The World is Flat: Teachers as Innovators

This is a particularly exciting time to be involved in education. Beyond the rhetoric of school reform, there are many emerging opportunities and ideas transforming places of learning in truly innovative ways. Innovation is a way of thinking that seeks, through the use of a set of core skills and dispositions, to create new or improved solutions to challenges that face us in our daily and future lives. In her recent book, Suzie Boss makes an astute observation: “The first step in teaching students to innovate is making sure that educators have opportunities to be innovators themselves.” How can school leaders make sure this is the case?

Much of the narrative about school innovation is currently focused on things like personalized learning, STEM, mindfulness, student-centred learning purpose, project-based learning, and social entrepreneurship. Each of these ideas, and many others, need to be counterbalanced with the regular business of realities like standardised tests and high-stakes examinations. It’s a tough ask for teachers and school leaders to balance these demands. But a progressive school seeks to embed innovation in all its practices and does not regard modern learning and traditional expectations as being mutually exclusive.

If we want schools to empower students to thrive in a changing world, we must, as Boss suggests, provide opportunities for teachers to be innovators. Ultimately, Boss informs us, it is, “the culture of a school …[that] can set the stage for innovation to flourish – or flounder.” The innovator strives to bring about significant change in positive ways, with the intent of producing an improved outcome for the general good. In order for teachers to be innovators themselves, they need to be provided with the freedom to take risks, the encouragement to break outside of the box that is school, additional time to plan and collaborate, and an environment in which rigid rules characterised by lines of reporting and authority are flattened.

The biggest enemy of innovation in schools is hierarchy. Strict leadership and decision making protocols  communicate to teachers that their contributions are not valued or trusted, and that the system is more important than the individuals within it. A strategic reduction of hierarchy in schools, resulting in a flattened organizational culture that provides greater autonomy and distributed leadership can be transformative. This is not to advocate for a reduction in teacher accountability. Organizational hierarchies in the learning setting are usually about control, not ensuring learning quality. A student-centred education in the 21st century requires innovation, greater teacher-student agency, and a culture of trust.

Suzie Boss. Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World Solution Tree Press; April 21, 2015.

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.