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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Six-Point Checklist for Education Innovators

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

This blog is an excerpt from the book Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World, published June 2012 by Solution Tree.

Whether innovators are drumming up new business ideas or hard at work solving community problems, they share certain characteristics. They tend to be action-oriented. They know how to network. They're willing to take calculated risks. They look ahead, anticipating benefits that others might not have imagined yet. They work to overcome obstacles. Especially in the social sector, they're generous about sharing what they know and eager to help good ideas grow. When educators exhibit these qualities, they show students how innovators think and act. They become innovation role models.

If you're a teacher looking for opportunities to bring innovation into the classroom, start by considering your own strengths and weaknesses as an innovator. If you're a school leader, think about how you encourage -- or discourage -- innovation among your staff. Here are six questions to consider.

Are You Action Oriented?

Taking action is a hallmark of innovators. It's equally true whether you're talking about educators developing new projects or social entrepreneurs implementing life-saving approaches to health care. Stanford University's d.school, a global hotbed of design thinking and innovation, calls this trait a bias toward action. It's about "doing and making over thinking and meeting."

In the classroom, a take-action teacher recognizes opportunities. This is the kind of educator who spots a new idea and thinks, "I can do something with this."

Do You Know How to Network?

Educators who are determined to unleash their students' innovative capacities show another common characteristic. They are eager to share. They know how to network. Using Web 2.0 tools, many of today's innovative teachers and school leaders are thinking aloud about what's working and what's hard in their classrooms and communities. Their blogs, tweets and wikis open a window on ideas at the formative stage. Their thoughtful reflections also allow others to learn from their examples and build on their insights, demonstrating the power of social networks to grow good ideas.

Educators who know how to network take part in online and in-person communities to advance their professional learning.

Are You Willing to Take Risks?

It may feel risky to learn in public, but educators who take this approach are modeling what it means to be a risk-taker -- another known quality of innovators. Educators who are risk-takers are likely to be applying for grants or accessing resources in other creative ways, piloting new instructional approaches, or challenging policies that limit students' ability to learn.

Can You Look Ahead?

Here's the tricky part about innovation: it's hard to see it coming. Once an innovative idea or product has taken hold, it's difficult to imagine doing without it. (Can you recall a time before seatbelts or smartphones?) Because innovation creates a new normal, it's often only in hindsight that we can see the wisdom of breakthrough ideas.

The challenge comes at the early stage, when it's tempting to dismiss novel ideas as impractical or impossible. Glen Bull, an education professor at University of Virginia, emphasizes the importance of looking ahead so you can position yourself to catch the early wave of a promising classroom strategy or emerging technology. This is part of the innovator's mindset, too. Although many of today's teachers and students would be hard-pressed to remember a time before schools had access to the Internet, this online world was once an untested, even controversial idea for education. "When we first proposed connecting all public schools to the Internet, people thought that was craziest thing they'd ever heard of," Bull admits. "What people missed seeing was the trajectory -- imagining where this could go. You have to consciously link [innovations] to learning outcomes."

Now, Bull and his team are hard at work on a new project that introduces children to engineering with the use of inexpensive desktop fabricators -- a kind of 3-D printer. "We're right at the cusp," he says, "in the same way that we caught the leading edge of the Internet revolution. We expect this to be just as profound."

Educators who know how to look ahead are able to anticipate the benefits of introducing promising approaches or technologies.

Can You Overcome Obstacles?

Innovation can be a messy process, fraught with failure and frustration. Even in the business world, where there's tolerance for risk if it might lead to financial rewards, the quest for new ideas can get messy. If educators can accept the creative mess that comes along with the process, innovation stands a chance.

Educators who have the innovator's mindset don't get frustrated by "yeah, but..." thinking. They find workarounds to obstacles, whether that means being creative about securing resources, finding flexibility within the curriculum, or overcoming technology barriers so that students have access to the powerful tools they need.

Do You Help Good Ideas Grow?

Innovative educators find a way to move ideas ahead. They not only recognize opportunities, but also know how to create them. And once they hit on a good idea, they make sure to spread the word. Being able to take a worthy idea to scale is one more quality that innovators share.

Educators with this mindset know how to build buzz for good ideas. They find allies and brainstorming partners. They build collaborative platforms, such as project wikis that others can join and expand. They open windows to the innovation happening in their classroom by inviting the community to project showcase events or posting video documentaries of student accomplishments.

When these qualities come together in the classroom, students stand to gain. Antero Garcia offers a good example. As a high school English teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood of Los Angeles, he regularly designed learning experiences such as alternate reality games that engaged students in new ways. These experiences have unfolded because he stays on the lookout for connections and expertise beyond the classroom. He looks for opportunities in which students can influence their community. He reflects publicly about these projects on his blog, The American Crawl, as well as on collaborative publishing sites like the National Writing Project's Digital IS.

"Innovation is not a word you hear much in teaching circles or as a way to describe what teachers do. In my experience as a teacher," Garcia says, "no one's ever called us innovators." The very word "sounds disruptive," he adds, but in a good way. "If used authentically by the teaching profession, innovation could be a way to turn things around."

Imagine the energy we might unleash if we can encourage more of these qualities, among educators and students alike.

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