THREE THINGS I'VE LEARNED ABOUT INNOVATION IN EDUCATION
by Agustin Molfino - Innovation Specialist`
Have you ever been accused of trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’? As someone who has worked to innovate in education for a decade now, I’ve had this accusation directed at me in some form or another. And to an extent, I actually think it is fair. How many times have teachers been promised a new shiny toy or idea, only to find that their job is not any easier and that their students did not benefit from the ‘innovation’? And even if the new idea is spot on, executing on it often feels like reinventing the wheel while it is on a moving car.
In this analogy, the car represents a school with many intricate parts and functions. A school’s norms and expectations are like a car’s momentum. The job of an Innovation Specialist then is to persuade people in any functioning system (like a car or a school) to dare to continually upgrade the system and to support them in doing so. What follows are some insights I’ve gathered from my time in various educational contexts that guide my understanding of innovation.
Innovation requires systems thinking
An innovation is any new solution that is better than its predecessors. What is the ‘better’ solution in education? At Sycamore we believe that a ‘better school’ is one that is engaging (sparks interest and agency), continuous (relevant to student lives), and future-focused (relevant to a changing world). The problem is that even seemingly better solutions can have unintended consequences when introduced into complex systems. For example, our assessment model emphasizes formative and qualitative feedback through written prose and conversation. Our model is in exact opposition to the traditional model of constant grading, testing, and quantitative measures which do not support or motivate learning. Our model is undoubtedly a ‘better solution’, however it has its drawbacks. It requires our teachers to continually document behaviors and write extensively about each student. It can feel unsatisfactory to parents and students who prefer more quantitative measures. It can require extra work to communicate to other schools and institutions what our students know and can do. All of these drawbacks represent unintended consequences of innovating in a system that already has its own assumptions and momentum. But it is worth it because it is better for our students. Our job is to adapt the system in order to mitigate these consequences while staying true to our mission.
Innovation requires and produces adaptability
Another innovation at Sycamore are our Mindsets and Toolkits. Unlike the traditional model, we anchor our assessment in behaviors, habits, and strategies that students can apply both generally to their lives and specifically to certain challenges. One of our most referenced Mindsets is Be Adaptable. This Mindset calls for students (and adults) to embrace a growth mindset, be resilient, and seek feedback. When it comes to innovating, being adaptable is indispensable. Our teachers are expected to always be on the look out for how to improve their curriculum and instruction. This includes integrating novel technology, games, instructional strategies, and classroom setups. However, this can be inefficient in the short term because it requires energy to seek out and integrate these ideas. This is why the traditional model prioritizes control. Teachers are praised for having a fleshed out syllabus, clear learning objectives, procedural lesson plans, and an orderly classroom. Unfortunately, the control and comfort this model provides creates a stagnant environment where what is best is to keep going even if it is obvious that no one in the community is being served. Further, when a new ‘innovation’ is introduced, the traditional structure cannot adapt. This is how we get failed ‘turn key’ solutions like LAUSDs iPad rollout. Therefore, innovation is like a muscle. It must be exercised and nurtured if it's to be useful.
Innovation requires vulnerability
As noted in the above paragraphs, innovation comes with its difficulties. First, everyone must have a clear vision for what is better. Then people's ideas need to be heard, documented, and prioritized. Finally, the ideas need to be implemented into existing systems and assessed for intended and unintended outcomes. Because most ideas do not work, if this process is to be sustained, it requires vulnerable people able to collectively process failure. At Sycamore, The Leadership team has done an excellent job of laying the groundwork. We are given ample time to plan and reflect, we are expected to bring new ideas to the table, and they see any level of failure as a learning opportunity. Teachers in the traditional system are expected to be in control at all times and to figure it out on their own. Under these circumstances, not even the most creative person can innovate. One way I conceive of my job as Innovation Specialist, is to continually give teachers permission to fail and to shoulder the burden of those failures. One other major advantage to a school system that collectively risks innovating and processes the inevitable failures that result is that students are privy to this. This means whenever we reflect on what worked and didn’t work, we are modeling vulnerability and collaboration for our students. They understand that even adults fail and that there are proper ways to process failure so that it feeds into learning. This nurtures their growth mindset.
In conclusion, while it is not easy, reinventing the wheel on a moving car is essential. It requires an understanding of the system you are trying to change. It requires adaptability and vulnerability. But if it is done right, it pays back with interest. The onset of COVID is a great example. Sycamore’s culture of innovation made us more resilient to the constraints and restrictions of learning in a pandemic. We don’t know what the next challenge will be and in a fast changing world, our students don’t know what their futures hold. Yet, innovation is the super power that will allow us to not only stay on the road but to find new ones.