George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Starting Small Helps Keep Innovation Manageable

Whether a school is planning a new curriculum or a new use of space, low-key testing of different ideas can improve the end result.

August 5, 2019
Illustration of teachers sitting around a table shaped like a lightbulb
Dan Mitchell / Ikon Images

A few months ago, I had a chance to join a working group at the National Annual Summit on Digital Equity and Economic Inclusion. Charged with addressing the challenge of increasing digital literacy in underserved communities, we initially focused on grandiose solutions. After some discussion, however, we realized that our ideas required huge investments of time and resources, but we had no idea whether any of them might work.

We had made a fundamental mistake with our initial approach: Despite having no data to support our decisions, we had jumped straight to ginormous solutions. After recognizing our error, we proposed a different approach that we ultimately referred to as the 4 Ps: a series of pop-ups, prototypes, and pilots leading to a data-driven proof of concept.

When considering new programs, spaces, or technologies, people seeking to innovate have a tendency to go big. In the field of education, teachers and administrators launch full-year programs, all-school initiatives, or large-scale plans that require big investments. The idea behind the 4 Ps is to make changes seem less daunting and more feasible. By starting small, educators can more easily adapt, iterate, and eventually bring ideas to scale with a lower risk of failure.

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Pop-ups

Is your school considering launching a new learning room like a digital media center or makerspace? Before investing thousands of dollars in furniture and technologies, try a few pop-ups.

The Punahou School in Hawai‘i used this approach to test out concepts that would inform the design of a new learning commons and makerspace. As they considered ways to reinvent the library, students and faculty brainstormed options and then created a series of pop-ups for several weeks each during the school year to test out their ideas.

For example, a Spanish I class scavenged old furniture and coffee machines to create a pop-up café where students could eat, drink, and socialize. Before the winter holidays and exam period, a pop-up makery provided students and teachers with access to a Cricut paper cutter, art materials, and poster board. People used it as an opportunity to design holiday cards and decorations, and it gave everyone an effective way to manage stress.

Throughout the year, students and teachers tested other pop-ups, including a “nappery” complete with mats and alarm clocks, a therapy zone with a specially trained dog, and a yoga studio. All of these spaces were launched with minimal investments, and they informed the design of the learning commons.

Prototypes

Outside of education, designers, scientists, and engineers often begin their projects with a prototype—something small, usually disposable, and intended as a means of collecting feedback. By calling something a prototype, teachers and administrators can gain freedom to experiment because the term implies a lack of finality.

A few years ago, I facilitated a two-day workshop on digital portfolios with an elementary school. During the first day, teachers felt almost paralyzed by the need to get everything right and worried about what would happen if the portfolios did not work as intended. The following morning, we discussed the idea of prototypes, and the entire dynamic changed from stress over determining the perfect system to an embrace of the chance to explore and experiment with how the students might use their portfolios in different ways.

Pilots

Especially when educators are considering a new instructional strategy or curricular program, pilots allow for experimentation and evaluation. Instead of planning to implement something for an entire year or across an entire course, small pilots let teachers and students test out ideas.

As a graduate teaching assistant, I encouraged my students to try different digital note-taking strategies for short amounts of time to see what might work best for them. Because we called these tryouts “pilots,” students were more willing to take a risk and try something unknown. They didn’t feel pressured to commit to something that might not work for them in the long run and were more open to new experiences.

On a larger scale, this year Miscoe Hill Middle School in Mendon, Massachusetts, will be piloting an Innovation Center. Rather than buy a lot of expensive technology that might not meet the needs of teachers and students, they’ll take a more low-key approach. Though there will be some high-tech resources such as robotics kits and 3D printers, the space will also have low-tech tools like Post-its and glue guns. By not over-provisioning the space from the start, the school will save money that can be used later for resource requests that arise out of the work that teachers and students discover they want to do in the space.

Proof of Concept

The most important aspect of the first 3 Ps is to carefully study and evaluate each initiative. What worked, for whom, how, and why? What else might be needed to expand on the idea? Is the initiative ready to launch, or does it need more testing?

Pop-ups, prototypes, and pilots give teachers and administrators the data they need to make decisions about what their students need and will benefit from. A data-driven proof of concept makes it much easier to get buy-in and support for those grander ideas—the whole school community can have confidence about a new initiative because everyone participated in the trial work that led up to it.

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