Creating an Environment Where Innovative Teaching and Learning Flourish

Last winter, as we were digging out of the twenty inches of snow, my kids were sledding in the backyard and hiding out in their igloo. My 6-yr old son had another snow day passion, filling up a plastic cup with snow to the brim and walking around calling it his “snow cone. I know what some of you are thinking: Don’t let your kid eat snow! Yes, it is a bit excessive, but scientists say it’s not really bad for you, so I gave in 🙂

He wouldn’t go anywhere without his snow cone. I yelled towards him, “Hey buddy, save some for the rest of us!”

He turned around, looked across the backyard and laughed. “There’s enough for everyone”, he said.

The next day as the temperature picked up and the snow began to melt, he came outside to see a different view and began to cry. As I asked him what was wrong, I found out he was worried the snow would melt all away and he couldn’t have any more snow cones.

I consoled him for a moment (as any Dad would do) but then went on to explain that winter wasn’t the only time you could have snow cones. I asked him, “What about in the summer when we go down to the beach and get snow cones?”

“It doesn’t snow in the winter”, he said.

“I know, but all you have to have is some ice, something to shave it, and a cup. Then you’ve got a snowcone in any condition!”

He wasn’t too sure about it, but he did remember having snow cones in the summer and felt a bit better. He was off playing something else in the next minute, completely forgetting about his beloved snow cones.

Conditions in Our Schools and Classrooms

Later that night I couldn’t help but think about the snow cone situation and how it plays out every day in schools and classrooms around the world.

We go to a conference and hear about innovative and creative work being done by high school students, but we make it about where the school is located, how they are funded, how much time they had, or who the students were.

We say that with our conditions that could never happen.

We read an article, blog post, or book and see the innovative and creative work being done middle school students, but wonder who gave them the permission, how they fit that into their curriculum and look at all of the technology they have to use.

We say that it would be nice to do that kind of work with our students, but our conditions prevent it from ever happening.

We watch a YouTube video, or FB live, or webinar and see the innovative and creative work being done by elementary school students, but ask out loud how they got their classroom to look like that, and question where the money for the supplies came from, or who came to help set all that up.

We say it looks awesome and fun and inspiring, but with our conditions that would be impossible.

It’s natural for us to act like my son. We think, surely this wonderful event (snow cone or innovative work) can’t happen unless the conditions are perfect! And yet, it’s often about how we influence the conditions. It’s how we tackle the problems and situations. It’s our attitude towards the learning that often matters the most.

Our Influence Is Greater Than We Think

I recently wrote an article,”The Real Influence We Have on Students“, where I share how a recent study showed that one simple phrase could boost student effort by 40%:

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

Sounds simple right? But baked into that phrase is support, encouragement, expectations, challenge, and a human element of believing in someone else.

This type of influence was never made more apparent to me then when I was speaking with Author/Speaker/Leader Principal El before his TEDx talk that the Upper Perk students put on. I asked Principal El the same question thousands of educators have over the last ten years. “What was it like starting a chess club at an inner-city school and helping your students achieve success on an international level?” His response was similar to what was written in a recent article:

I started teaching special education students mathematics by using a chessboard. I demonstrated how the knights move on right angles and the bishops move on diagonals. They did a great job at grasping the concepts. So, I decided to teach every kid in the school the benefits of chess—problem solving, critical thinking and patience. My goal for them was to become lifelong learners, not so much to become excellent chess players. I never imagined they would become national champions and go on to college, graduate school and law school! We should always follow our hopes and dreams as students and teachers. There should be no regrets…ever!

I often tell my students, “Smart is not something you are, it’s something you become.”

We often treat our circumstances as obstacles instead of challenges. Listening to Principal El speak at TEDxPennsburgED motivated me to flip my biases and concentrate on how I could personally influence the conditions of learning in our classrooms, at my school, and in our district.

Creating Conditions for Growth

Teachers and leaders around the world have grasped onto the notion of “growth” since the release of Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. The idea of focusing on a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset also speaks to our role as a facilitator of student growth.

I love this quote by Sir Ken Robinson on teachers as gardeners. The living process of education is one where conditions have to be influenced, molded, and supported in order for growth to sprout up. Still, we’ve all seen circumstances where plants grow in the cracks of a sidewalk, this is a great analogy to the forcefulness and power of learning. Certain conditions help it to grow, but learners have the ability to grow in a wide variety of conditions.

Creating the Conditions via Sir Ken

When we talk about the notion of creativity and innovation in our schools and classroom, are we looking at the conditions we help create and influence? Are we more worried about getting students to a certain destination, or allowing them to find their own way with support and guidance?

Creating Intentional Conditions for Innovation

There are FOUR specific ways we can influence the conditions for innovation in our schools and classrooms. This applies to both teachers and leaders. Each of these areas has limitations. We are bound by some constraints put forth by our state and local governments, and other measures that must be met.

However, just as the gardener does not get to pick and choose when the sun comes out, we can spend a whole lot of our time worrying about the things we can’t control, or start focusing on the things we can influence.

I believe in intentional innovation. A process where our actions and attitude leads to innovative work. It’s not about having the ideas, it’s about empowering ideas. It’s not about executing our plan, it’s about supporting others work and execution. I share the four specific ways in the simple framework listed below. When we spend time focusing on these areas, our habits lead to innovative work, and a creative mindset.

The PLASMA Framework connects the actions and intentions of the teacher to the types of learning and creating that ultimately takes place. 


The PLA in PLASMA represents 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 S in PLASMA represents what 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 M in PLASMA represents what 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 A in PLASMA represents 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, failure…then usually only the people in charge are allowed to have ideas.

How are you helping to create the conditions for innovative teaching and learning in your classroom, school, district, or organization? Would love to hear about your work in the comments.

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  • Alia says:

    I really liked this post. It is exactly what I always think of regarding my students. The idea of how to create innovative students who are willing to take risks in learning is what I always try to do.

  • Gary Gruber says:

    When I was working with a group of students who had the option of a Spring term project, now seen in the Capstone programs in numerous schools, a student said to me, “You mean I can choose anything that interests me and if my proposal is accepted I can spend my time doing that? I said, “Yep, that’s the idea, and the sky’s the limit.” She laughed out loud and said,
    “You don’t know how funny that is because I want to learn how to fly.” I said, “Go for it and be sure to include what you expect to learn besides how to pilot an airplane.” She did it successfully and her final presentation that included a video, received a standing ovation. She not only learned to fly in a literal sense, she learned that her “wings” could take her to places she had only imagined previously. One of the things she said in her presentation was “I realized that I could learn anything and do anything if I put my mind, heart and soul into it.”

  • Andrew says:

    Great article A.J.! The gardening analogy is perfect. I have a plant that was down to 2 leaves and I thought, plotted and worked to bring it back to life. It has 5 leaves now and seems to be coming back to life. How many students in our classrooms are down to 2 leaves or one? What can we do to get them growing again? I like Arthur Ashe’s quote: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” There is no reason to perseverate over what you have no control over, it is counter productive. What would education look like if we could all create opportunities like Gary’s where students are truly engaged in their own learning.

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