When schools try to innovate, they often take a traditional top-down approach: devise a strategy, roll it out to teachers and support a high-fidelity implementation. The end result is often one that lacks teacher support or genuine enthusiasm — initiatives putter along and change is sporadic or modest.

In education and beyond, innovation is usually the result of iteration rather than central planning. In schools that succeed in implementing real instructional improvements, teachers figure out how to improve teaching and learning by journeying through multiple passes of a cycle of experiment, reflection and adjustment.

If a school leader’s goal is to implement thoughtful innovation, one way to think about school leadership, therefore, is to think about how to help teachers move through that cycle of iteration and innovation more effectively, more efficiently and more joyfully. Administrators have four powerful places where they can “grease the gears” of this cycle: creating an R&D budget, supporting opportunities for team learning, creating spaces for broader teacher sharing and learning, and building consensus around a shared vision and shared instructional language.

1. R&D

In order to stay relevant to the changing demands of the consumer, companies and organizations invest in research and development. What can schools do to invest in research and development for good teaching? One place to start is to ask about the R&D budget in your school in a more expansive sense. How do schools allocate time, resources and energy to support teachers in trying new things?

As a school leader, the first resource that you can offer innovative teachers is your enthusiasm and your protection. Whenever I start working with teachers in a new school district around innovation initiatives, I always ask the principal or headmaster or superintendent to come to the first professional development session and offer a benediction of sorts. One part of the benediction is to offer encouragement and support for the new initiative, but the second part is to offer cover and to say, “Look, learning takes time, and not everything you try is going to work. But as students have questions, as parents have questions, you can count on me to have your back, and support you through these changes.”

How can you find more time, more money, more resources to give to teachers as an R&D budget? Can you give a teacher a one-course release for a year or half a year to do some extra research and experimentation in a department? Can you pay teachers for their time over the summer to work together?

One of the largest untapped resources for innovation in schools are students. In many technology initiatives, schools have realized that they will never have the budget to hire enough support staff to meet all of the tech-support needs of their teachers, but there are lots of kids in schools who would love to help their teachers create better lessons and classrooms using technology. So schools around the world are organizing these great student help desks, where teachers can not only get tech support, but real instructional design support.

2. Helping Teams Learn from Experiments

The second entry point is around team learning. When teachers are experimenting, how do we maximize opportunities for teams to learn from one another? Two particularly powerful practices here are Looking at Student Work and instructional rounds. Looking at Student Work involves closely examining representative pieces of student work, and asking questions about what kinds of learning students are doing and what kinds of evidence we can find of student learning in their assessments. Teams usually use specific protocols that help keep people focused on evidence of student thinking and understanding. These are really powerful pathways into understanding learning. The second practice is classroom observation and instructional rounds. The idea here is to let teachers get into each other’s classrooms to see innovation happening. The deeper level of exposure to teachers engaged in new practices helps others figure out how to make sense of them throughout the school year.

3. Creating Opportunities for Sharing Across Learning Communities

For the third entry point to innovation, school leaders need to create spaces where teachers can share with one another. How much time in faculty meeting is spent on announcements that you could just print out for people and have them read? How can we devote all of that time to celebrating and sharing practice, to let teachers who do cool things show them to their colleagues?

How can you create informal learning spaces for people to gather? Here in Boston we have the Lila G. Frederick Pilot School, which was founded by Deb Socia, a leading advocate for technology access for students in poverty-impacted communities. Deb used to run Bagels and Laptops, where every Wednesday she’d buy a big bag of bagels and invite one teacher to share work for 15-20 minutes before classes got going.

There are schools where administrators are experimenting with models of teacher-led professional development like EdCamps. EdCamps are conferences or professional development days that have learning sessions, but they aren’t planned in advance. Rather, participants make suggestions for what they most want to discuss and learn more about, and then teachers get a chance to share with one another. It’s a forum that privileges teacher-to-teacher learning and sharing.

4. Guiding Innovation with Shared Vision and Shared Instructional Language

The fourth entry point is about guidelines and guardrails. One risk of encouraging experimentation is that it can go in a million different directions. This is one of the central risks of innovation in America schools, that it’s happening all the time, but it never comes together. We have a culture in schools of radical teacher autonomy where every teacher closes the door behind them and does whatever they want, and in too many cases that means that innovation happens in classrooms, but not in departments, not in grade-level teams, and not in whole schools. Great teachers retire, and their insights and wisdom retire with them

Effective school leaders help ensure that innovation has a trajectory that’s guided by a shared vision and a shared instructional language. Ideally, teachers have a sense that they are encouraged to innovate and experiment, but particularly encouraged to try to improve the shared goals of the school. Basically, it’s like giving teachers a canvas and a frame in which innovation can happen in ways that connect efforts.

Collaborative innovation also benefits from a shared instructional language, from a common way of describing what good teaching and learning look like. There are lots of ideas, systems, books and experts that can help as the foundation of this shared instructional language: Understanding by Design, or Teaching for Understanding, or First Principles of Instructional Design, or Universal Design for Learning, or Teach Like a Champion, or Project-Based Learning or any one of many other languages of instruction. And there are plenty of schools and districts that create their own shared ways of described great teaching and learning.

I favor some of these approaches over others, but I actually think it’s less important which language schools choose and more important that they choose a language. It’s more important to get one system right than it is to get the one right system.

When there are some guardrails and guidelines for innovation, that’s a foundation for teachers to share, collaborate and improve together.

There will never be enough administrators in a school building to do all of the classroom work needed to be done to truly have innovation thrive. School leaders need to focus their attention on creating the conditions where teachers have the resources, courage and support to experiment with improving their practice, and then the space to share what they are learning with other educators.

Justin Reich is executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and a research scientist in the MIT Office of Digital Learning. He teaches the online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught with Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders — teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents — through fundamental principles of launching and sustaining innovation in schools. An version of this post appeared on Education Week’s EdTech Researcher.

  • Toby Barg

    Establishing a clear trajectory and shared instructional language are key and often overlooked in the race to educate teachers about the new initiatives. A must-read for school leaders thinking about embarking on a culture change at their schools.

  • Hillary Clintub

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, “First, we kill all the school administrators.”

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  • Gene Thompson-Grove

    Better resources for collaboration and looking at student work are at the School Reform Initiative (SRI): http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/ (I wrote many of the protocols – SRI has most recent versions of the protocols, the most up-to-date resources, and empirical research articles).

  • Administrators also need to think about the barriers that they are creating that stop innovation in its tracks. Are we instinctively saying no to requests? Are we looking to free up teacher time from other responsibilities? Are we helping connect voices from different parts of the school?

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