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EdTech & Design, Equity, Opinion, Promising Practices

The Spirit of Innovation in Education

Is innovation the key to improvement?

I guess I’ve always enjoyed looking for different ways of doing things. One day when I was eight, my parents sent me outside to play. Later, they found me in the backyard trying to build a rocket ship. When I was nine, I tried to design a system that would transport mail from our kitchen safely to an office desk that I had claimed in the basement. By the time I was eleven and twelve, I could often be found in my bedroom working on my own “television” programs using a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a magnajector unit.


Even my dating life reflected a desire to be creative and innovative. Once, in an effort to make an interesting impression on one particular young lady, I sat down and created a brochure of “date” possibilities. All that Leanne needed to do was choose one option, and call me with her decision. The phone rang the next day, and we were off to the city that Friday night for dinner and a horse-drawn buggy ride through the streets of Toronto!


In a sense it was a spirit of innovation that drew me to the teaching profession. I had always remembered those teachers that tried to make learning come alive by taking different approaches, and I thought that I might be able to do the same. For close to thirty years now, I’ve taken that spirit with me into the professional roles to which I’ve been assigned. I’ve always believed that innovation was at the heart of good teaching; in order for me to be effective, I needed to be constantly looking at things from the perspective of an innovator.


But this view is currently being challenged in many jurisdictions these days, and it’s being challenged in my own practice. Ben Levin, among others, argues that if we’re serious about the issues of equity in public education, then it’s not innovation that needs to drive our work, but improvement. Levin argues that, while discovery and research continue to be important, we have an excellent body of “best practices”—things we know work. Real improvement—across the board—will come, he argues, if we put our efforts and resources into the effective implementation of these practices.


Initially, this came as a blow to my own spirit, but I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the argument and the point is a fair one. A good deal of time and money have been put into pilot projects that never seemed to go anywhere. I know that I have worked on teams for months to create documents and resources for teachers that are, alas, sitting on shelves in schools and classrooms across the district. You may have had similar experiences.


So, I wanted to spend some time exploring the question of innovation and its role in public education a little more. Can innovation and improvement exist side-by-side, or do we need to dedicate ourselves to one or the other? I hope that you will participate in that exploration!


The next two Teaching Out Loud podcasts are dedicated to the theme of innovation. In The Spirit of Innovation in Canadian Classrooms, you’ll meet three Canadian educators who are passionate about the innovations in which they are currently involved.


David Wees lives in British Columbia and teaches at Stratford Hall in Vancouver. I call David an unRaveller because he is dedicated to taking apart this complex place we call school one thread at a time, challenging many of our assumptions and beliefs along the way. Currently, David is involved in organizing an edcamp unConference—a concept that is beginning to gain some momentum throughout North America. David talks about how he hopes to change the way we do Professional Development with teachers.


John Knotten is an artist and teacher at Toronto’s Mary Ward Secondary School. One of just a handful of Canadian schools dedicated to student self-directed learning, John has spent most of his career living in the heart of this fairly large-scale innovation. I dare you to listen to John talk about Mary Ward’s vision without getting excited!


Finally, Peter Fujiwara teaches at St. Roch School in Brampton, Ontario. Peter has always taken his love and passion for communication technology and has built a very robust and enviable program for students enrolled in his Pathways program. But for Peter, the real innovation has come through a discovery of what this program has meant for the rest of the school community. Somewhat unexpected, but very inspiring.


Have a listen to the latest episode of Teaching Out Loud, and let us know what you think. In the next week, the second in the Teaching Out Loud Innovation Series will be posted. Here I had the opportunity to talk with David, John and Peter in greater depth about their work and their view on the importance of innovation in our schools.


As always, your comments are important and welcome.


Where do you stand on the issues of innovation and improvement? Are you currently part of an innovation that is making a difference in the success of your students? Should we be spending more time nurturing the “best practices” that we know about, rather than heading out to find new ways of doing things?


Is there a difference between creativity and innovation? Is there more to learn about the best way to do school?


There’s always lots to talk about when you’re Teaching Out Loud!

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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