teachers need to try new things, make mistakes, discuss with experts, and dig back in. That’s not only how a teacher learns how to innovate with curriculum, but also how a teacher learns how to become a true artisan of her craft.

However, given a climate of both frequent and high-stakes testing, where many teachers and leaders are under tremendous pressure to generate quantifiable results quickly, how can leaders create a culture of innovation? Accomplishing the following three things in our school has helped our school go a long way towards establishing our culture of innovation:

First, the leader needs to define a teacher’s most important work. Outside of direct interactions with students, the most important work for a teacher is to create innovative, inspiring and rigorous curriculum that matches the school’s vision of rich instruction. In short, the leader needs to ensure that the dominant conversation among the faculty is not about, say, lists of “skills mastered,” or results of teacher evaluations. Looking at student results is of course important, but if teachers are seemingly in a constant discussion about “skills mastered” then pressure mounts to get the student to “master the skill,” which in turn leads to constructing “I do, we do, you do” type lessons—a death blow to curricular innovation. Of course skills need to be mastered, but skill-based learning needs to be only part of a richer pedagogy, one that is inspired by a vision of instruction—set by the principal—that prizes higher order thinking over the rote, that prizes student voice over teacher voice, and that prizes teachers collaborating with experts and strategically taking chances.

Secondly, the leader needs to re-purpose non-teaching time so that almost all of this non-teaching time is devoted to collaborating on the most important work. Not many schools are designed so that almost all of a teacher’s non-teaching time can be put towards collaborative curricular improvement and innovation, but this becomes an opportunity for innovative ways to re-organize. For example, a principal could find ways to organize schedules and assignments so that every teacher has a colleague who teaches the exact same course to similar sets of students. Such a restructuring would create an authentic team of two people who could collaborate and refine lessons daily. If these teachers had the same daily prep periods (what we did in our school in the South Bronx) then these teachers could meet daily for big chunks of time—almost all of it on curricular improvement. Depending upon how a school is currently structured, an innovative principal could find a multitude of strategies and techniques that would free-up time for teachers to collaborate in authentic teams.

Thirdly, the principal needs to define what the collaboration looks like. That is, the collaboration consists of the core collaborative practices that, if done well, lead to high-quality curricular innovation. These core practices are collaborative lesson-creation, collaborative lesson- rehearsal, and collaborative lesson observation with analysis.

Response From Daniel Venables

Daniel R. Venables is Founding Director of the Center for Authentic PLCs and author of How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action (ASCD, 2014), The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (Corwin, 2011), and Facilitating Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Leading Teacher Teams (ASCD, forthcoming). He can be contacted at dvenables@authenticplcs.com:

Supporting Teacher Innovation

In the mid-90s, I had the privilege of working on several occasions with the late Dr. Ted Sizer, arguably one of the most innovative, influential, and divergent thinkers in education for the past half of century. I remember him once saying something pretty close to this: If you want your students and your teachers to flourish, do everything possible to set up an environment most conducive for that to happen, and then get out of their way. I have never forgotten this, especially now in my role as a national consultant, training teacher leaders to facilitate authentic PLCs. Curricular and instructional innovation is supported when principals empower their teachers and their teacher teams. But oft-used terms like empower and empowerment are commonly granted lip service but less likely to be reflected in policies and actions of directors and school administrators. Based on what I have witnessed in schools, I offer a few actionable items for principals and school administrators to consider when it comes to supporting teacher innovation.

Empowering teachers and teacher teams (and therefore supporting teacher innovation) happens most often when principals:

Model risk-taking. Leading by example is the best way to encourage risk-taking. A culture of risk-taking develops when teachers witness their principal taking risks in making school decisions and dealing with issues that arise. Sometimes that simply means that the principal chooses an unpopular option because she believes that plan of action is best for students. It is also essential for the principal to communicate the risk and justify the choice.

Allow space for failure. If principals encourage risk-taking on the parts of their teachers, it goes without saying that there will be failures. Teachers have to know that, notwithstanding any serious negative results, it’s ok for them to try new ideas—even if those ideas flop. A principal’s stance on a teacher’s failed attempt should be What part of this did work? What parts could you improve? How would you modify it? Is this innovation destined to fail? Should you scrap it altogether or should you retool parts of it and try again?

Refrain from micromanaging. This is generally good advice for any supervisor. Macromanaging is more effective in empowering. Principals ought not be” helicopter principals.” Principals empower teams when they are clear on what they expect of their teacher teams and macromanage teams as they make progress. Too little management and granting too much autonomy leads to teams which are vague in their vision and ineffective in impacting student learning.

Publicly and sincerely celebrate successes. Little successes lead to big successes and more of them.

By publicly and sincerely celebrating team (or individual) accomplishments, principals validate teachers and teacher teams and convey what is desirable to the entire faculty by highlighting individual successes. This helps build community in the faculty as a whole. But it has to be sincere; mendacious praise for trivial accomplishments will be seen for what it is by teachers.

Lead by asking thoughtful questions (instead of telling teams what to do). Teachers on teams that are empowered are interdependent on each other for success; in contrast, teams that are used to administrators always telling what to do (and how) are disempowered and become principal-dependent. Principal-dependence thwarts innovation.

Other actionable items principals can do are:

• Provide team leaders training in how to effectively facilitate teacher teams

• Look for divergent thinkers during teacher candidate interviews

• Observe teacher teams in a non-participative role, without “taking over” or otherwise undermining the team and its leader

When school leaders empower teachers and teacher teams, teacher innovation is supported and encouraged.

Thanks to Sanée, Mark, Sally, Adeyemi, Kenneth, David and Daniel for their contributions!

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