4 Small Questions That Lead to Innovative Breakthroughs

By AJ Juliani on March 16, 2017

Let’s start with the beginning.

I’m an idea guy. That is, I have a lot of ideas. As a teacher I would constantly improvise, come up with new projects, lesson ideas, tweaks to traditional assessments, and have an organic approach to learning in my classroom.

But they were still my ideas.

I was failing to value, foster, and spark ideas from my students. In fact, I would sometimes hurt their creativity and flow by moving on too quickly.

Sir Ken Robinson says:

“The role of the creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.”

That was problem #1.

Problem #2 happened when I really began to reflect on what work my students were creating, making, and producing. Quite honestly, as a 1:1 classroom teacher (all of my students had devices) I had students who created more “digital fridge art” than anything else.

I was using technology to spice things up and engage my students, failing to realize that technology can be another form of extrinsic motivation. The same can be said for Project-Based Learning and all types of “learning” that we package as a new way for students to achieve. There was not autonomy, purpose, or levels of mastery given to my students, it was still the carrot and the stick (but in techno-form).

The issue is that it’s still learning. No matter what we call it. And for learning to truly be innovative and inspire innovative work, it needs to be intrinsically motivated and extrinsically supported.

My teaching world was turned upside down with the 20% Project. I’ve written about this project extensively, but the basic idea is that I gave my students 20% of their class time  to learn and create anything they were passionate about and interested in (and they had to document and present what they learned and made).

At first, I believed that the level of innovative work I saw in this project was directly correlated to students having choice. And this was a huge piece to the puzzle. But it was not the only reason.

As I spoke with teachers around the world who were doing Genius Hour and 20% projects and passion-projects I kept hearing similar stories. The students struggled. The process was hard. And the results were uplifting.

In working with students and teachers there seemed to be common threads that connected the work:

1. Students were allowed to do so much more in class then they previously had in other learning experiences.

2. Teachers made time for certain collaborative and reflective activities that often fall through the cracks when we are trying to cover curriculum.

3. Teachers, student peers, and other members of the school community supported students in their learning through a variety of means.

4. Teachers, administrators, and peers praised certain actions and looked for unique types of creative work that are often hard to assess through traditional measures.

In doing research and pulling all of this information together while writing my first book, Inquiry & Innovation in the Classroom, I created this infographic as a starter framework for innovation in our schools.

Innovation in the classroom

The past two years I’ve been working to develop this idea with a number of teachers to go beyond being a “guiding” graphic, and instead be something we can use in our classrooms and schools to foster intentional innovation.

Four Simple Questions

George Couros (someone whose ideas on innovation in education I greatly admire) has said:

“Often, the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking.”

We must start connecting the actions and intentions of the teacher/leader to the types of learning and creating that ultimately takes place. 


The First Question is: What do We Praise, Look For, and Assess?

There is famous saying that “What you measure is what matters.” And this is very true in the teaching and learning world. If our schools are only successful based on standardized measures, then it is no coincidence that many focus their efforts on the performance of these measures. For our students, this tends to mean they believe handing work in on time, being compliant, and doing well on traditional assessments is what makes them a good student. It’s why a third of my 11th graders during the 20% project asked if they could just get a handout with a rubric instead of having to think for themselves on what they wanted to learn. Yet, when we change what we praise and look for in a classroom, students begin to adjust what matters. When we praise failure, look for grit, and assess the process (instead of only the final product) then students are empowered to share their work and grow as learners in a variety of ways.

The Second Question is: What do We Support?

Take for instance a school that solely focuses on standardized assessments. The teachers are not supported by the administration by bringing in new ideas or curiosity to their profession. Then it is increasingly difficult for teachers to support students when they create or make. Often they’ll never get the opportunity. Yet in schools like Wissahickon (where I taught) I was supported when I wanted to try something new in the classroom. Online and global opportunities like the Flat Classroom Project weren’t looked down upon. And when my students wanted to try something outside of the box or run with a project idea, I jumped at supporting their innovative work through ideas like Project: Global Inform. Support is a key ingredient to help those new ideas actually work.

The Third Question is: What do We Make Time For?

A constant complaint I hear from teachers and students is that they don’t have enough time. It drives stress levels up, and brings innovative work to a halt when we create curricula and schedules that are jam-packed with content and pre-determined lessons. When we make time for reflection/self-assessment (look at Hattie’s work), sharing, and making/tinkering our students (and our teachers) actually go out and TRY new things.

The Fourth Question is: What do We Allow?

What we allow for in our schools and classrooms will ultimately open up avenues for new ideas to develop. If we don’t allow for inquiry, choice, collaboration, digital tools, failing, then usually only the people in charge are allowed to have ideas.

Take a minute and answer those questions as a reflective activity right now if you have a few minutes? Would love your thoughts on the struggles each of these areas present as a teacher and a leader.

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