I have an amazing job. I get to think with teachers, principals and superintendents about their schools. Specifically, I get to brainstorm with them about ways to improve the teaching and learning that is happening there. Most of the time, these conversations are not about an emergency or a crisis. Most of the conversations are simply motivated by a deep desire to get better at our profession.
Inevitably, those conversations lead to ideas, and those ideas lead to action and eventually, the actions impact students. I am very aware that the stakes are high. I’m aware that I have a lot of ideas, and only some of those ideas are actually good. You can imagine how it might have felt when I heard a teacher in a public meeting sound the alarm that schools of innovation are experimenting with their kids.
In fact, I had a number of reactions to that statement. I’ll list some of those below, but the most important response that all of us need to have is a response of caution. We need to be very careful that what we do in our schools improves the education of a student, or at the very least, does no harm. But, if we let fear paralyze us, we will never leave the comfort of mediocrity for the shores of excellence.
Here are a few thoughts on innovation in schools that I would like readers to consider, but I welcome your feedback about ideas that you might like to add to the discussion.
Action research has to be a part of innovation. We need to be checking progress often (maybe even daily) to be sure that we do not have negative results. And when we see results that are not good, we need to have the courage to change course, or even abandon the new idea. Don’t wait until the end of a grading cycle, semester, or year to throw out a bad idea.
Innovative ideas should be founded in theory. There is a sizable amount of research on how young people learn. We know more about the brain today than at any time in history. We know about cognitive development. We are even clear on the fact that a lecture/test combination is not the best environment for learning. We need to do the very best that we can to innovate in ways that reflect the research. And if we want to push out into an area where no research exists, we need to do that with eyes wide open and parents and students need to know that we are walking into those opportunities with great caution.
Iteration is a good thing. There are innovative ideas in schooling that are popping up all over the United States and in other countries. Even the top performing schools in the world can improve, so don’t just replicate a good idea, build on it.
The best schools get to be the best by learning from failure. The best students get to be the best through failure. So innovate, fail, learn from it, and let your students know that you failed.
To fail does not mean that I am a failure unless I let the failure defeat me or keep me from trying again.
I guess what I am saying to that teacher is “Yes, I am experimenting with your kids, but I love those kids and want the best for them. And I wouldn’t be experimenting with them if I thought that they were doing the best learning they are capable of.”
If you keep opening the door to failure, eventually you will walk through it and find that you have entered into a whole new level of schooling that will transform you and your students.
Director, NNU Doceo Center