Schools are notoriously conservative. They were conceived in the industrial age. Since their birth little has changed. David Price suggested that if time travel were possible, a person traveling from 1900 to 2013 would be overwhelmed by the changes they saw, but would feel completely at home in a school. Innovation is a necessity for schools if they are to truly educate students through engaging and enriching learning experiences.
Innovation doesn’t just happen on a broad scale in schools. It does in little pockets, but often the innovation isn’t lasting. The bold individual who tries something new either gives up, or moves on. For broad scale innovation to occur in schools you need three key ingredients: a culture of trust; leadership that challenges the status quo and rewards ideas; and, collaboration.
Schools are quite paradoxical really. They are places for learning; but mostly just for the students. We proclaim that we want to develop ‘life-long learners’ but as teachers, we tend to stop learning once we graduate and fall into the habit of doing the same thing each year. Change only occurs when a mandate comes from above; for example, dictating a change in curriculum. Fear tends to keep teachers on the same treadmill year in and year out, driven by parental and community expectations and political measures of ‘good schooling’: Year 12 results, NAPLAN results, PISA results, etc. ‘Back to the basics’ is the mantra that is trundled out by politicians and those who know little about what true education is actually about when standardised results appear to be falling.
We often fail to realise that what is more important is the creation of engaging learning opportunities so our students aren’t bored year in and year out. This implies that something has to change, and with it there is risk; a risk of failure, a risk of ridicule, and even a risk of job security. Teachers will not take the risks necessary to innovate unless there are high levels of trust in the organisation. Teachers need to know that ideas are valued, are worth the risk, and that if they fail, they will be treated as a learning opportunity and not an opportunity for retribution. To create the platform for innovation school leaders need to foster a culture of trust.
Trust though, is not enough. There has to be an unsalable thirst for creativity, imagination and innovation. This has to come from the leader, whose role is to create a shared vision and to encourage staff to question: “Why do we do this? Is it really important? Are my students fully engaged in their learning? Would I be happy for my child to be in this class?” Questions invite people to dream, imagine and ultimately, generate ideas.
The best ideas, and therefore the best innovations, are ones that are dreamt up together and worked on collaboratively by a team of teachers. When there are high levels of trust and a spirit of collaboration, good ideas have a habit of growing legs. Good ideas become big ideas, ending up as innovation that sticks. Even better innovation occurs when students are invited into the collaborative space, with teachers and students solving problems together.
Trust is further enhanced when innovations are celebrated, which in turn, encourages even more innovation. It is also important to celebrate innovation that didn’t work as this too fosters trust, develops resilience and encourages persistence. Before long a school will find itself on a rollercoaster of truly engaging learning.