Creating a Culture of Innovation at Schools

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To be effective in schools, innovation has to be ongoing. 

“You don't innovate on one thing, and then you're done. ‘I innovated today, I'm going to go on and do my next thing,’” says Bill Bass, past president of the board of directors at ISTE and Innovation Coordinator for the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, MO. 

Instead, school leaders need to be constantly evaluating their programs and practices, looking at what’s working and what’s not, and updating accordingly. They also should actively foster a school culture and climate that permits and encourages innovation. 

“In school districts, creating the conditions is the key,” he says. “If you create conditions in which people who are part of the system understand that they can take risks, and they're going to be supported in those risks, then they're more willing to do that in the future. Teachers do this every day, but systems don't.” 

Part of Bass’ goal in his district is to connect the innovative methods and approaches teachers are implementing in the classroom with their students to the larger system. Doing this effectively often means borrowing best practices from the business world. 

Apply Principles of Customer Service  

“We also have to make decisions based on our students,” Bass says. “Our students are our customers, our families are our customers, and we need to see them as such. The mantra that ‘the customer is always right’ – that's not exactly true. But at the same time, we should see ourselves in the service of educating our youth. And one of the things that comes with that is this idea of personalized learning.” 

Bass’ district has pushed for more personalized learning and educators have allowed students to lead them to teach in a way that is applicable to their lives. 

Educators naturally teach and assess things that they value. The disconnect comes from not valuing the same things that our students care about, Bass says. Which is why it’s important to assign material that is meaningful to students and their lives. “If kids don't care about [a lesson], they have a thousand other things that they can learn, and they don't need us to learn it,” he says. 

Bass isn’t advocating eliminating core topics because students can’t see how calculus applies to their day-to-day lives. However, he encourages working harder to connect the material to students and their experiences. 

“How do we get the more traditional topics that we want our students to understand, to be applicable in their actual lives? That's one of the things that when we look at our students as customers and our families as customers, that changes that a little bit, because we are looking for not only what we need, but what they need,” Bass says. 

Assess Your Innovative Practices  

Another aspect of the business world that Bass thinks educators can learn from is the practice of assessing new programs and initiatives. “One of the things that we do really well in education is we plan. We plan, and we plan, and we plan,” he says. “But what happens when that plan isn't going to work? We have to be able to pivot, we have to be able to change. And that's one of those things that in business that you see a lot. If you are analyzing data, or you're analyzing a system or evaluating a program that you're a part of, and it's not performing? Well, you have to pivot, or you have to abandon it.” 

Moving away from projects can be more complicated in education than in business but the principle still applies. “We're not going to abandon students, but we can abandon programs that are no longer working for us, and not just keep trying it because we spent so much time in the planning process,” Bass says. “We can spend less time planning upfront and more time in the ongoing evaluation of whatever that program is.” 

Some good ideas don’t work once implemented because every student is different and every school and district is different. Leaders need to understand and embrace that sometimes it just doesn’t work out for reasons beyond anyone’s control. 

Ultimately, establishing a culture that encourages students and educators to try and strive for improvement without fear of failure is the goal. “We have to be okay with making mistakes, and we have to help our teachers make mistakes, and we have to help our students make mistakes, and we can't assume that we're perfect,” Bass says. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.