EdTech & Design, Leadership, Pathways, Promising Practices

From Bright Idea to System Change

Making innovation stick

Innovation in education occurs frequently. A teacher tries something new – he or she reads about it, tries it, refines it and eventually incorporates it into practice; a principal adopts a new form of professional development; a district adopts adaptive assessment technologies; a school ends parent-teacher nights, instead offering social events during which a teacher will quietly chat with a parent about how their child is doing. These small, so-called adopt/adapt innovations are commonplace. They take the form of adopting an idea gathered from somewhere else and adapting it to local circumstance.

Usually when there is talk of innovation the assumption is that it will be disruptive. For example, Alberta’s decision to phase out Provincial Achievement Tests by 2017 and replace them with diagnostic assessments at the beginning of Grades 3, 6 and 9 (and possibly at the start of each school year) using online assessment tools is a major change and will likely be disruptive, at least at first. It is more disruptive when we see this as a shift from “assessment of learning” to “assessment for learning.” Britain’s decision to offer schools the opportunity to cede from the control of a local education authority (school board) and operate as an independent “academy” is disruptive – especially given that any community organization can now establish a free school or academy. The U.S. decision to push a common core curriculum for the nation as a whole is disruptive of local autonomy.

When we look at the pattern of innovation over the career of a teacher, we see that the majority of the innovations he or she will experience are adopt/adapt innovations. While the disruptive innovations come with a great deal of upset and anxiety, they represent a small portion of the innovation experience of a teacher – less than ten percent. The bulk of innovation in education is adopt/adapt.

Adopt/adapt innovation is not to be confused with continuous improvement. True innovation is a different practice which produces significantly different outputs, outcomes and impacts which can be measured. Continuous improvement tends just to modestly improve how something is done with barely discernible impacts on outcomes and impacts. The key difference between innovation and continuous improvement is the scale of the change and the sustaining impact of that change.

The focus for innovation

Innovation in education can be focused on one or more of what McKinsey & Co. refer to as “the seven S’s.”[1] 

1. Structure: an innovation that changes how a school, group of schools, district or jurisdiction is structured and organized and, by doing so, improves the outcomes of the organization in specific and sustained ways. The structural changes in the U.K. are examples of this reform as are the increasing number of collaborations between Catholic and public school boards (including shared schools) in Canada.

2. Staff: a change in the way staff are deployed or engaged in their work that produces gains in performance. The use of teaching assistants and specialists with respect to special needs is an example here.

3. Strategy: a change in the strategic intent of the organization that produces sustained gains in outcomes. The decision to personalize the learning activities within a school by leveraging technology and seeing this as a core advantage of the school would be one example. Another would be a school that, in addition to pursuing the provincial curriculum, specializes in art and design or science.

4. Systems: business process innovations that significantly improve both efficiency and outcomes, such that the organization is seen to have made a significant performance improvement. The use of adaptive assessment technologies to track learning on a regular (daily, every other day, weekly) basis, as practiced in Abu Dhabi schools, is an example here.

5. Style/culture: innovative changes in the culture and style of the organization that lead to significant measurable changes in an aspect of the performance of the organization – the widespread use of problem-based learning and constructivist teaching would be an example here.

6. Shared values: innovations that lead to the strengthening of the shared values of the organization within a group of stakeholders or across more than one group of stakeholders, which lead to performance improvements.

7. Skills: the way in which each person in the organization demonstrates a high level of execution of the skills they possess and how the organization enables the continuous development of skill.

Educational innovation can be about just one of these changes or some combination of them – indeed, major innovations usually involve three or more of the S’s. Also note that outcomes need to be defined and measured. Just saying “things are better” isn’t good enough – tangible evidence is needed. For example, does improving shared values increase attendance or lead to higher learning outcomes in a school system? Does changing how we act with respect to attendance improve attendance and learning outcomes and lower the costs of doing so? Does an innovation in relation to an online learning strategy increase access to learning for those who otherwise would not have access to this learning?

Here is a working definition of successful innovation: innovation is a deliberate action that leads to significant and sustained overall positive improvement in the performance of a school or school system on one or more dimensions of the 7S’s.

Sustaining innovation

Some innovations “stick” and some don’t. For example, some innovations are very much the product of the person who introduced them and they do not survive their departure from a school or school system. Some reforms of education – said to be innovations at the time – are temporary and linked to a particular Minister of Education. Some also don’t produce the results that were anticipated – colour coding for learning to read is one example.

In a review of the work undertaken by the Innovation Expedition for the Peter Drucker Awards for Non Profit Innovation in Canada (1993-2000), we looked at outcomes in terms of the following categories. The more an innovation led to change in one or more of these categories, the more sustainable it was:

Innovative practices: the extent to which the organization has had to adopt new work practices, new methods, and new thinking so as to make the project or activity happen.

Organization-wide impact: some projects or activities relate to a small part of the work of the organization, while others have a broader impact on all aspects of the organization’s work. This dimension examines the extent of the impact of a project or activity on the organization.

Outcome: the impact of the activity or project as expressed by outcome measures – specifically, measures of key performance that compare some old way of working with a new, more innovative way of working.

Sustainability: projects or activities that have a strong likelihood of having an impact over time, and creating a continuing momentum for change, are more valued on this dimension than those innovative projects that are “one off” and have an immediate, short-term impact but are not sustainable.

Replicability: a key criteria for the award is the degree to which a project or activity conducted in one organization could be and is likely to be transferred to another – what we have termed here “replicability.” This dimension measures the extent to which a project or activity could be transferred to another organization.

Partnership building: the extent to which the project or activity has created and strengthened alliances and partnerships between two or more organizations in the nonprofit sector or between the nonprofit and private sectors or between the nonprofit and government sectors.

Reviewing hundreds of submissions over the life of this Award, it soon became clear that tangible outcomes and replicability (which might now be called scalability) were key aspects of powerful innovations that proved to be sustainable. 

The process of innovation 

Denning and Dunham[2] have studied innovation in a variety of settings. Doing so has enabled them to outline a process map of the steps required for an innovation to “catch” and “stick.” It involves three key building blocks and a number of steps.

The first building block they call “the work of invention.” This requires the innovator (an individual or team) to imagine, sense and envision what an opportunity for innovation looks like. For example, when the team at Derek Taylor School (K-9) in Grande Prairie decided that a strong, systematic and strategic focus on emotional intelligence could establish the right culture and create the capacity for high performance, they sensed that this would be the key to their new school, the well-being of its 700 students and being able to establish a positive reputation in the community of Mission Heights. They elaborated their thinking through workshops, study groups, and the use of supports from professional advisors and central office. This work was pre-planning – just scoping.

Having scoped and sensed the work, the staff needed to envision collectively what an innovation might look like – were they looking at embedding emotional intelligence activities and work across the curriculum, just doing occasional work in assemblies and home-room time or other kinds of activities? Was it to be for all students, or just K-5? There were three full staff meetings and a staff workshop before they landed on a plan.

The next building block is referred to as “the work of adoption.” In our Derek Taylor example, staff decided to develop their own resources and activities for homeroom use, assemblies and for use across the curriculum. They began to offer their activities and assignments and quickly adapted them as experience in their use grew. Over the course of a year, over 150 activities were developed, used and shared amongst all staff. Not all worked as well as they might – some were enhanced, others worked every time they were used and some were consigned to the “good try, but not again” bin.

Some staff lacked confidence in their own materials and their use. They felt that they should be using commercial materials, even though they were very expensive. The Alberta Teachers Association paid for some staff to visit a school making use of the commercial materials. This was a key “tipping point” for Derek Taylor School. The teachers returned with the strong view that their own materials were either just as good as or superior to those available commercially and that their school had a more integrated strategy for their use than the other schools they had visited which were using the commercial product. They realized that their innovation was the integration of emotional intelligence into every aspect of the school, not just the occasional use of materials when it seemed appropriate.

This work of adoption involved offering, adopting and sustaining the work. It also involved measuring the impact. Teachers, students and parents developed simple measures of emotional intelligence and began to use these to capture what the students were learning and experiencing. They also ran art projects to capture “the faces of emotion” and encouraged students to use them as a basis for diary-keeping and tracking. Parents and local community members (e.g. shopkeepers, school bus drivers) were also asked to log examples of students showing emotional intelligence (or the lack of it).

In these ways this work became embedded in the work of the school – it was strategic, represented shared values and became a feature of the “style” of the school. This stage of innovation is known as “creating the environment for next practice.” Teachers and school leaders used the work on emotional intelligence to explore and better understand how they were able, as an adult learning community, to create and implement something which had a long-term and sustainable impact on the work of the school. They were able to use this insight and understanding to work on their next innovation – linking emotional intelligence to the learning performance of students.

The Derek Taylor School is not unique in this work. Other examples abound of powerful innovations. For example, in London (Ontario), teachers have adopted and adapted the program Musical Futures, which is transforming the ways in which musical education is pursued by students. Based on a U.K. initiative from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, this program is offered at Montcalm Secondary School and Our Lady Immaculate with the support of Western University’s Faculty of Music and is a transformative program, likely to expand across Canada.[3]

Differences provide fertile ground for innovation. Unique high-performing schools, not “bog standard schools,” are what we should be looking for.

None of these developments happen overnight – they take time (Derek Taylor School’s journey took three years), are messy and involve many missteps and “retakes” – but they are all led by people who are passionate about “their” innovation and are focused in a systematic and measured way on implementation. Rather than being “whiz-kids” who have a brilliant flash of light and a sudden inspiration, educational innovators tend to be those who have nurtured ideas over a period of time, have looked locally, regionally, nationally and internationally at how something is done and sense and imagine a different and better way of doing something. It’s the combination of passion, commitment and determination, diligence and adaptability that enables a person to become an educational innovator. Providing, that is, that there are some systems supports for innovation in place.

Systems that enable innovation

There are five conditions that need to be in place at the systems level to enable effective innovation within the school and to ensure that innovation “sticks.” These are:

1. Schools are recognized as the key decision centres within a district or system in which they operate. That is, they can act quickly and effectively in support of innovation without layers of permission or approval. In the Canadian system, for example, it is the school, not the central office, that should be enabling innovative activities. The role of the Superintendent is that of servant leader – enabling, encouraging, easing the way. It should also be clear that “no one size fits all” – that schools have a lot of similarity between them, but it is their differences that will provide fertile ground for innovation. Unique high-performing schools, not “bog standard schools,” are what we should be looking for.

2. Schools are resourced for the work they are asked to do and these resources are stable. The cry from school systems for a basic planning period of three to five years of rolling, stable funding is a cry for help. Schools cannot innovate if they do not know from year to year what their resource base will be. It is inefficient and ineffective. What schools need is a degree of certainty about base funding and people resources.

3. Investment in professional development and planning time. Teachers, as professionals at the leading edge of learning developments, need time to plan, research and prepare. In high-performing school systems this time is used for innovation, both small- and large-scale. Teachers cannot be expected to fully leverage new models of learning or new technology without first being able to look at and review the potential of these approaches and resources. We would not tolerate a doctor who has not spent a considerable time keeping up with current developments in medicine or who did not engage in professional development. It is no different for a professional teacher. The balance between time in class and time to prepare and innovate needs to be right.

4. Support for risk taking. The idea that “you can take as many risks as you like as long as they are 100 percent successful” is not an idea that sits well if innovation is the agenda. All innovation is a risk. Sometimes a great idea will not work. Good schools will make honest mistakes. The rule here is “we tried, we learned, we moved on and the students are fine.” A former Minister of Education in Alberta once complained that there were too few failures in our system in terms of approaches to learning. He was right.

5. Recognition. The reward and recognition mechanisms within a school and within a school district should support an agenda for innovation and change rather than inhibit it. For example, when school performance is measured on standardized tests and nothing else, and when schools can be subject to “special measures” for failing to meet some arbitrary improvement target they themselves did not set, then innovation is unlikely to occur. Innovation is a risk business and successful risk taking should be rewarded through appropriate methods of recognition and reward. Many teacher reward and recognition systems, especially in the U.S., are now making innovation less likely to occur. 

When these conditions are in place and teachers are seen as instructional leaders, supported by positional leaders acting as servant leaders, then truly remarkable things can happen. Look around – innovation is everywhere.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, November 2013


EN BREF – Malgré sa nature itérative et confuse, le processus d’innovation comporte des étapes et des processus distincts. Les trois principales étapes sont les suivantes : a) le travail d’invention – développer une idée qui apporte une contribution réelle; b) le travail d’adoption – s’assurer que d’autres, en particulier des dirigeants et des collègues immédiats, adoptent l’invention et l’adaptent à leur contexte spécifique; c) la mise en place de l’environnement pour la « prochaine » pratique – mobiliser d’autres personnes et faire accepter l’innovation à l’échelle du système. L’article signale aussi certains pièges et suggère certains aspects à privilégier.

[1] For more information about the Seven S’s, see this description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McKinsey_7S_Framework

[2] P. J. Denning and B. Dunham, The Innovator’s Way: Essential practices for successful innovation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

[3] See Stephen Hurley’s account of this exciting innovation at: http://teachingoutloud.org/2012/06/13/musical-futures-canada-london-calling/

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Murgatroyd

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD, FBPsS, FRSA, is a former teacher, academic and business professional and currently CEO of Collaborative Media Group and Chief Scout of the Innovation Expedition Inc. He developed one of Canada’s largest school leadership development programs in the 1980s with the Alberta Teachers Association and has worked extensively on educational policy and innovation issues since the early 1970s.

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