Innovation in Education

This post is the first in a series for a MOOC on The Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC by George Couros.

Imagine if a student today time-traveled to the classroom of 1917.  Our time-traveling student would be out of place culturally, and yet the classroom itself might not be terribly different.  In the classrooms of 2017, chalkboards have been replaced by whiteboards with LCD projectors or even some type of SMART board, but are students still sitting in rows and turning in worksheets?   Or they creating, producing, and collaborating?


When one of my own kids brought home a classroom syllabus from school, I felt deflated as I read it.  The paper looked as if it had been typed — on a typewriter — decades ago.  The teacher had scribbled out percentages on the paper and handwritten over them before sending it through the copy machine.  Students will complete 30 homework problems each night (with the answers in the back of the book) — not exactly engaging, transformative, or innovative.  I have difficulty imagining that the students in this classroom are inspired to learn more on their own or are looking forward to another day of lectures, rows, and drilled practice.

In the Introduction of The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros (@gcouros) writes,

We forget that our responsibility isn’t solely to teach memorization or the mechanics of a task but to spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own.

To wonder.

To explore.

To become leaders.

We forget that if students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.

Why is it so difficult to innovate in education today?  Students have access to more information in their pockets than I had in an entire school in the early 1990s, yet they are often told to leave their phones in their lockers, or they’re blocked by school firewalls on all kinds of useful websites.

While some teachers become early innovators in their buildings, it’s rare to see an entire building of innovators.  One key difference between a handful of innovators and an entire system that values innovation lies in leadership.  Innovative leadership is still uncommon in the world of education.  After leaving the face-to-face classroom to work as a lead instructor at Michigan Virtual, my new supervisor told me, “I see my job as being the person to remove barriers for our teachers.”  I thought she was messing with me.  I’m sure I looked highly skeptical after years of feeling roadblocked in a large public school system.  But she was true to her philosophy, and it’s a philosophy I keep at the forefront as I now lead teachers within our organization.

What would be possible for classroom teachers if all school leaders took the approach of removing barriers for their teachers?  How would that ultimately change a classroom experience for students?


Finding Your Strengths

I am fortunate to work for an organization that commits to professional development for their employees and actively works to increase engagement and improve workplace culture.  As a result, I was able to attend the CliftonStrengths Summit over the summer, where over 1,000 individuals from 27 countries met for two days in Omaha, Nebraska, to explore using the Gallup tool known as StrengthsFinder 2.0.

The goal of the StrengthsFinder test is to discover your unique combination of strengths so that you may focus on building and working within your strengths.  For a reasonable price, StrengthsFinder 2.0 identifies your top 5 strengths in a report (and you can pay more to see how your full 34 possible strengths line up).  According to Gallup, the mother company of CliftonStrengths, people who use their strengths every day

  • are 6x more likely to be engaged at work
  • are 3x more likely to report they have an excellent quality of life
  • are more productive in their role

The possible combination of strengths in any order means that we are approximately 1 in 33 million in terms of how our strengths show up.  CliftonStrengths does an incredible job of emphasizing the uniqueness of every individual and the combination of strengths they bring to their roles.  I admit it — I have long been a super-fan of Positive Psychology and loved working it into the curriculum when I taught AP Psych to high-schoolers. Donald Clifton, Ph.D., educational psychologist and the founder of the Strengths Movement, was an early advocate for studying what was right with people in an effort to improve lives.  I am all in with this approach to viewing those I work with and lead.


My top 5:  learner|adaptability|     intellection|input|responsibility|

In education, we tend to focus on our deficits.  Under current teacher evaluation models, administrators spend time examining areas teachers fall short and what steps they need to take to improve.  Many post-observation meetings are spent with teachers feeling demotivated or even beaten down as the bulk of the meeting covers their weaknesses — weaknesses that need to be improved for teachers to be labeled effective or highly effective.  Hopefully strengths are mentioned, but the message is that we need to improve our weaknesses.  Teachers, raise your hands if you’ve ever left an evaluation meeting frustrated, demotivated, or even angry.  Were your strengths discussed at length in those meetings?  Were you ever coached to develop and use those strengths in your daily work?  If the focus of evaluations is areas of weakness, you can bet your teachers are not feeling great about their work.

Our students have similar experiences.  We test students extensively to find out what they haven’t mastered, and we design more practice or extra work in those areas to improve their skills.  At the CliftonStrengths Summit’s opening keynote speech, Deepak Chopra read a version of The Animal School, where a rabbit gifted in jumping loved going to jumping class every day.  He was thrilled to do what he was good at every day and loved going to school.  Yet when his teachers saw how bad he was at swimming, they took him out of jumping class and put him in extra hours of swimming to make up for his deficits.  The rabbit began to dread going to school.  He hated swimming class and himself.  As Deepak read, the teachers in the audience all understood the moral immediately.  How many students have had an experience like the rabbit?



It’s Deepak Chopra!

I believe mastery learning is important, and as educators, we design experiences to help students build the skills they need to be successful.  What if we stopped looking at where our students or staff were going wrong and started paying attention to their strengths? Is it possible to let go of our weaknesses?  How much happier would you be if you were coached to be able to aim your strengths at daily work?


Building the New

The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

— Socrates

Over the past few years, my focus has been on learning and using educational technology as a teaching tool.  During that time, I have had the privilege of attending several #edtech conferences where I have learned techniques that have transformed my teaching.  I just returned from an awesome 3 days at MACUL ’14, where I attended sessions on all kinds of edtech strategies of interest to me.

But I’ve also discovered a secret:

Edtech conferences are not actually about edtech.  

Don’t be confused — there is plenty of edtech at an edtech conference.  I’ve engaged in sessions on everything from Chrome to scripting with Google Drive, from useful digital tools to creating iTunesU courses, from screen-casting to blended learning to online learning.  It’s exhausting to think about how much I’ve learned over the last three years alone.  With “love of learning” as one of my core strengths, I soak it all up and bask in the brainstorming, sharing of knowledge, demonstrations, and teaching.

Yet the biggest learning experience for me has been discovering the philosophy of the edtech people, the people I call “my people” (I also call Star Wars people my people, and luckily there are also several of those at edtech conferences as well).

Edtech people see possibilities.  They see potential — the potential of education, the potential of students, and the potential of teachers to shape and change lives.

Instead of focusing on what teachers aren’t doing, edtech people focus on the good things teachers are doing.  They celebrate the risks that teachers take using technology with their students.  They support and encourage teachers who are willing to try.  

Edtech people say, “Just try it and see how it goes.  We’re here if you have questions.  And good for you for wanting to do this for your students!”  If you knew how often I’ve heard about what I MUST be doing on a daily basis with lesson planning, you’d understand how great it feels to be appreciated for learning something of value.

Edtech people like to share.  Instead of competing with each other and keeping resources to themselves (which our current teacher-evaluation system promotes), they encourage share-and-share-alike.  If you’re doing something that works, they promote what you’re doing.  They go out of their way to share your story.  

Instead of saying “you need to be doing more,” edtech people say “we know how hard you’re working” and “you are making a difference.”  They recognize and trust teachers as highly-educated professionals.

Edtech people don’t make excuses.  They don’t talk incessantly about theory.  They put their energy into building instead of tearing down.  They produce change.

Edtech conferences are all about creating change, from a single lesson or strategy, to an individual teacher, to the entire business of teaching and learning.  They do so by bringing in educators who support, encourage, collaborate, and respect.  They bring in people who want to build the new.

It’s a philosophy that is heartening and too often missing in the daily lives of teachers; it’s why I consider myself an edtech person and keep going back for more.


Getting Connected

I recently participated in my first educator’s unconference, Connected Educator Un/Conference, where teachers from across the state connected and collaborated on a range of classroom practices that focus on technology tools.  Willingly.  On a Saturday.  To be fair, there were donuts.

Over the last 12 years of teaching, much of my professional development has consisted of an auditorium or library of teachers who sit and listen to hours of lectures by “experts” who hope to inspire, motivate, or change our instruction.  There’s a lot of painful deep sighing, contemplation of life choices, daydreaming about other professions, or calling in sick on these days.  I’ve even put together entire meal plans for the week, complete with grocery lists organized by aisle.  On the best of these PD days, I’ve been able to take away a glimmer of an idea I can use in my classroom.  On the worst of these PD days, I’ve written and edited my resignation letter. - I want you to know I'd be very open to some freelance work as a pirate.

An unconference is different in brilliant ways.  After the initial panic and discomfort of being forced to move around the room (I have to what? I have to get up?), I figured it out.  Teachers sign up on the spot for a slot of time to discuss something they do well and can share, or they sign up to openly discuss a topic they’d like to know more about.  It gives teachers a chance to see what’s happening in rooms of other educators . . . since teachers are the experts on curriculum and lesson delivery.

The Connected Ed day had a similar format as an unconference, but specific “learn by doing” sessions were also scheduled and led by expert teachers who are using technology tools in their instruction.  I was able to choose which sessions I would find most useful for my needs in my classroom.  Allowing me to choose what I would like to learn at a conference was huge for me, because if I have to hear about bucket-fillers and boxes of textbook resources ever again, I’ll apply for the first position I can find as a Wal-Mart greeter.  My resignation letter has already been written.

On the Connected Ed day, I went to a session on Google Drive, Bring Your Own Device, Standards Based Grading, and hacking your own textbook with iBooks Author.  My head is buzzing with ways I can put GoSoapBox and Evernote to use in my room.  I’m checking out ActiveGrade to see if it suits where I’ve been heading in my classroom.  I’m also thinking about the unconference format . . . how it could be used similarly in the classroom with my students, maybe for review.

So thanks to the Ed Tech gurus at our ISD — Dan Spencer (@runfardvs) and Brad Wilson (@dreambition) — and to the presenters whose sessions I attended — Gary Abud (@MR_ABUD) and Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura).  It looks like they’ve saved me from becoming a Wal-Mart greeter.