Education Trends

What You Need to Be an Innovative Educator

July 30, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Innovation isn't a matter of will.

Like most things worth creating, critical ingredients pre-exist the product. In the case of innovation in education, many of those necessary ingredients are simpler and more accessible than they might seem -- which is, of course, good news to an industry already up to its nostrils in oh my gosh for the kids we must have this for the kids yesterday for the kids admonishments.

Whether you're innovating a curriculum, an app, a social media platform for learning, an existing instructional strategy, or something else entirely, innovation in education is a significant catalyst for change in education.

If our data is correct, you're probably a teacher.

And if you're a teacher, you're probably interested in innovation in the classroom, so let's start there -- with project-based learning, for example.

Project-based learning is an example of innovation, but probably not the way you'd expect. While learning through projects is indeed innovative compared to sit-and-get, drill-and-kill, teacher-led and textbook-sourced instruction, PBL's primary innovation is probably its flexibility. There's almost no other learning trend or innovation than can not only co-exist with PBL, but also fit seamlessly and entirely within it.

PBL promotes innovation in education by making room for it.

But creating that innovation -- what does that require? What kinds of ingredients can you put into the tin, shake up, and end up with innovation?

1. Sense of Priority

First and foremost, there needs to be a sense of priority. What's most important? What must the students learn? What must we use? What must we achieve?

And note that priority here doesn't mean "rhetorical hyperbole." Real priority requires a kind of honesty that can look at a giant list of academic standards and say, "Yeah, but . . ."

Innovation requires that kind of honesty, the kind of priority that allows your team of teachers or students to see what's most important in any given circumstance, and cultivate what's necessary from there.

2. Selflessness

Selflessness is also a factor when trying to innovate. Innovation is not carrying a single idea to a predetermined destination. At some point, innovation must be inclusive. While creativity certainly needs quiet reflection and independent thought, anything done from start to finish in isolation depends on a kind of genius -- or at least inspired cleverness -- to succeed.

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

By serving a greater cause and removing your sense of self from a situation, you greatly increase the chances of a truly innovative end result.

3. Time and Energy

It goes without saying that to be innovative, you're going to need stuff. The most tempting resources typically sought for innovation are money and permission. Ironically, these are two of the least critical resources.

What you will need to innovate in education is time, and the boundless energy of a second-grader hopped up on Mountain Dew.

4. Models

Exemplar models can stifle innovation by suggesting a path that you didn't need suggested. There is a time and a place for models, and it depends on the circumstance when you'll need yours. But by looking at existing models -- cool stuff that has been accomplished by others before you -- you'll have an idea of what's possible. And of what you might be missing.

5. Willingness to Take Risks

A lot of people say they want to be innovative, to "take risks."

To have what we've never had, we have to do what's never been done -- and 47 other cliché quotes that show up in educator signatures everywhere.

But a real willingness to take risks means being prepared for failure. And failure might come in the form of lost funding, an article written about you in the local newspaper mentioning a "project gone bad," unflattering data, and a million other possible outcomes.

Being willing to take a risk shouldn't empower you to implement wrong-headed, half-baked ideas under the guise of an "innovative spirit," but you should be prepared to fail. Which is fine, because education's been failing long before you got here.

6. Trust

While you don't always need green lights, district "buy-in" or outright permission, you do need trust, and that starts from the students backward. They're your most vocal critics and your most critical audience.

It will be in their curious, intellectually playful demeanors and long-term academic performance that you'll see the end result of any given innovation. (If not, what's the point?) But students -- of any age -- are incredibly good at sniffing out a rat. If something is murky, sterile, boring, stifling, cliché or downright clunky, they'll let you know.

The trust of administrators, colleagues and parents certainly matters. You can lose your job or professional standing without it. But without trust from students, you're just a well-dressed, silly person with your name on the placard by the door.

And the innovation will never come.

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