George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

What You Need to Be an Innovative Educator

Terry Heick

founder/director at teachthought. humanist. technologist. futurist. macro thinker extraordinaire.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?
Innovations in Education Series
How are schools transforming for the 21st century? Join us for a summer series on innovations from the front lines.

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

DearTeacher's picture
6th Grade Science Teacher from SC and a teacher encourager online.

Great post and write-up. Innovation is more than technology and new is a state of mind, especially in education. The innovation state of mind is what drives you and allows you to complete the hard work that it takes to be innovative. It allows you to stick your neck out for your innovation. It is what allows you to trust your students and innovation to bring more achievement and success. Thank you for putting words to this! It is a shot in the arm to keep me doing the hard parts of innovation in my classroom!

Thanks! You are awesome!

mikepaul's picture
Pre-Service Teacher at WKU SKyTeach Program, Kentucky

Great post. Innovation isn't just about learning what's hot and fresh in education, it's all about using what is hot and fresh in meaningful ways. Just because you use an iPad in your classroom in your class or your school is 1:1 doesn't mean you're innovative.

You can be innovative without technology. Some teachers have to be innovative without tech. Innovation will spring from within you, if you're willing to let it.

DearTeacher's picture
6th Grade Science Teacher from SC and a teacher encourager online.

This is pep talk that I wrote to myself based on this blog post (which I shared on my blog with a link back to this post). I needed this pep talk as I muddle through some detailed planning for some big ideas for next school year.

You Have What It Takes to Innovate

It is not about the latest and the greatest and strategies. That is not what your students need. It is not about the resources you may or may not have, it isn't even internet or worksheets. Innovation is about you, Teacher.

It is about who you are and not so much what you do. It is what is in your heart and mind, and your heart and mind have what it takes to innovate.

You know how to prioritize and find what is important. You know it is more than the whats and the hows, it is about the process of figuring those out. You are a human strainer that lets standards and indicators pass through, leaving only the enduring understandings. You know how do do this, and it is in you, Teacher.

You also know that to teach well you have to be selfless. No one had to tell you that this is bigger than you are. You know that it is okay to ask for help and you always know when and how. You are even brave enough to sometimes even consider to allow students in on your planning.

You know that time and energy are more important than money and permission. Stuff is nice, but if you give things enough time you know that you can plan around the stuff. Energy is hard to come by, but you know you need to give it and somehow you always find it. Time and energy are the key and you always give these freely.

You are a teacher, and you have heard since the beginning that teachers beg, steal, or borrow. You are not too proud or afraid to beg, steal, or borrow. Sometimes you reinvent wheels, but this is few and far between. You look to models to work from and put your own fingerprints on.

You are more than willing to stick your neck out for your students. If you know that something could work beautifully but there is a chance it will blow up in your face, you take the chance for the sake of your students. You can always backtrack, but if your plan works out you may help your students leap ahead. You are willing to take the leap of faith to things you know will be best and you are not afraid.

Most of all your students trust you, and you trust your students. They will follow you where you lead them, especially if they think you are leading them where they need to go. You trust that what you think will work WILL, in fact, work and that your students can make it happen. Trust goes both ways, and you have confidence in this trust with your students.

Innovation is hard, even harder without stuff, but it isn't really about stuff. The stuff will change. How we are asked to teach will change. Innovative teachers work within these changes, whatever they may be, and you have what it takes to be one of these innovative teachers.

So get out there an innovate!

Donna Denk's picture

Great post! My elementary school is about to launch as a multiple intelligence charter school tomorrow! All teachers are directing a class that is innovative and what the students get to choose. The core standards are followed as we are reaching the students in different ways and having fun! The different bullets that are included in the post really "hit the nail on the head" for all of us as a school with this mission as we prepared over the summer for this transition. All staff at our skill will be directing the class that they created, each day. Sense of priority was given as we prepared our lesson plans, we also had the selflessness piece as we became creative we looked at what was best for the students then ourselves to incorporate all of the variables. It took a great deal of time and energy to make this happen and all of us have physically and mentally prepared for this change. Many of the teachers of innovation stations that will have a final project due at the end of the 9 weeks have made model or examples of what a finished product should look like for the students to see. When this idea came to our amazing principal, she talked to the entire staff and presented everything to us. Yes, we were all willing to take risks to do this. As we learned and went to see other schools we became enlightened on how this could help our students! Finally if it were not for trust this would not be possible. We have been empowered to create, develop, order supplies, and visualize this all taking place. We are counting on each other, the school, parents and community to make this happen with the one amazing common goal in mind, to give our students the opportunity to learn different things in many ways, build self-confidence and inspire!
Thank you for innovative post! Best wishes!

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

There's a higher demand for more innovative educators!

Ali's picture
4th Grade Teacher

Loved this post! We are rolling out a new evaluation model and one of our categories is Innovative. A lot of people are nervous they won't make the cut but these are really just best teaching practices. I know personally I love project based learning and really utilize it a lot in my classroom.

Thanks for reminding me what I should be focusing on this term!

Dale newton's picture
Dale newton
High School Home Economics Teacher

Great post. Constantly thinking and creating new things to enhance students' learning is innovation.

Kimmy's picture

Nice article. Thank you for sharing your thought with us. It is something that people should be well aware about. According to me with great ideas comes quality education for the surroundings.

Carlos's picture

Great artivcle. It's nice to know that you don't have to reinvent the wheel in order to be considered innovative, you just need to be a person with a passion and a purpose. I especially like the 6 ingredients for innovation. They're a great way to help someone focus in on the critical aspects of innovation.

Jason's picture

Thank you for providing this great article. I am a new teacher and I want to make sure that I am creating stimulating lessons for my students. I am very interested in incorporating project based learning into my classroom. Projects are fun and students are more engaged in the process of learning. I am a math teacher and I have done projects with the students about credit cards, investments, and math for farmers. The students loved these projects because they were meaningful to their lives. I found your 6 steps to be very intriguing. The one that stood out to me was the willingness to take risks. When I am developing projects, I sometimes have thoughts of backing down and just teaching the curriculum the "normal way." Most of my projects have been successful, but I have had failures. It is encouraging to know that innovation is not always perfect the first time around and true innovators need to accept the reality that some projects will be failures. However, it is important to learn from these failures to redesign a better lesson for the students. Thanks again for sharing!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.