Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 9 Innovation Killers in Your School

We are trying to develop a culture of innovation in our school. Here's why I think that's so important. In the past, we would always try to get better at areas we felt needed to improve. We would implement this strategy or that strategy in the hopes that it would result in a better learning experience for students. Most of the ideas were not "home grown." They were handed down from the state department or driven by standardized testing. Teachers, at times, didn't feel all that invested and sometimes even felt the programs were being pushed upon them. Instead of nurturing an innovation culture, we had an implementation culture—implementing someone else's ideas.

In an innovation culture, teachers are empowered to develop ideas that will create better learning opportunities for students. They are free to try new things, to make mistakes, to take risks, and to think out of the box. Since the ideas are developed by teachers in the classroom, they are invested in the process, and they understand the unique opportunities and challenges of their students and their content. They don't have to ask permission to do what they believe is best for students. In fact, they are encouraged to look at school and learning with new eyes. So much of what we do is based on tradition and habit, even though it might not work best for students or learning.

Schools have been trying to get better at mostly the same old stuff for 50+ years. Maybe it's time to try some new stuff. Instead of trying to repair the old things, I would suggest we consider building something new. It's important to recognize that innovation is not just thinking of new ideas. It is about trying them out in a reflective way. It's thinking of ideas and carrying them out.

As we have pursued a change culture in our school, we've thought about ways we can increase innovative thinking. But it's also important to think about the things that keep us from innovating. Here are nine things that absolutely kill innovative thinking. 

1. "Prove it."

More precisely, prove it with data. Schools are under intense pressure to prove results with data. But some promising innovations might not deliver results right away. The initial success does not always indicate what the long-term success might be. And moreover, some of the measures that schools are using may not be the best indicators of success in the first place. If we are relying exclusively on test scores to show success, are we really measuring the right thing?

Instead of being data-driven, we should be student-driven, and learning-driven. Look at a wide variety of indicators of success. When an idea isn't successful right away, don't feel that you must abandon it. If you feel it has the potential to make a positive impact, stick with it.

When an idea really takes off, we don't need to prove it. I've seen things that are so wildly successful, that no one would question that it was incredibly beneficial for students. If our ideas are big enough, we will know if they are successful or not. 

2. "We've never done it that way."

It's so easy to get stuck in our patterns of thinking. Often we do the things that are familiar without another thought as to how effective they might be or if there might be a better way. It's been said this is the most dangerous phrase in the language. That may be a slight exaggeration, but undoubtedly it is an innovation killer.

Instead of clinging to the way it's always been, we should always question, "Why have we done it this way for so long?" Is this really what's best, especially given how quickly the world is changing around us? If schools aren't changing to meet the challenges of today and even tomorrow, what will that mean for our students?

Without a doubt, I think we are struggling to keep up with the changes in our world. The question is how far behind are we going to be before we make some bigger shifts in how we do business.

3. "We can't afford it."

There are many innovative ideas that don't cost a thing. They just require a shift in thinking and courage to do things in a different way. I think too many schools think they can't be innovative because of limited resources. But sometimes innovation does need budgetary support. While there are only so many dollars available for a school to spend, how funds are allocated is to some extent a choice. Instead of thinking "we can't afford it," maybe schools should consider "how can we find a way to afford it?" Ultimately, we shouldn't allow the budget to kill innovation. Let's think of possibilities to support innovation with our budgets.

4. "Our scores are great!"

Great standardized test scores can be an innovation killer. Why? Because teachers feel the pressure to keep the scores high and trying something new might result in lower scores. In many schools, a drop in scores would be considered complete failure. When the scores are high, we are tempted to pat ourselves on the back and feel that we are doing exactly what we should be doing. But is our goal to develop students who are great test takers? Or, are we trying to help students be adaptable learners and creative problem solvers? Some of the most important skills students need to be life-ready aren't reflected in a standardized, content-driven test. 

5. "Our scores are terrible!"

Low standardized test scores can also be an innovation killer. Schools with low scores usually feel tremendous pressure to raise scores. Unfortunately, this often means a focus on remediation, with an increase in prescribed lessons, test-prep, and drill-and-practice. These methods may result in higher scores, but they can hardly be considered authentic or innovative. Moreover, these narrow-minded methods don't prepare students to be adaptable or lifelong learners. It's extremely difficult to think big and be bold when the focus is on fixing low test scores.

6. "That's not how I do it."

As George Couros has been quoted, "Isolation is the enemy of innovation." Teachers who want to do it their way, without considering other possibilities, are detrimental to an innovative culture. This type of thinking resists collaboration and sharing work. Instead of looking for ways to work together, this attitude builds walls to protect my turf. 

7. How would we ever do that?"

One of the quickest ways to kill a creative brainstorming session is to start trying to figure out "how" the idea would work. Many great ideas were shot down because they didn't seem possible at first. Until later, someone had the courage to give it a shot, to think in a different way, and then it became successful. Instead of focusing on "how" right from the start, think about "why" the idea might be important. Then, if the idea is important enough, you can figure out the "how" later. When something is important enough, you find a way to make it happen.

8. "We only use research-based practices."

We can learn much from education research. But to think that we are only going to adopt ideas that have been proven successful in the research literature seems very limiting to me. If we only do the things that have been proven to work, what is the opportunity cost? Are there ideas that might be incredibly beneficial in our school that aren't established in research? Most schools that focus exclusively on research-based practices are the ones that are trying to grow and get better at the same old stuff. They are not the ones trying to transform education so that schools are fundamentally different in ways that benefit today's students. Research-based practices is a focus on the past. Forward-thinking practices are ones that look to prepare students for a future that will require different skills than ever before.

9. "Just one more thing."

When educators have too many things on their plate, it becomes difficult to be innovative. There's not enough margin in our time to think, dream, create, and experiment. This results in any new idea feeling like it's just one more thing. And that is an innovation killer. Schools need to carve out time for teachers to collaborate, think, and develop ideas. I think it's great for teachers to have their own Genius Hour, a time to work on projects they are passionate about. It's one more way to encourage an innovation culture in your school.

Question: What are some other innovation killers? How can we overcome these challenges to create schools of the future? I want to hear from you. Respond by leaving a comment below or share on Twitter or Facebook.

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