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EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Innovation in Our Schools: It’s A Cultural Thing

Reviewing Week Two of CEA's Focus on Innovation

It’s very likely that we can all recall at least one teacher from our own schooling whose propensity to “push the limits” caught our attention and turned us on to learning in a new way. It may have been a math teacher who used drama to explore concepts, an English teacher whose interest in rock music opened up the world of poetry in a new way, or a science teacher who drew us into the world of physics through the creation of Rube Goldberg machines. As Ben Levin and others have reminded us, our personal and collective histories of schooling are peppered with discrete, if not isolated, examples of innovative practices. And many of them were effective, at least for those directly involved.

During the second week of CEA’s blog focus on innovation in education, four different authors paused to examine questions about how we might make both innovative spirit and practice a more pervasive and persistent dimension of the way we view and do school in the 21st century.

Ontario teacher and “edge-dweller” Andrew Campbell sees today’s schools as pretty staid environments, predicated on an avoidance of risk and an underlying narrative of playing it safe. For Campbell, it’s a cultural thing and, for the most part, schools are not associated with desiring, let alone fostering, a culture of innovation. Like many others who make the argument for a more systemic spirit of innovation, Campbell points to exemplars from the world of business and manufacturing, worlds where a healthy attitude towards innovation can mean the difference between success and failure. Understanding schools the way he does, Andrew points to three schooling environments that might be prime candidates for fostering a spirit of change through innovation and, eventually, provide inspiration and learning for other parts of the system.

Educator, thinker and entrepreneur Bruce Dixon extended this thinking even further by suggesting that, if we’re really serious about innovation, then we have to be serious about failure. Pointing to some vivid examples from the non-school world, Dixon pushes Andrew Campbell’s lament about the lack of risk-taking to the extreme by arguing that successful innovations are the result of many failed attempts, and that educators not only need to be given the room to have new ideas, but must be supported through a culture that respects the learning potential that exists in trying…and not succeeding. Diametrically opposed to the commonly-held narrative of schooling, both Dixon’s and Campbell’s views are sure to be both surprising and disturbing to many.

Aerin Guy, parent and advocate for educational transformation, admits to living in two worlds. In her virtual world, she is connected to ideas and practices that are hopeful, exciting and, to be sure, innovative. The frustration for Aerin comes, however, when she realizes that in her physical, off-line reality, things are different and much more in keeping with the view of schools presented by Andrew Campbell. The question is how to close the innovation gap that exists between the communities found in her on-line, self-labelled echo chamber and the on-the-ground situation that she is faced with in her off-line community. Aerin’s questions about change force us to ask important questions about who is responsible for getting the ball rolling around innovation, and what standing parents and community members might have in both the conversation and the related action.

For Northern Ontario principal Donna Fry, the answer to one of Aerin Guy’s questions is clear and definite. In developing a culture of innovation within a school, the principal is an important force in encouraging, nurturing and supporting the practice of teachers/colleagues. Donna’s stories and reflections around this type of leadership boldly underline the role of the principal in not hanging the school’s reputation on the successes of one or two teachers or initiatives. Clearly, her vision of school means that innovation is more than a noun; it is a dynamic and vibrant verb that is constantly on the move. Using the double-faceted metaphor of inertia, leadership can sometimes mean helping to get the ball rolling while other times it might mean ensuring that there are no barriers to continued progress. This is a leadership style that, when placed against the backdrop of the school cultures described by others here, calls for courage, perseverance and a trustful letting go!

So, as the conversation continues, some of the fault lines along which we are likely to see change in the next several years are beginning to emerge. As pressure builds along these lines, I’m thinking (and hoping) that we’ll see our conversations intensified, our sense of urgency increase and the various types of leadership necessary for change to develop. If the voices that we’ve heard here over the past couple of weeks are any indication, the ground is already starting to shift.