As a new teacher I remember getting into my classroom for the first time. I set up the space like classrooms I had seen before and enjoyed; I got my lesson plans in order; packed the filing cabinets with resources; started to make copies of overhead slides; put together an area for reading and stacked the shelves with books I had picked up in college or from my parents house.
Then the students arrived, and all my plans went out the window. I realized very quickly that the type of teaching I had been exposed to and grew up with, and the type of teaching taught at many undergrad programs…was quickly becoming a past practice. That’s not to say many of the pedagogical and instructional strategies I learned don’t stick with me today (the good ones always will) but these students were different learners than I was…and at the time I was only 22 years old.
After teaching in a nice classroom of my own at the middle school I jumped up to the high school ranks and became a “floating” teacher. We had recently joined the “Classrooms of the Future” movement and every teacher in our district received a Macbook. Many teachers had a cart of 30 Macbooks in their classroom, and every room had a SmartBoard installed. I taught in four separate classrooms and learned to digitally organize my classroom and instruction.
Flash forward eight years and the classrooms look very different in my same school district. In the two years since my district began our 1:1 laptop initiative our classrooms have evolved once more. New technology, new standards, and new content. Throughout this process I have tried my best to stay on top of where education is headed and what are the emerging “next” practices. Now when I talk to teachers in my district and around the country, I try to focus on the key elements of innovative teaching. With technology, standards, and content continually changing…these “innovative commandments” give teachers a starting point regardless of their situation.
1. Innovative teachers must offer choice
Commandment #1 might be the most important. I spent a lot of time as a teacher figuring out new ways to inspire and motivate my students. Sometimes it worked, but often I would fail to reach all of them. Then one day I gave my students choice. Not some “fake choice” assignment where they could pick one topic out of a box of topics…but REAL choice. You know what happened? Students were inspired and motivated to learn by themselves…and by each other. And they did a much better job at inspiring then I ever could. Choice gives students the ability to go above and beyond our curricular limitations…try to give as much choice as possible and watch your students innovate.
2. Innovative teaching allows for failure
Maybe this one should be re-labled “provide growth opportunities”. We learn best after failing. In fact, you should start promoting epic failures in your classroom. Give a round of applause when students fail because now the learning can really begin. This doesn’t work too well with tests…but with projects it is great! If you create a culture where failure is not only accepted, but embraced…your students will not be afraid to challenge themselves.
3. Mentorship comes in all forms
Remember when learning was hard? It took time to find an answer. You had to search the library, ask the right teacher, or find some type of adult of expert who had knowledge and ask for guidance. Today’s learners can find out what a professor at MIT thinks about the future of robots…and we have to be ok that his/her answer if most likely much better than ours ever would be. In the same fashion we have to model to our students where to find the “right answers” to their questions. Their learning mentor could be Google, Siri, YouTube, Udemy, Quora etc. These sites and platforms can connect our learners to better information than we ever had, it would be a shame for us not to show them how to best use it!
4. Technology with a purpose
I recently had a teacher ask me what I thought about Prezi. I told them I really liked it for some uses and then asked them what they were going to use it for… They responded that their students needed to do a presentation and Prezi seemed like a cool new format to present. I agreed. When I dug deeper on the assignment it was short 1-2 minute presentation on a recent medical discovery. While I agreed that Prezi was an awesome tool for presentations…it didn’t make sense for the students to spend time learning a whole new platform and putting together a presentation in Prezi (it takes a while) for this topic.
I suggested them using Haiku Deck because it was super-simple, easy to use, and they could create on any device. Students could then get to their presentation material quicker, and allow for some deeper tasks in the future. My point was use technology with a purpose. And understand which tool (technology) is right for which job (assignment or project). In order to do this you must be informed on what options are out there…or ask a colleague that knows. Don’t waste your time, or your students time by using techn for tech’s sake.
5. Build something together
You know what is so much better than one student working passionately on something they care about? Students collaborative together to build something that matters…to them…and the world (more on that later). How often do you let your students collaborate? I’m not talking about “Think, Pair, Share”. I mean real collaboration where they work through problems together and come up with solutions, and test those solutions, and then debate whether or not they can improve upon that solution… Give them a chance to build something together, and they’ll learn much more than they could learn by themselves.
6. From local to global
When I first did the Flat Classroom Project my students realized that they are not alone in their “learning”. And they also learned that students all around the world were just like them. They struggled to learn, and had to work hard to create. My students were no longer naive about their place in a global education system and we had many discussions about what it would be like to not only compete with these students for college spots and job positions, but also work with them in college and in the workforce. At the same time, you can’t forget to have a focus on your local community. When we do project with our local watershed, or run community fundraisers its about a bigger cause. Teachers need to tie “innovation” with both local and global experiences, because both allow students to interact with the real world.
7. Standards are guidelines, you are the architect
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe made a great point when they said: “The standards are like the building code. Architects and builders must attend to them but they are not the purpose of the design. The house to be built or renovated is designed to meet the needs of the client in a functional and pleasing manner – while also meeting the building code along the way.”
Don’t let new standards get in the way of innovative teaching. That is a lazy excuse. Instead, use standards as a starting “code” for creative lessons and projects that promote design thinking and innovative learning experiences.
8. Be a learner first and model it
I’ve had a number of great coaches in my life, but my one football coach will always stand out. He wasn’t our head coach but worked specifically with the offense. He sticks out in my mind because he looked at the game differently. He would see things in film and relate them to a game he watched on TV. He would bring in new ideas that he came back with from clinics and camps and other coaches playbooks. He never stopped learning. And we could see it as players. He was never satisfied. He demonstrated what a growth mindset looks like to a learner. I was his student, but he inspired me because he was relentless in learning. We in turn wanted to watch film and break down other defenses because of his modeling. Remember, it is what you do…not what you say…that speaks volumes to your students.
9. Flexible with high expectations
My students like to say I challenge them. My players that I coach say the same thing. And I admit that I have high expectations for myself, our team, our students, and our school. But with high expectations often comes lack of flexibility. Innovation doesn’t happen without either of these. Have high expectations for your students and they will rise to meet a challenge, but also to have the flexibility to go with what is working and change paths if need be. It is a fine line to walk as learners, but keep an open mind about what is possible, and anything really can happen.
10. A challenge that is fun
I really shouldn’t have waited till #10 to mention the word fun! Learning needs to be fun. The process may have its ups and downs, and it should be challenging. However, it should have moments of pure fun and enjoyment. One of my favorite quotes is by the late professor and author Randy Pausch of the Last Lecture. Randy says, “If you can’t learn and have fun at the same time, then I’m not sure you have a good understanding of either.” As human beings we enjoy a challenge. It’s a different kind of fun then going to Disney World, but I’d argue that it may also be a better type of fun. Let your students work hard and have fun in their learning experiences. They’ll thank you for it.
I’m sure I left a few things off this list that would be considered innovative teaching. Let me know in the comments and add your thoughts to the discussion!
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