How to Build a True Culture of Innovation at Your School This Year

This blog series was authored by our own A.J. Juliani, Head of Learning & Growth.

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“Our job, sometimes, is simply to be the spark, help build confidence, and then get out of the way. If innovation in any school is solely dependent upon one person, it will continue to happen in pockets. In contrast, when we focus on empowering learners to become leaders, they help spread ideas.” – George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset

It seems that every school or organization I work with, speak at, or talk to has a similar problem. In all honesty, the school’s I’ve been a part of as a teacher, staff developer (and now administrator) have each dealt with this exact same issue.

Pockets of innovation.

Many of you are probably nodding in agreement right now. Maybe you’ve been in this situation. Maybe you’ve been one of the teachers or leaders in the pockets of innovation.

In fact, the pockets of innovation get a ton of praise and accolades from school leaders. They are often shared with the parents and community. The students in these pockets receive the benefit of having their work connected to an audience. The teachers in these pockets tend to get new opportunities for professional growth, which in turn pushes them to continually innovate in their classroom.

The pocket life is the good life.

Except, it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time as a teacher and school leader to keep the innovative and creative work going. It takes countless hours of reading, creating, collaborating, and facilitating to do this work.

And then, at the end of the school year. Even after all the sharing. Even after all the celebrating of this work. Even after all the hours of professional development. We are often still left with pockets of innovation.

The cycle continues the following year. Many of the same teachers get new opportunities. Many of the same students are celebrated for their work inside the pockets of innovation. It’s great work. It’s great learning. It should be shared!

But teachers, parents, school leaders, and community members are left wondering: What about the rest of the school?

The Explorers and the Settlers

There is a series of commercials for DirectTV that have been on for some time now about the “settlers” who would rather settle for what they currently have, then try something new and better. It’s easy for the “settlers” to point to their current way of living as a good life, and fight back against the new and innovative that is in the world.

Turns out there is a term for this: loss aversion.

In economics and decision theoryloss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. Loss aversion was first demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

This leads to risk aversion when people evaluate an outcome comprising similar gains and losses; since people prefer avoiding losses to making gains.

We see this loss aversion happen in companies, organizations, and also schools. I’ve actually heard of some school leaders sharing the video below at staff meetings to talk about whether or not they are promoting a culture of “settling” or a culture of exploring.

It’s funny, but also concerning. Even those schools that have poked holes in their pockets of innovation and allowed it to spread far and wide may be left with pockets of settlers. Those that are risk averse and content to do things the way we’ve always done them.

You can tell I think a lot about this problem in schools. I wish I had a magic solution. But it seems in order to poke holes in your pockets of innovation and spread creative work beyond a few places, there has to be a lot of hard work that takes place.

In my time studying companies, researching, and talking to teachers and school leaders around the globe, I’ve seen four areas that help spread this innovative type of innovative learning wide and far:

1. Sharing is Not the Same as Highlighting What Works and Fails

There’s a story about a woman at Google who lost the company millions. When she apologized to Larry Page, he told her, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk”. (Read more at Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine). Google is a company that actually values mistakes and is willing to pay for them. It’s probably a nightmare for their accountants and risk-averse types. 1

That story speaks volumes to anyone who works at Google, or anyone that wants to work at Google. Knowing that you’ll be able to innovate and fail (and not be fired for it) makes the hard work less risk averse than at other companies.

I see many schools, mine included, sharing the stories of successes, and celebrating those who are in the pockets of innovation. But what about highlighting the initiatives, pilots, and projects that might not have been that successful? When we highlight what works and fails, we highlight the process and the work that goes into innovation, instead of only the final outcome. This helps build a culture where, as Sir Ken Robinson says, “Everyone’s ideas are valued.”

Build a True Culture of Innovation

2. Reassurance of What Will Be Measured vs What Used to Be Measured

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (one of the most innovative companies in the world) offers this advice on building a culture of innovation: 2

What’s important is an ability to create spaces where trust can happen, where risks can get taken. We tend in our operationally minded view of the world to try and mitigate and design out as much risk as we can, but if you want to innovate, you have to take risks. And to take risks you have to some level of trust within the organization, because if people get penalized for failure, particularly the kind of failure that’s most useful which is where you learn a lot, then they’re not going to do it, in which case you’re not going to get any innovation.

Many teachers I talk to say the same thing:

My school (or school leader) still cares about our scores on the standardized tests. How can I possibly prepare students for these high stakes tests, and also do creative work in my classroom?

As leaders, we have to own up to this. If we are consistently praising and measuring teacher and student success with measures of “accountability” then that is what we’ll get…standard accountability.

Instead, when school leaders offer up new ways of measuring, praising, and assessing teachers based on creative and innovative pursuits/work, then that is what we’ll get. What we measure always will matter, and we need to be intentional about shifting the narrative.

3. Empower With Opportunities (Even for Those Struggling)

This one is simple. Give more people better opportunities for growth. Expand the pockets of innovation by supporting different teachers and having them attend conferences, Edcamps, online opportunities, and other avenues to empower their creative work.

The cycle of pockets of innovation will continue if the only people growing in a school are those that are already living in the pockets. We have to make the conscious decisions to spread the opportunities to all teachers and students.

4. A Framework for Creative Teaching and Learning

Tim Brown continued to speak about building a creative culture by saying:

Any organization that wants to innovate, wants to be prepared to innovate, I think, has to have a few things in place. One is-and perhaps the most important thing is-methods for having an open mind. A sense of inquiry, of curiosity is essential for innovation. And the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organizations that are too inward-facing, that don’t spend enough time out in the world.

What are your methods? How are you supporting inquiring and curious minds in your school or organization?

We often hear this myth of creative and innovative work. The myth that says it has to be “lightbulb” moments where one person has an amazing idea to share with the world. The truth is that creativity doesn’t work like that. It can be structured. It can be collaborative. There can be a framework and methods in place for creative work.

It’s why John Spencer and I created The LAUNCH Cycle. It’s a simple way to use the power of design thinking methods in a K-12 environment. We’ve seen teachers and students use this around the world during the Global Day of Design. We’ve used it in our own classrooms and schools. It’s a framework that can work in any grade, any level, and any subject.

As we work towards “poking holes in our pockets of innovation” we have to consider the alternative.

If we don’t expand this creative work, we leave ourselves open to being disrupted by outside forces that we will have no control or influence over.

Let’s move education forward by moving everyone forward. It’s not easy work, but it is the right work to be doing.