Are You Innovating or Simply Changing? 6 Essential Considerations

“Innovation” initiatives have become the rage in many schools and districts. Some have hired an “Innovation Director” and others have created an entire Innovation department. Others focus on innovative pedagogical approaches, such as Design Thinking. Yet, it appears that few schools have constructed a clear definition of “innovation” and how student learning is supposed to change. 

Last week I ran a workshop on nurturing innovation for a group of teachers and administrators at a conference in Florida. One of my objectives was for the participants to articulate the difference between innovation and change. I asked them to focus on innovation in instruction since the most important element of any innovation is how it impacts student learning. 

I asked them: “What is the difference between innovation and change?” I prefaced the question by pointing out that teachers change instructional practices all the time in attempts to improve student learning. Yet, most changes do not amount to a fundamental shift in the structural foundation for student learning and are just modifications within an existing structure. For instance, teachers edit lesson plans and make a myriad of instructional adjustments during class periods. But they don't necessarily represent a “new way” of student learning.  

The group initially struggled to frame a response to the question and the room was quiet for several moments. To help guide them, I asked that they reflect on the following issues and essential questions: 

  1. Student Ownership & Student Autonomy
    • To what extent would you allow students to control their own learning? What would that look like in your learning space?
    • To what extent would you allow students to ask and answer their own questions?
  2. Teacher as Facilitator
    • To what extent would you be willing to allow students to be the center of learning in your classroom? To what extent would you be willing to be a guide, rather than a director, of student learning?
  3. Collaboration
    • To what extent would you be willing to allow students to work together to create, research, and answer questions?
  4. Real-World Learning
    • To what extent would you be willing to connect learning across disciplines and subject matter?
    • To what extent would you be willing to connect students to learners, experts, and organizations outside of your school?
  5. Assessment
    • To what extent would you be willing to change assessments to better reflect personal learning and growth over time?

Soon enough a few participants offered that innovation in instruction would necessitate a fundamental change in the student-teacher relationship. When I prodded them to elaborate, they offered that the qualities or characteristics of the learning environment would need to represent a significant break from past practices. But they struggled to answer the questions I provided and there were some prolonged periods of silence.

It was clear to me that these educators had not considered these frameworks and means of defining and encouraging innovation in their respective classrooms. That said, a few did suggest that innovation can occur only if students exercise a strong degree of autonomy over their learning. That’s a good step forward.

I left the session thinking that our workshop was a microcosm of what is happening in many schools. Educators hear about innovation and want to learn how to “plug it in” to their classrooms and schools. But most don’t realize that innovation can only take place if educators are willing to make some fundamental structural changes to the student-teacher relationship. Thus, schools need to face and answer some challenging and difficult questions. However, most schools aren’t willing or able to make the structural changes necessary to innovate, so they simply change. That’s why innovation will remain at the periphery of these institutions and not the core.

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