PLASMA: A Framework for Innovation in Our Schools

PLASMA Framework

This is the third post in a three-part series on “Intentional Innovation.” Check out the other two posts here (#1 and #2).

I know, I know. You’re saying, “AJ, why do we need another framework in education! And why, oh why would you create another acronym that I have to remember!”

I hope, if you’ve read this far, that you’ll give me a chance to explain myself. Why I feel this framework is needed right now, and why I had to make it into an acronym (PLASMA is kind of cool though right?). Better yet, I hope you’ll see the process and story behind PLASMA and how it has impacted my own work in the classroom and as a school leader (and quite frankly, as a parent).

Oh, and did I mention that the whole reason I’m sharing this is to get YOUR opinions, perspectives, feedback, and insight onto how this framework can apply in our schools.

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

While this framework provided some actionable ideas and tips for bringing innovation into our schools, it still lacked the practical structure and correlation to actual innovative work.

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

Building A Framework That Matters

If you are like me, then you’ve come across your fair share of educational frameworks. Whether it is UBD (Understanding by Design) for backwards curricular planning, SAMR (Substitute, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) for technology integration, or TPACK for combining technology, content knowledge, and pedagogical awareness. There are many, many frameworks…yet as I researched the connection of these frameworks to innovative work, I was often taken down a rabbit hole with no clear end.

Derek Muller of Veritasium has created an epic video, “This Will Revolutionize Education”, where he talks about the fallacy of technology’s impact on teaching and learning. I’ve shared this video when I speak about technology because it makes the point that learning is still about what happens inside our head, and teaching is still about inspiring, challenging, and motivating each learner:

This video speaks directly to my ideas surrounding innovation. And I’ll make it very clear:

Technology ≠ Innovation in Education

The key to this understanding is that technology has (and will) played an important role in many types of innovation. From how we travel (horses to cars, boats to planes) to how we communicate (radio, TV, computer, internet) t0 how we live (electricity, solar, etc).

Yet, there have been few technological innovations that were created specifically for education. The internet has played an enormous role in allowing anyone in the world to learn anything they want at anytime (providing they have a device and internet access). And although it is one of the greatest learning tools of all time…it was not developed for that purpose.

The technology devices we bring into schools now – laptops and iPads and smart phones – were not developed for educational purposes.

And the list could go on. Even the software used in most schools was primarily developed for business before it was brought to education (this the Microsoft Office Suite and even Google Apps).

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.”

This can go both ways. Our thinking hinders us to move forward and try to create “new ideas that work” but it also limits how we think about innovation.

If we believe innovation in our schools is always correlated to technology, than we look for a new technology that can be a game changer. However, if we realize that technology plays a role in innovation, but is not necessarily the “new idea” then we can use it with a purpose to make those “new ideas” actually work!

The PLASMA Framework

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


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.

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 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 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.

How to Use the PLASMA Framework

There are three main ways to use the PLASMA Framework. Although, I’m sure you as a reader and educator will be able to help finalize this as to how it is used best!

1. As a Self-Audit and Assessment

As Hattie’s work and many other studies point out, self-reflection/assessment is a powerful learning tool. Using the PLASMA Framework as a self-audit provides a way of analyzing what you are allowing, making time for, supporting, and praising as a teacher or leader.

Then the second step is to correlate and impact to what students are doing in your classroom, or teachers are doing in your school.

2. As a Planning Tool

As a fairly new school administrator I’m still learning what it means to be a leader. One thing that is incredibly difficult to do is be both supportive and directive in my role. However, as I think about my first few years teaching (and coaching) the same was true. When should I be supportive? When should I be directive? What balance works best for which students and players?

With the PLASMA Framework I’m looking for a cause and effect. So last year when we Allowed our teachers to have full admin rights and control over their devices, I wanted to see the impact. We planned for certain measures and what would happen when we Allowed for admin rights.

How would we Support teachers in this process? What would we Look For as we moved forward? If all we did was Look For times when they abused this privilege and Support them when malware or a virus was detected…then really would it have any type of impact on the work they were doing with students? Instead we can use PLASMA as a planning tool to continually refine how our actions as teachers and leaders lead to an impact in the classroom.

3. As an Observation Tool

Have you ever observed someone using the HEAT/LOTI Framework or ISTE’s iCot tool? The tools themselves are not bad. After using them as observations tools I can understand why Scott McLeod helped build TRUDACOT because it goes into more depth while giving more flexibility and accounting for levels of instructional impact.

PLASMA serves as a basis to objectively record what teachers are Praising, Looking For, Assessing, Supporting, Making Time For, and Allowing.

Pairing this observation with one that objectively records what students are doing in class can connect the actual actions and learning environment to what students do. This also can be used as a group work observation or team observation as well.

More to Follow…

I believe I’ve already said to much in this post! At 2000+ words I’m going to save some practical examples of use for another post.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this framework and how it can be used to foster innovative work in our schools!

Photo Credit: Pawel Pacholec via Compfight cc

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