Who gets to decide what’s innovative in education?

I was talking with a teacher in my school district yesterday who said, “I just don’t know if we should try this again in class. It seems like lots of people online have already done it, and I read a few blog posts that really criticized it.”

I asked her, “Well, how did it work for you and your students the first time?”

“It was great,” she said. “The kids enjoyed it and want to do it again. But a lot of people think it’s all fun and games, not necessarily any substance to it.”

I asked again, “Well, what do you think? Did it have substance and purpose in your class?”

“Yes, the kids were engaged and excited to learn. It was fun but also had purpose.”

I left the conversation happy we had talked it out, but also upset that others who were not in her class were trying to dissuade her from trying something new (and in her mind innovative) with her students. In fact, I was a bit angry.
Who decides what is innovative

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts, articles, and videos where people are deciding what’s innovative for everyone. And while I respect the opinions of everyone sharing their thoughts online, I’m a bit tired of the judgment being placed on teachers and school leaders and people trying to do innovative work.

There seems to be a big misconception, that if something was done before and it didn’t work in one classroom then it’s not innovative. Or if something has been done for five years already and it’s being done “everywhere” then it’s not innovative.

If you’re a teacher, school leader, or parent who is trying something new to help your kids and your students learn better that’s awesome! Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not innovative, and you shouldn’t try it, and it’s already been done before.

We seem to forget that there’s this giant continuum we are all on. Some of us jump on at different points, and some of us experiment with different things, and some of us don’t know everything that’s been done before in other schools.

It’s About the People Doing the Work

If you’re a teacher and want to flip your classroom and you think that’s going to work for your students, then do it and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

If you’re thinking of doing Genius Hour or a 20% project but you’re seeing people online say, “well that’s not enough”, just do it. What your students are learning and creating will prove them wrong.

If you want to use a new app, new tool, or something that people are saying is just another “fad” go ahead and experiment. If you think it’s going to work in your classroom, with your students (that you know best), then go and do it and don’t let them tell you it’s not innovative.

If you want to use pencil and paper (or cardboard and duct tape) in new ways then go and do it because that’s what’s innovative and may work for your situation.

There’s not some governing board that gets to decide what’s innovative and what’s not innovative. There’s not some expert out there that gets to say “well that won’t work in your classroom” because they don’t know your classroom. They don’t know your kids. They don’t know your circumstances.

I wish we would spend less time debating what’s innovative work and more time celebrating what’s happening in our schools right now this very moment.

Because there is so much good happening.

Don’t let others sway you from trying something new in your class or school. Don’t let the opinions of people who know better stop you from doing things that might work.

If it’s a new idea to you and your students and it works in your class then it’s innovative.

The only people who get to decide what’s innovative are the people who are actually doing the work. Those that are teaching, leading, creating, sharing, and learning.

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16 comments… add one

  • Perfect point in that we so often forget that the people that matter are the students in the classroom. I would also surmise that there are many people promoting or criticizing who have actually never done the work in the classroom either. We all need to remember that each decision must be made with the intentions of what works for each individual student. When I read what doesn’t work, I often wonder whether that conclusion came from experience and ignorance. I’d also add that it’s important to acknowledge that learning is not a continuum, even for us as educators. There are entry points and places to get on and off and that what is novel to one right now, was to someone else and will be someday to another. ANd that’s ok too.

    Reply
    • Love this comment Chad-thanks for reading! You know what’s fascinating is that so many people (me included) have strong opinions of education because most of us went through the K-12 experience. It’s different than most any other field in the world because so many have been a student in this system and have experienced success or tough times that is specific to their own situation. I love that we live in a world now where people are openly sharing ideas, challenging past practices, and voicing their opinions on what works (and what doesn’t) in education.

      But you are right, there are many entry points and places to get on and off when doing this work. My hope is that we can continue challenging each other, but better yet, continuing inspiring each other. I have to do a better job myself at sharing the stories and experiences that are happening right now in my school and others around the world. So many people are doing fantastic work, and sometimes it gets lost in arguments.

      Thanks again for sharing!

      Reply
  • I hope you will extend this grace to school libraries, which you often point to as desperately needing innovation. In a recent post, you noted that the Dewey Decimal system by which many libraries are still organized is irrelevant; while I don’t explicitly teach the DDC to students, they still find it useful to know that if they know the Dewey number of their favorite nonfiction topic, they can find what they want in our community’s public library and most libraries across the US. And believe it or not, they find it pretty cool to know they can walk into any library and know where to find what they want. The standardization that Dewey brought to libraries was innovative way before innovation was cool.

    Reply
    • Of course! Who am I to say what works and what doesn’t in your library–it’s up to you as a librarian and teacher to decide what works best in your situation and under your circumstances. My argument was that as the world changes so do practices (like Dewey Decimal and many others). Some are transformed, others are eliminated, and some stick around. The Dewey debate is something that was shared with me by our school librarian–as written about in the School Library Journal and American Librarian Association.

      As I pointed out in the comments in the last article, I have fantastic librarians at my school who are helping many students. What I challenge them to do (just as I challenge myself) is to always take a look at what practices are still valuable for our students today. And this article by John Spencer (that I also shared in the comments in SAMR piece) still rings true today as a valid opinion on what a library should be: http://www.spencerideas.org/2015/02/we-need-libraries-as-much-as-maker.html

      Reply
  • Thanks for expounding on this point! It is always important to remember why we need innovation in the first place. A 30 inch height on a table is great for a lot of people. However, sometimes it needs to be raised or lowered for the user. Whether sawing off the legs or using different seat heights, you have to use what you have to make it happen. With students, there should always be innovative approaches by teachers to help them meet their goals. If it works for that student, I say do it and let the naysayers figure out how they can quantify it for their “big data” research!

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    • Thanks for the comment Terry. Love your analogy! And we will never know “what works” unless we experiment and try new things and new practices.

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  • I love the idea of a continuum. Teachers receive enough criticism from the outside. We need to create a positive environment that encourages innovation in whatever form it takes. Let’s build each other up; not tear each other down. Save your judgement for those teachers who are not even trying to reach kids.

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  • Amen. I’m retired, but still follow your blog. It’s inspiring to know there are still “real” teachers out there in the trenches doing what is best for kids!

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    • Hi Nancy, yes there are so many out there doing great work, trying their best everyday, going above and beyond (just like there always has been with teachers)!

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  • You said it all. I’m about to retire. I wish I could tell everyone that the key to teaching effectively to to keep learning trying new things. Kids keep on changing, parents change, we have to change to keep up. Besides that, this is what makes teaching fun. When you try something and see it work, it is amazing!

    Reply
    • Yes, Sue you are so right! This is what makes teaching fun :) – Thank you for impacting so many as a teacher.

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  • Hi
    Another great debate. 2 comments:
    1) You say, “If it’s a new idea to you and your students and it works in your class then it’s innovative.”. I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. Students and teachers will both learn from unsuccessful innovations, possibly more than from successful ones.
    2) There is a strong argument for letting the students be part of or even lead the innovation process
    a) this is the equivalent of customer input to new product development in a commercial situation and as such extremely valuable
    b) If students want to innovate, we don’t teachers to be acting the role of the much maligned “Gainsayers”.

    Reply
  • Well said, but I would like to add that the essence of the word innovative is ‘something new and unique.’ If your students are experiencing something new and unique to them, it’s innovative, whether it has been done in hundreds of classrooms in other places. The learning outcomes and benefits are for YOUR students. Don’t they all deserve the chance to try something “innovative?”

    Reply
  • I can relate to this article as I have been through it myself when I made the choice 8 years ago to use digital technologies with 1st graders then. It caused lots of jealousy mostly and lots of criticism with my team but my mindset of how I was going to transform my teaching had already been made up. Great points mentioned here. I can rant but choosing not to do so. There is so much I have learned from trying what others have tried and not ashamed to admit it because we all have different students and classrooms! Don’t be discouraged and keep marching on. I now have teachers and leaders looking at how my classroom has changed my school culture. Some are just not there yet!!

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  • I agree wholeheartedly that there is simply too much judgement in innovative teaching. Innovation is about ideas and change. That does not mean that everything that currently exists is bad. I find that the hacking revolution also bends too far toward the “everything is bad” side of reality and turns people away as a result. When things work well, we know it and we go with them. When they don’t, we look to innovate. The best part about teaching is that even when things work amazingly well once, different kids, different years or different moon phases mean that you can easily come across the complete opposite the next time around. Creativity, flexibility and acceptance are key. High challenge, low risk!

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  • Thanks so so much for this post! It fills my heart with joy because even though I´ve been teaching for almost 27 years, in Argentina and the US, I´m still trying to “innovate”, let´s say …create?, more and more ways for my students to learn what I have to teach: English as a Foreign Language with a major goal: take Cambridge International Exams which will enable them to travel to Canada and UK if they succeed. I work in a private school, which I really love, but does not invest in technology. I have been trying to make my students alternate between tech and coursebooks, but all the tech we have is good cell phones (which is FANTASTIC) but 3G or 4G sometimes is not so good. What do I do? First, I resort to my Ss´willingness to use their phones, which actually belong to them, and the bills are paid by their parents, if you know what I mean. They already pay a fee at school which is the one that needs to provide most of the material but it is not. Then, I take a HUGE risk because kids can easily get distracted using some other apps,(Snapchat and/or Instagram) and go off task. :)…but these kids (12-13-14 years old) are out-of-this-world!: they would do what I say: just look for the information, or Google whatever I ask them, use Dictionary apps to look up Vocabulary and work from home to upload on the school webpage/virtual campus because all we do NEEDS to be through that page. Can we call that innovation? Warmest regards from Buenos Aires!

    Reply

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