5 Things Innovative Schools Do Differently

Have you ever wondered how some schools have made the jump from a 20th century mindset to innovative institutions? It’s no secret that these schools have to deal with the same standardized tests, the same new education policies and laws, and the structures that we all have to overcome…yet they’ve been able to move forward instead of treading water.

A few months ago I interviewed Principal Eric Sheninger for my upcoming book, Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom, and our discussion focused on what every school can do to bring innovation into their culture. Make no mistake, this is not the easiest task, but it can be accomplished by embracing a few “habits” that set the course for real change.

1. Innovative schools aren’t afraid

What is your school afraid of? Is your school afraid of doing poorly on standardized tests if they move to a project-based curriculum? Is your school afraid of losing a higher ranking when they push for more internships and less AP placements? Is your school afraid of parents complaining, school board questions, and teachers struggling to keep up?

It’s normal to be afraid of “what is going to happen” when making a change. But we need to remember that change is constant, and the only way our students and teachers can be innovative..is if they are allowed to step out and do something different.

Innovative schools aren’t afraid of change, they embrace it.

2. Innovative schools make mistakes

If a school can make a mistake and learn from it, imagine what type of message that sends to the teachers and students. Innovative schools continually push the envelope of teaching and learning, and sometimes this leads to mistakes. Mistakes with technology, mistakes with curriculum, and mistakes with training.

But, that doesn’t hold innovative schools back from moving forward. They get back up, and keep going. Notice, this isn’t one person making a mistake, it is the organization…and the entire school can learn and improve from mistakes if that is built into the culture.

Innovative schools make mistakes and learn from them.

3. Innovative schools are transparent

What goes hand in hand with “not being afraid” and “making mistakes”? Transparency.

Sheninger said one of the most important “small changes” his school made was being transparent:

Another small change was becoming a more transparent administrator and sharing the innovative practices taking place within the walls of my school. With Twitter I have been able to give my stakeholders a glimpse into my role as an educational leader. Facebook has been an incredible tool to share realtime information, student achievements, and staff innovations. Both of these tools combined have given my stakeholders and the greater educational community a bird’s eye view into my school and the great things happening here.

Transparency is making sure all stakeholders are involved and understand where you are headed as a school. That way, when you make a change (or make a mistake) everyone will be aware of what is going on and the reasons behind moving forward. Again, this may seem scary to many schools, which is why #1 is “don’t be afraid”!

4. Innovative schools use technology the right way

Technology is a tool. It’s a great learning tool when used properly, but can also serve as a distraction when used poorly.

When I taught high school English I would often have to check myself on whether or not I was using student laptops as “teenage pacifiers”. Put them in front of students and sit back…

It is a tough trap for any teacher. I can fool myself into believing students are actively working, when really they could be watching a YouTube music video or playing a game. However, because I was aware of this, I focused much of my tech integration around “active lessons”.

  • Active research where students were sharing their results and resources in real time
  • Active collaboration between students in class online
  • Active creation of digital products and media artifacts

I could pop in and view what they were doing online, or I could walk around and work with small groups (or 1-on-1) on specific problems. Once the class was over I could use tools like Google Revision History to “actively” see what students were accomplishing in class.

Technology can be used for many learning purposes, but innovative schools make sure the tools are used the right way.

5. Innovative schools are connected

Eric made it clear in our interview that this was the most important piece to the innovative school equation. You can’t be innovative while living in a bubble. Sure, you can do some great work, but if it is not shared with the world, and if you are not actively learning from the world…then you’ll reach just the tip of the iceberg.

Does your school have social media accounts? Are your teachers actively connecting with other teachers online? What about your administrators? Are you sending various stakeholders to conferences and Edcamps? Are you comparing your data to thousands of other schools with a tool like Clarity from BrightBytes?

What can you do today, this week, this month to get more connected as a school? Whatever it is, it will help move you forward.

Big thanks to Eric Sheninger for sharing his wisdom with me, and there is so much more wisdom available in his new book, Digital Leadership. Pick up a copy if you haven’t already!

PS – You can download my free “Innovative Teaching Toolbox” below and please let me know in the comments how you are innovative in your work. We can all learn from each other!

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