Teacher and students in the nature

EdTech & Design, Promising Practices, School Community, Teaching

Bottoms Up

How innovative change starts with frontline educators

There is a growing global consensus that learning needs to shift. We want to see school systems creating deep, engaging learning that will build students’ capacity to think critically and creatively, to cultivate the innovative minds that will be able to thrive in our digital, global, knowledge economy. Yet concrete changes in teaching and learning practice in schools have lagged behind the impassioned calls for more student engagement, creativity and innovation generally. The educational buzzwords that we have developed in visions for 21st century learning have not been enough to transform what and how we actually teach and learn. It is time for educational leadership to shift the focus of the learning innovation conversation from why we are changing to the practical question of how.

Learning innovation

The purpose of innovation in education is to create continuously better learning for the young people that we serve. Too often, the learning innovation agenda has been sidetracked by an unhealthy obsession with adding new forms of technology. While digital technologies are appropriate for solving particular learning challenges, it is useful to separate them from discussions about learning innovation. Learning innovation is not an outcome; it is a problem-solving process. I define learning innovation as a creative process used to create better learning in complex and people-filled systems.

Mobilizing educators as innovators

To enable systemic innovation, we must support educators in adopting new identities as learning designers. Innovative change can only come from frontline educators forming insights, learning, and experimenting with new ideas and methodologies – in partnership with their students. Leading innovative change in schools is thus not a question of finding the right idea to implement, but rather harnessing the creative talent of educators and students. What works for one group of students will not necessarily work for another group, whose conditions and experiences are different. In education, the most useful insights and innovations often come from the ground up, from educators who practice in a real-world environment and can experience the shifts in student needs and learning first-hand.

The creative aspects of teaching and the creative capacity of teachers are largely untapped resources for innovation and change in education. All too often any innovation that is happening in schools is happening outside of and underneath the regulatory processes in place. Instead of harnessing creativity, many school systems repress it. Most of the shared insights and creative “teaching hacks” that we find discussed by teachers are applicable in narrowly defined conditions where no higher permission is needed. Much of what they teach and how they should teach is determined at the national or regional level as policy and curriculum. This limits the creative capacity of frontline educators to change and improve through innovative efforts in the classroom.

It is time for educators to see themselves as part of what Richard Florida calls the Creative Class: creative professionals who continually work to “create meaningful new forms” of teaching and learning.1 Teachers as creative professionals are engaged in an iterative design process. As a process of creativity, design is grounded and insightful, aiming to produce new forms of practice that make learning better, not just different. As Tom Sherrington neatly sums it up, “design is a form of creativity that suggests deliberate, planned innovation built on a foundation of research-informed professional wisdom.”2 Empowered as learning designers, teachers can get creative with a purpose, using the challenges of their environment to identify opportunities, learn and improve.

Learning designers innovate because they are open to changing what they do, and how they do it, based on what they’ve learned about themselves and their environment. They are not necessarily the most technologically enabled, or the most overtly creative people. As the U.K. innovation strategist Charlie Leadbeater puts it, they are rather the ones finding and solving interesting challenges for their students and themselves.3

Give permission through conditions

Changing a system through creative talent is a different challenge, requiring a different approach, than developing and implementing pre-formed learning solutions from the top. For this kind of innovative change to start happening, we need to unleash creative educators who are willing to “create new ideas, experiment, fail, and try again.”4 Time and again we see, in various organizations and systems that rely on innovation to improve, that collaborative, creative work needs a different set of conditions in which to thrive.

As many school systems are not accustomed to cultivating and managing innovative work, there is an opportunity to learn from the best practices developed in other sectors. Many of the best practices around managing creative employees and networks are about protecting innovators from rules and procedures – effectively turning traditional leadership philosophy on its head. Organizations that evolve and get better tend to empower innovation as a human learning process.

Fledgling organizations, start-ups and innovative groups work through small, protected creative teams. Authority is flatter and more evenly distributed, meaning that there is less emphasis on permission. They are also more open and collaborative.

For Richard Florida, the first two rules for leaders of creative teams are to remove distractions and impediments, and to spark creativity (rather than compliance with the rules).5 For Google, preserving the freedom to innovate is more important to managing creative work than any of the traditional models of management and planning.6 Similarly, Netflix works under the mantra that great results from creative talent come from “setting the appropriate context, rather than trying to control people.”7 Author Dan Pink cites studies finding that creative, intellectual work thrives in a block of completely unstructured time.8

Instead of harnessing creativity, many school systems repress it… Many of our teachers may not feel safe trying new things.

No matter where we look for recent evidence and best practice, it seems like traditional targets and parameters are the opposite of what works. What does work is protecting the freedom to think and experiment. Across many organizations and industries we find that the most efficient innovative culture is set by mobilizing the people who are ready to innovate (and choose to do so), having them work under conditions that foster innovation (rather than hinder it), and empowering them (by getting out of their way). Two key strategies emerge: protect those willing to innovate from doubt, and protect them from fear. 

Protection from doubt

When it comes to change in schools, it’s natural for school leaders to announce their inspiration to everyone. But they tend to try to get every staff member on board before they start moving, falling into the trap that Harvard professor and change guru John Kotter describes in his book Buy-In: Saving your good idea from getting shot down.

Even well-intentioned educators can delay a good idea by seeking answers to too many questions. An open meeting where stakeholders, including parents and students, give feedback on something that is still just an idea – not fully formed, not ready for criticism – can open the door to doubt.9

What we often don’t realize is that innovation and new ideas are fragile things – so fragile that keeping them safe from early criticism is a cornerstone of artist therapy.10 Typically we respond to new ideas by thinking either “yes, but…” or “yes, and…” Saying “yes, but…” is how we express doubt: “Yes, this learning model might work, but how can we know for sure?” “Yes, it’s a great idea, but how will we do it on budget?” This time spent in deliberation is time spent saturated by doubt.

And these doubts justify resistance, which makes us slow when we most need to be fast. We can’t realize concrete changes if we spend all of our time justifying ideas, allaying fears, and winning over the most resistant. And we especially can’t silence the skeptics by demonstrating the efficacy of a learning model that hasn’t been tried in our context yet.

When we protect those who are willing to innovate, we open the way for what Jim Collins calls the “genius of the and.” Saying “yes, and…” is how we build the momentum of innovation. It comes from a sense that just because new things are possible, this does not mean that everything established is under threat. It affirms the current system by suggesting it can become better. “Yes, and…” means there is something to add, not something to delay.11

Protection from fear

Our inherited hierarchies challenge innovation in our schools. Consider an innovative History teacher, whose students are encouraged to investigate the origins of historical narrative and critique the interests it represents (an example of several models of what we tend to refer to as 21st century pedagogy, including inquiry-based and personalized learning). He can only go so far if his colleagues teach history tradi-tionally, and want things to be kept that way. Not only is he isolated in his department, but his lone idea also has little strength against the collective weight of the set of ideas that his colleagues have believed in for years. Consider what it would be like for him to be told by school policy that innovation is encouraged, but still have to approach his department head for permission. Once parents and teachers are concerned for their own careers and children, enthusiasm dwindles and with it, any chance for success.12

Creativity hasn’t always been sanctioned by the systems within which our teachers have had to work. Nor were many of the broadly acknowledged principles of 21st century learning. Engaging students as equals, for instance, by facilitating their investigative critique of the curriculum (and whose interests it represents), can be a shining example of 21st century learning and teaching talent in any classroom. In a diverse classroom it can be exactly what students need for their learning to be meaningful and engaging.

Regardless of the needs of the students in the classroom to understand why they are learning what they are learning, it is entirely up to school leadership to decide if engaging students as equals is seen as insubordination or talent. Many of our teachers may come from a place where the repressive was the norm, and may not feel safe trying new things. Working off the record and setting a culture of experimentation and observation can be a fantastic way for school leaders to reduce the amount of bravery required to try new things. 

Cultivating the roots of change

The key to leading innovative change in schools is to empower innovators within classrooms by supporting a new identity that harnesses teachers’ creative talent. Cultivating these learning designers through a culture that protects and promotes creative thinking will generate changes in the work itself. By fostering dynamic thinking and removing the inhibitions to experimentation, school leaders can create the culture and conditions needed to see tangible innovations to real-world teaching practice. Systematically empowering educators to learn and try new things can cause promising practices to proliferate and spread through the system.

The spread of promising practices

Fostering an open culture can help innovative practices spread naturally through the system. Good tactics to achieve this include instructional rounds, learning walks, and peer teaching. By just walking through the school, speaking with colleagues, observing how they teach, and seeing the results of their teaching on the walls, teachers will learn from each other. Professional learning and sharing is embedded into the everyday experience of the school.


En Bref: Pour favoriser l’innovation systémique, nous devons soutenir les éducateurs dans l’adoption de nouvelles identités en tant que concepteurs d’apprentissage. Les idées et les innovations les plus utiles proviennent souvent de la base, c’est-à-dire des personnes travaillant dans un environnement réel qui peuvent faire concrètement l’expérience de l’évolution de l’apprentissage et des besoins des élèves. Les enseignants sont des sources très sous-utilisées de talent intellectuel et créatif. Il est donc possible d’apporter le changement en transformant la culture et les conditions d’enseignement afin d’habiliter les enseignants en tant que concepteurs et innovateurs en apprentissage.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, December 2015

1 Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 38.

2 Tom Sherrington, “What’s the incentive? Systems and culture in a school context,” Licensed to Create (London: RSA, 2014), 56. 

3 Charles Leadbeater, “Learning to Make a Difference: School as creative community,” World Innovation Summit for Education (2009). www.wise-qatar.org/sites/default/files/wise_matters_learning_to_make_a_difference.pdf

4 Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, “How Google Works” (Slideshare, October 12, 2014). www.slideshare.net/ericschmidt/how-google-works-final-1

5 Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 118.

6 Schmidt and Rosenberg, “How Google Works.”

7 Reed Hastings, “Netflix Culture: Freedom and responsibility” (Slideshare, August 1, 2009). www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664 

8 Daniel Pink, “The Puzzle of Motivation” (TED, July 2009). www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en 

9 John Kotter, “Four Ways to Kill a Good Idea,” Harvard Business School (October 6, 2010). http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6471.html

10 Many therapists focus on recovering a sense of creative potential for blocked or frustrated artists.

11 Jim Collins, Built to Last: The Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 43-46.

12 Kotter, “Four Ways to Kill a Good Idea.”

Meet the Expert(s)

Simon Breakspear

Simon Breakspear

Simon Breakspear is a leading thinker on educational reform and innovation. As the Founder and CEO of Learn Labs, he works with educational leaders across the globe.

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