When we talk about innovation and entrepreneurship in education, we usually talk about individuals: the creative teacher down the hall or the principal who has a higher-than-average tolerance for risk. The term teacherpreneur—referring to someone who leads from their classroom by incubating new ideas and strategies—has become commonplace. We even hear encouragement for principals to break out of the confines of traditional policies and rules by being “cage-busting” leaders.
However, these individuals are typically exceptions to a rule—innovators finding new and creative ways to solve pressing problems in spite of the system in which they find themselves.
To be fair, innovation is hard. In order to innovate and try new things, we have to feel safe enough to take some risks and be vulnerable, and likely fail. Given that, what would it take for leaders to create a culture of innovation, where a group felt supported and empowered to take thoughtful and informed risks in order to innovate in service of their students? While any culture shift takes time, we believe there are three practices that help leaders develop a culture of innovation.
Defining the Mission Broadly
Most schools and districts already have a clearly stated mission statement. Usually it includes something about students achieving academically, becoming engaged citizens, or even gaining 21st-century skills. Mission statements generally leave a lot of room for interpretation and exploration, but leaders who seek to support a culture of innovation may need to challenge traditional, narrow understandings of what the school’s mission actually encompasses.
In Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government, Mark Moore argues that while specificity in an organization’s mission has its advantages, it can also hamper innovative techniques and keep an organization from taking advantage of new opportunities.
Most schools understand their mission as helping students achieve academically. But by recognizing achievement as more than learning discrete subjects like English and math, we can open up possibilities for innovation. For example, if a school broadens its mission to developing collaborative and creative problem solvers capable of taking on complex challenges, teachers may be more inclined to experiment in the areas of project-based learning or performance assessment. If a school broadens its mission to developing citizens within its community, teachers could be more inclined to collaborate with community partners, redesign courses to have service-learning components, or integrate socio-emotional components in their planning.
Using Different Metrics for Success
Historically, the field of education has suffered from a rather narrow view of success. Ultimately, what we choose to measure and track plays a significant role in what teachers do. Consequently, if we don’t think more expansively about how we define success, it’s unlikely that teachers will feel inspired to be innovative.
Consider a school that measures not only academic achievement but also aspects of student and staff well-being, belonging, and leadership development. A school, or even a classroom, could survey students to learn more about how they experience their learning environment as well as their engagement with the curriculum. If data is collected and tracked along these multiple dimensions, teachers are more likely to think creatively around the types of experiences they design for their students. Perhaps a teacher will discover that traditional approaches to teaching that may be effective for academic achievement are wholly insufficient to develop student leadership. If a school determines that it values developing student leadership, it can collectively put together a leadership assessment rubric that teachers use across disciplines and grades. Teacher innovation is more likely to occur as teachers use these new metrics to track their students’ progress.
Diversifying Sources of Insight and Expertise
It is vitally important for professionals to know and employ the best practices of their field—practices and routines that we know work. However, there are processes and routines that some professions have figured out better than others. Empowering teachers to look at other fields as a source of insight and expertise can help create a culture of innovation.
Consider the practice of instructional rounds. In medicine, instructional rounds have proven to be a useful innovation to improve the practice of teaching. Like practitioners in the field of medicine, teachers must be able to observe, discuss, and analyze their practice. Or look at user-centered design. Just as companies design products and services to meet the needs of their users (customers), teachers must develop effective learning experiences to meet the needs of their users (students). Perhaps that’s why more and more educators are drawing from design processes to help them create innovative solutions to their complex problems. For example, how does a teacher know whether or not a homework policy or an assessment rubric is helping students? A user-centered process designs these policies and rubrics with the student in mind and with student input, thus incorporating a perspective that’s often missing.
The culture in most education organizations works against innovation, not for it. If schools are to make significant progress in serving all students, we must seriously reconsider how we think about innovation. By defining our mission more broadly, exploring different ways to measure success, and drawing from best practices in other fields, we can begin to create a culture of innovation so that we can better serve all students.