Schools & Random Acts of Innovation

“Few individual schools sustain random acts of innovation over time.”
-Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond

In schools across America, administrators and teachers are making forays into innovative practices such as design thinking, makerspaces, and personalized learning. These initiatives are often undertaken by well-meaning educators who believe that introducing these concepts at some level at their institutions will launch widespread classroom innovation. Often these initiatives are piloted in specific classrooms and sometimes result in the creation of a newly defined space (such as a makerspace).

Unfortunately, select attempts at innovation by schools rarely bring about systemic reform. Almost invariably, these attempts at innovation are not sustained over time. Moreover, attempts at innovation by schools have become so frequent and disconnected in recent years that one educational observer has termed them “random acts of innovation.”

Consistent failures are not surprising when you consider that school leaders are often not fully committed to seeing initiatives through. For example, the school administrator who introduces design thinking to her faculty might not be committed to seeing it incorporated at all levels and in all classes, nor is she willing to ensure that it permeates the very fabric of the institution. Similarly, the school leader who introduces personalized learning for individual students is often reluctant to sacrifice common assessments in the process. In other words, there are changes without any real change.

Innovation initiatives therefore mostly remain on the periphery or wither, because they’re not firmly connected to the very core of the school.  Change without a dedication to the creation of new structures of learning remain superficial. As Chris Lehman notes in Building School 2.0: “Schools would be better off finding a vision in which the desired practices of the school can truly take root and in seeking ways to embody that in every action of every individual on the campus.” In other words, if the initiative is not a part of your soul you won’t see it through.

It’s no surprise that truly innovative schools have a clear vision of who they are and what they want to become. School administrators at these institutions work with faculty to develop a worthwhile and engaging mission for the school community and they develop a system of practices to ensure that its mission is embodied throughout the school. For these schools, “innovation” is more than a one-word slogan or a set of piece-meal programs. It’s an entire belief system.

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