Creating the Conditions for Innovative Teaching and Learning

Last weekend, 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 4-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.”[footnote]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 :)[/footnote]

He wouldn’t go anywhere without his snow cone. I yelled to 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.[footnote]You may think this is sad that he began to cry, however, he tends to cry a lot when something doesn’t go his way. Remember, he is four. Still, it did catch me off guard.[/footnote] 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 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 every happening.

We watch a YouTube video, or live Periscope, 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 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 than when speaking with teacher, author, and speaker Principal El before his TEDx talk at our event last spring. 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 my classroom, 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 have 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 PLASMA 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 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 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 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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Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Paula says:

    The M in your acronym really resonates with my own professional reflections. I realize that I need to allow more time for both reflection and tinkering for my students in class. I am often afraid we might not get to something that I have planned that I don’t allow enough time for reflection of what we just did. I have allowed tinkering to get pushed aside when I know how important that is for myself. I will intentionally make time for both!

  • Jessie says:

    I appreciate how you combined the idea of innovation with expectation. The two go hand in hand! The garden analogy is one I know I will find myself coming back to as well. Do you already have student success stories related to the innovation process posted somewhere or should we just look for them in the book?

  • Elizabeth Martin says:

    I work with Paula (above), and I always challenge teachers to provide reflection time for students and to plan the questions to trigger reflection. Our students are enjoying more freedom to chart their own learning course.

  • Beverly Scow says:

    Focussed Conversation is a great way to support reflection and learning. Technology of Participation (ToP) Facilitation Methods is a great way to learn it and/or The Art of Focussed Conversations in Schools is a great one too

  • Dena Merrell says:

    I love the part of the article that talked about focusing on the things we can control. In Education, looking for those things we can change and/or do different, based on our passions, is essential to helping children grow and develop. The focus on the things we can control is looking “above the line” for sure.

  • Stephanie says:

    “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.” – – – I liked the fact that the focus is on the PROCESS of learning and that failure is sometimes part of that. Also, that we can acknowledge the “grit” students put into their work and not only focus on the finished product.

  • David Harris says:

    I like the idea that you can learn while having a snow day. I guess I learned a couple things today. For example, building a snow fort with a window in it, really doesn’t give you an advantage.
    It’s true that “making time” for learning and projects is very important. I also think that the article makes a great point in saying the conditions have to be right for learning, and more importantly teachers have to take charge of the conditions in their classroom.

  • […] about knowledge bombs being dropped in their podcast classroom questions. In AJ’s article Creating the Conditions for Innovative Teaching and Learning he talked about the PLASMA framework for how to be innovative and intentional in education […]

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