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Chasing after every educational innovation leads to frustrated, overloaded staff and fragmented efforts. How can we find our focus?

As educators, we are bombarded daily by educational trends. Twitter tells me that “big data” will help to inform school practice. A colleague promotes yoga and mindful practice in high-needs classrooms and my child’s school division has incorporated an industry-led technology focus. We look to our past and towards the future anticipating the “latest trend” and the “next big thing.” We have seen open classrooms, experiential learning, brain-based education, personalized instruction and professional learning communities, to name a few. Educators, eminently practical and resourceful, have unpacked and reconfigured these ideas to fit their unique students and contexts.

Over the last years however, it appears that the pace of educational change has reached epic proportions. Differentiated learning has transformed into universal design, personalized learning environments have incorporated flipped classrooms and individualized learning spaces. Curriculum focused on environmental outcomes has evolved to include outdoor classrooms, play-based instruction and place-based learning. MakerSpaces and Design Education are replacing other learning spaces across school communities. The availability of information through technology, blogs and social media means that educators are receiving more and more information about innovations in education. While innovation is exciting, invigorating and necessary, this influx of information also creates stress as educational leaders face continual pressure to evolve and transform in the interests of student engagement and success.

Teachers similarly feel the pressure of trending in education, as expectations change and educational leaders ask for more innovation related to engaging students in the learning process. Unfortunately, transforming personal practice is not an intuitive or simple process for many educators. In the early 1930s sociologists began to look at the adoption of agricultural technologies and speculate why some farmers adopted innovations and others did not. Sociologist Everett Rogers refined this work and both quantified and developed categories to describe the spectrum of how people react to innovations within their discipline.1 Roger’s research indicated that 2.5 percent of people innovate, 13.5 percent adopt innovations early, 34 percent adopt innovations with some additional support, 34 percent are late adopters who need lots of support and training, while 16 percent are “laggards” (Rogers’ term!) and are resistant, if not undermining, to change efforts. While this continuum is subjective to both culture and discipline, it seems applicable within an educational context.

Because educational change can be both stressful and difficult, it is important that educational leaders approach “trending” in education with caution, insight, knowledge and humour. Picking the right changes, for the right reasons, is an important skill for educational leaders. In my work with these leaders exploring how to apply innovations within their context, a few key strategies have become clear.

Understand the difference between long-term trends and fun innovations. The New Horizon Report, published by the New Media Consortium, explores what is on the horizon for education and suggests that two long-term trends within the field of education are: rethinking how to bolster student engagement, and how to shift to deeper learning approaches.2 Understanding how society is evolving and moving with these changes is an important skill for educational leaders who want to remain nimble and responsive to students’ needs.

Know yourself. With so many theories, innovations, programs and ideas being promoted for both the students’ benefit and for corporate profit, it is important to understand who you are as an educational community. Dig deep and figure out what educational pedagogy resonates with your community. Does the idea of excellent, subject-rigorous instruction fit with your understanding of the aims and objectives of education? Does a more fluid, student-led, constructivist path reflect your educational community? What pedagogy underpins your educational programming? 

 Know your educational theory. When contemplating the adoption of a new innovation or program, it is important to ask yourself several questions: Where is the innovation coming from and what does it mean? What is the pedagogy that underlies the innovation? Does the innovation connect to your school’s mission, vision and teaching philosophy? Pull out your undergraduate educational theory textbooks and figure out what underpins an innovation and what sort of ideas it supports.

Develop your own frameworks. Work within your educational community to develop contextualized frameworks around outcomes, teacher growth, assessment practice and instructional practice. For example, create a framework around Rogers’ spectrum of educators’ reactions to changes in educational practice. Look to research to figure out ways to help teachers move along this continuum of professional growth. Finally, use these frameworks to help guide the application of innovations and trends, rather than having trends inform the choice of frameworks.

Keep it simple. Cognitive scientists tell us that the human brain can absorb and work with at most three to five core concepts simultaneously. This means that if you are trying to lose weight, complete your graduate degree, build a kitchen addition, innovate your classroom practice and learn to speak Spanish, you are likely to run into trouble! The same holds for educational systems. Doing too much at once makes it difficult to get anything done effectively. Stick to a few innovations that make sense as priorities for your school community.

Look to other disciplines. Redirect your trend watching. Instead of running after the next trend in education, examine advances in other disciplines. Read Gawande’s book on how the medical system has worked to improve doctors’ diagnoses.3 Is there a way to incorporate Gawande’s insights in your work as educators? Go on a city architecture tour and see what human-centered architecture involves. Are there insights that can be applied to educational learning spaces? Use the insights from other disciplines to deepen your educational practice.

Branding, though promoted as the new norm, does not necessarily drive better learning. Reconsider this trend in favour of deeper educational practices.

Contemplate being unknown. There is increasing pressure on educational leaders to “brand” schools and develop niche services. Trending underpins the ability to be a brand. Being known as the school with an awesome MakerSpace or engaging Project-based Learning pedagogy is seen as good for both the school and for educational leaders. Districts are showcasing these schools in an increasingly competitive and scrutinized environment, while schools and administrators promote branded entities through social media. Branding, though promoted as the new norm, does not necessarily drive better learning. Branding can disperse the energies of school leaders, entrench schools in practices that no longer fit their community and support “pizzazz” over deep learning. Reconsider this trend in favour of deeper educational practices. 

Organizational theorist James March reminds us that all organizations need to continue to innovate, explore and evolve to be viable and dynamic organizations.4 As a person who leans towards innovation and “early adoption,” it’s important that I do the work of interpreting and unraveling educational trends. Too much or the wrong innovations can get in the way of being an effective organization. Too few or unexamined innovations can get in the way of effective educational practice. I suspect that educational trending will continue at a terrific pace as our access to technologies and information continues to shape our collective consciousness. Developing the skill of using trends selectively and intentionally is an important task for educators.

En Bref: Cet article explore la pression d’innover en éducation comme forme d’amélioration scolaire. Selon l’auteure, la poursuite de chaque innovation en éducation peut surcharger et frustrer le personnel et fragmenter les efforts investis. Giesbrecht examine plusieurs pratiques – simplifier les priorités, comprendre la culture de l’école, trouver l’inspiration dans d’autres domaines et résister à la pression d’avoir une image de marque – susceptibles d’aider les divisions à déterminer quelles innovations sont adaptées à leur contexte. L’article se veut un point de départ pour la discussion, posant les questions  : « Comment pouvons-nous savoir quelles innovations en éducation sont adaptées pour nous? » et « Comment pouvons-nous appliquer de façon réfléchie et responsable les innovations en éducation? »

First published in Education Canada, December 2015

1 Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1983).

2 L. Johnson, S. Adams Becker, V. Estrada and A. Freeman. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015, K-12 Edition (Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium, 2015).

3 Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

Meet the Expert(s)

Sheila Giesbrecht

Student Success Consultant, Manitoba Education

Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht is an educator who is interested in program evaluation, social innovation and supporting students within low socioeconomic contexts.

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