We Need to Trust Teachers to Innovate

If we want to see innovation happening in our schools, we need to trust, encourage, and empower teachers to transform their practice. Too often, teachers are forced to teach inside the box and it can feel frustrating. In this post, I explore why teachers are the innovators, what’s getting in the way, and what we can do about it.

Innovation is happening every day . . . if we’re paying attention to it.

Each day, when I ask my kids about their school day, I am blown away by what they are learning. Here is a quick sample from a single day:

My daughter tells about a hands-on, STEM / problem-solving challenge she did in class. It was so hard for her to figure out and she actually ended up in tears but now she’s hoping they do another one on next Monday.

My middle son tells me about how his teacher has students celebrate their “epic mistakes” and how she has them talk about what they are learning from them. “I feel like I can choose harder work because I’m not afraid of making mistakes.” He then tells me about the Genius Hour project that he’s doing and why he loves going to school each day.

My oldest mentions the Socratic Seminars he’s doing in Language Arts and the way he’s exploring current events through critical thinking. Then his eyes light up as he shares every intricate detail from his engineering class, where he gets a new challenge each week.

These stories aren’t rare. Recently, my middle son talked about how cool it was to create his own blog. My daughter talked about the books she got to choose from the library. My oldest son was excited about how challenging his math class has been.

The bottom line is this: amazing things are happening all the time but we’ve somehow bought into the idea that these things are ordinary simply because they happen often. But they’re not ordinary. They’re amazing. And they’re small innovations that make a huge difference. And it all begins with teachers.

The Future of Learning Is Already In Your Classroom

Last year, I created the following video for my cohort:

This is something I believe to my core. The future of education can’t be found in a gadget or an app or a program or a product. It doesn’t require a think tank full of pundits. No, the future of education can be found in the classroom. Every classroom is packed with creative potential and teachers have the power to make it happen.

It’s what happens when we experiment. It’s what happens when we give our students voice and choice. It’s what happens when we abandon the scripted curriculum and take our students off-road in their learning. It’s what happens when we choose to teach to your students rather than teaching to the test. It’s what happens when we unleash the creative power of all of our students — when we make the bold decision to let them make things and design things and solve problems that they find relevant.

Sometimes it’s messy and even confusing. It often looks humble. But every time students get the chance to be authors, filmmakers, scientists, artists, and engineers, we are planting the seeds for a future we could have never imagined on our own. But it all begins with teachers who are willing to take the creative leap. However, this is sometimes easier said than done.

Too Often, Teachers Aren’t Trusted to Innovate

This last week, I received an email from one of my students. He described the frustrations of developing an engaging unit plan only to be told by his cooperating teacher that he had to use the district’s scripted curriculum instead. Now, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with boxed curriculum. After all, a great novel is essentially “boxed.” The issue is when institutions force teachers to use boxed curriculum in a lock-step way where they lack the permission to make it their own.

This district adopted the prescribed curriculum as a way to embrace “best practices in education.” And yet . . . the district also describes the needs to meet the demands of a “21st Century Learning” and “spark innovation.”

But here’s the thing: innovation requires you to step into the unknown. If we focus all of our attention on best practices and codify these ideas into tightly packaged curriculum, we will inevitably fail to experiment. Here’s a little diagram I created on this topic:

innovation impracticality impractical john spencer

Too often, schools talk about innovation but they fail to trust their teachers to innovate in their own practice. Leaders pass out sets of boxed curriculum and we end up with master chefs who are stuck making Hamburger Helper or master artists doing paint by numbers. If we want innovative schools, we need to trust teachers to transform the learning. True, they can get ideas from curriculum and they can seek out experts but ultimately teachers are the ones who are closest to the students.

What can teachers do about this?

Okay, so we know that teachers are the key to innovation in the classroom. But sometimes the system seems stacked against them. We have rigid curriculum maps, tight deadlines, bell schedules, and the dreaded standardized tests. In some cases, we have scripted curriculum that strips the craft out of teaching. It can feel hopeless. However, here are some of the strategies I’ve seen from innovative teachers that I’ve observed who were stuck in rigid systems.

  1. Make it a pilot. If you’re not sure if your administration will support an innovative practice, try pitching it as a pilot. By doing this, you are sharing it as a temporary idea rather than a permanent change. Most administrators want to do what’s best for kids but they can be reticent to jump on board with a massive change. So, if you can pitch your idea as a small experiment to help out kids, it will be easier to get permission.
  2. Find the wiggle room. This is your chance to think divergently. Your rigid curriculum map might say you have 3 days to cover a specific standard but it doesn’t tell you which standards you can’t teach. So, incorporate more standards and projects. If you have a boxed curriculum, find ways to compact it and move toward a project-based approach. I remember when I had to teach this regimented 4-hour ELL block (one hour for grammar, one for oral language, one for writing, and one for speaking). At first, it felt impossible to innovate. However, I was soon able to turn grammar hour into our blogging and podcasting block and take part of the oral language block and redesign it for STEM. This approach requires you to see things from a different angle and ask, “How can I get away with doing what I know is best for kids while also following the rules?”
  3. Get a team on board. If an entire grade level goes to leadership and says, “We want to try this new approach,” it becomes harder to say “no.” But this goes beyond asking for permission. It’s easier to experiment when you have a full team that can provide support along the way. You are able to lean on each other when things feel confusing or frustrating and the change is more likely to become sustainable.
  4. Show the research. I remember sending an email to my principal explaining my approach to PBL and design thinking. I shared how it was used in various industries as well as the studies linking the process to deeper learning. I also included research on competency-based and mastery-based assessment. My principal was able to see that I wasn’t just conjuring up crazy ideas. I was conjuring up crazy research-based ideas — which is slightly different. In other words, I had been thinking strategically about the changes I was about to implement.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders. If you’re about to do Cardboard Challenges, send a note home explaining the critical thinking skills and creativity involved. Explain to parents how their kids will be learning to think like engineers. If you are about to launch a blogging project, tell your parents about global collaboration and the power of launching work to the world. Innovation can be messy and you’re going to make mistakes. However, if parents are excited about it, they’ll view the mistakes as iterations and learning experiences rather than evidence of failure. But this requires us to tell better stories.

I want to take a deeper dive into this last part. When we share the stories of the epic things students are doing, we move from pockets of innovation into a grassroots movement that empowers kids.

Sharing the Stories of Innovation

This is why it’s more vital than ever that we are telling the stories of the good things that are happening in our schools. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Share your journey through social media. For the last two years, we have had people use a hashtag for the Global Day of Design. It was so cool to watch it trend on Twitter, wedged in between two snarky hashtags related to political current events. If you clicked on what was trending, you would see mean-spirited memes, more mean-spirited memes, and then suddenly a video of fourth graders making Rube Goldberg machines and then a picture from across the globe students making roller coasters. It was awesome.
  2. Have your students publish their work to a real audience. For all the fear surrounding social media, we make a mistake when we say, “avoid this” without saying, “try out this.” Too often, the goal is to avoid a digital footprint at all cost rather than finding ways to create a positive digital footprint.
  3. Partner with the community. Find ways to invite businesses, organizations, and families into your building. Instead of simply “seeing what’s happening,” they get a chance to be partners in projects and this leads to better relationships and deeper trust.
  4. Brag about your students. Without naming names or identifying too much information, make it your goal as a teacher to tell people on Facebook or Twitter how much you care about your students along with what types of projects they are doing. Most people outside of the classroom are friends with current classroom teachers. Even if they don’t comment on the posts, they will tend to view schools more positively when they hear bits and pieces of the cool things teachers are doing.
  5. Share your story. If you’re a teacher, consider blogging. Produce a podcast. Make a video series. One of the things I’ve realized is that the media won’t invite teachers to the table. You have to choose alternative platforms where you push back against the narrative that our schools are broken and our teachers are awful. So, share your story and let people see the tiny innovations that are making a big difference. It might not seem like a big deal to you but it’s a big deal to your students.

Maybe it’s time we celebrate teachers. Maybe it’s time we invite current classroom teachers to share a vision for the future of education because, honestly, they are the ones who are already making this a reality. And maybe it’s time we trust teachers to lead the way in transforming their classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

18 responses

  1. This sounds nice and rings true, for what we ought to build and work toward…However, there are days that I just can’t. My kids are ridiculous, won’t follow directions, won’t stop talking and tattling. It takes all my energy just to not hate what I’m doing. Thankfully, it mostly ebbs and flows as the year goes on.

    To always strive for this state in my class puts me in a state of constant low-grade anxiety. Sometimes I need it to feel okay to sometimes use Hamburger Helper. I don’t want to live there anymore, but my creativity tank is filled with algae, and mud and I am just tired and frustrated and I feel, from my own expectations of wanting to do better, completely overwhelmed.

    This is my 14th year teaching and I am in a strange place. I love the freedom our admin and district give us, and I love trying new things. At the same time, I have a tough class that is very low and about 8 of my kids are not responding to Tier 1 interventions, and it is draining. When I get back up and running I plan on getting back up and dusting myself off and innovating. Right now, I am tired.

    I appreciate your passion and blog. I have learned a lot and still have far to go. Right now, I rest. For now. For this season.

    1. I understand the role of rest and I totally get why teachers choose to use the packaged curriculum. I had one of those survival years and it was rough. I struggled.

      The point I’m bringing up in my post is that teachers aren’t given the opportunity to innovate and they should be given that professional autonomy.

  2. I appreciate your approach to innovation and working with others like your principal to make change happen. Can you point me to the research you used to help convince your principal?

  3. Curriculums approved by administration are like Hamberger Helper…the lowest common denominator on the healthy food scale and parents are defined as “stakeholders” – great…in the mean time we have unapproved lesson plans about kindergartener transitioning, an announcements by teachers on what pronouns are appropriate….and then there’s the whole Common Core curriculum which slows STEM learning nearly to a halt…. I’m glad you’re finding ways to make your lessons interesting and inviting, but you can slow down on teachers know best let them be in charge montra.

    1. Hi Kari, I wonder if there’s some confirmation bias going on there. You brought up a few specific examples but I’d argue that those same differences exist with the boxed curriculum (going for STEM versus going for socialization). I also disagree on Common Core. I actually think it has a greater shift toward STEM, given the emphasis on informational text, inquiry, etc.

  4. […] Col­lege pro­fes­sor, and for­mer mid­dle school teacher, John Spenser is an advo­cate for inno­va­tion in the class­room. He writes: […]

  5. Excellent article. Teaching children is a big responsibility, so if you choose this career, do it with passion and innovation.

  6. Good.

    For theoretical purposes at least, I would put a little more emphasis on student-led learning. Ideally, the best learning would be initiated and directed by the student.

    More practically, teachers are usually needed to provide some leadership (or a lot of leadership).

    I also appreciate standardized curricula (or, _some_ standardized curricula — see below). The idea of “boxed” curricula seems a bit too severe, except that they can be used as examples or (for overly stressed teachers — as one such describes in the comments section) fall-back positions. As the article says, the problem is the _forced_ use of boxed curricula.

    I think I like standardized curricula, at least for some subjects — probably for a large part of Mathematics. But standardization in some other subjects could go very wrong. For example, in History:

    In the History subject, schoolchildren are (or were when I was a child) taught about Columbus’s discovery of the New World, without being sufficiently taught about the civilizations that were already here (including in what is now the U.S.) and the devastating oppressions (what could now be called crimes against humanity) that people from western Europe (including Columbus himself) inflicted upon the American natives. Probably fewer than 5% of those children eventually became aware of these other things about history: for example, those who took a History course at the National Hispanic University in San Jose, California might have read “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, in which he refers to Bartoleme De Las Casas’s account of what Columbus and his band said and did regarding the natives. De Las Casas was there in person at the time. It is this fewer than 5% who would likely develop the awareness which is needed to avoid initiating unnecessary wars in the world today.

    But in mathematics (and probably in some of the sciences), I feel it is useful to have some practical canon of knowledge (a standardized curriculum!), for example, to realize that there are at least three methods for solving quadratic equations ((1) complete the square, (2) factor, (3) quadratic formula) and to learn and remember those. As a math student I did not learn these kinds of things well enough and have felt the lack of them, for an embarrassing number of years, afterward in my own life.

    A standard of knowledge (not an absolute standard! — but a reasonable working standard, presented as such), presented by the teachers, to which I could refer as “this standard” or “the [X] standard”, for Mathematics curricula, would have helped me to be more successful and happy in life.

    The school I was in (age 16 and 17) used a freer approach, which was probably more creative, but probably didn’t give me enough of an underlying foundation for learning the subject. And I was one of the majority of students who failed to blaze our own trails through that Subject, so more guidance would have been better.

    It’s not all one thing or the other: the teacher did tell me a way to study — and that was his marvelous individualized contribution to me; but I feel he didn’t leave me a standard, which would also have helped me.

    -jrl

  7. Timely challenge for teachers. But traditional principals will be a problem. We have to “open the eyes” of the powers that be in our school system.

  8. LOVED this article!!!!

  9. Your ideas hint at initiatives driven by the corporate ‘reform’ movement, as promoted by ALEC, many large foundations and media venues.
    These forces have promoted punitive measures based on test scores, which especially impact the least advantaged- in an attempt to break unions and open the education system to business interests.

    Political awareness and action are required, not just adapting to a creative and innovative mindset.

    All of us who believe in creativity, innovation and empowerment through public education must examine the role of money in politics and the impact on state legislation regarding vouchers, charter schools, and high-stakes standardized tests.

    1. Hi Kate, I have long been an opponent of ALEC and corporate reform movements. I just wrote something two days ago about why we shouldn’t model schools after Starbucks, for example. As a public school teacher in Arizona, I wrote for an advocacy blog that specifically addressed these issues.

      However, I also see creative mindsets as a part of that solution. Yes, we need to fight against bad policy. But another tactic that works is thwarting bad policy by finding hacks and workarounds that go against the intent of the policies. For me, it’s always both / and.

  10. Excellent article! Have you researched Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? You started to touch on it when you mentioned Design Thinking.

    For those trying to increase the rigor, depth and complexity while meeting the needs of all students in their classroom, this is a great place to start! Design your lesson and Instructional day purposefully and proactively by using the principles of UDL to frame and guide your instructional craft. It lends itself to PBL and addressing variability in the classroom nicely.

    Again, great article. Thanks for sharing!

  11. […] got the title for this post from an article I read the other day about the way US education has become a list of standards, standardized tests, […]

  12. It takes a team to change the way things happen in a school. I have the good fortune to work with a collection of teachers who never settle for the status quo. We constantly push each other to share our best material and coordinate the way we teach courses. There is serious risk-taking and it always pays off. And the community notices: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/these-students-really-did-their-home-work/article4318911/

  13. What do you think of the Common Core State Standards (renamed around the country, but still in effect)?

    Education reformers argue that districts should use packaged, prescriptive lesson plans if they demonstrate raising students’ scores on Common Core tests. Education reformers in places such as Montgomery County, MD argue that teachers should not use their own lesson plans bur rather “externally developed evidenced-based researched and reviewed instructional materials.”*

    If the Common Core persists, then teachers will lose much of their professional autonomy. Should teachers find the wiggle room? Or should they push back against standards-based education reform?

    * https://bethesdamagazine.com/bethesda-beat/schools/mcps-launches-effort-to-find-new-curriculum-after-report-finds-flaws-in-existing-materials/

    1. Hey Nicholas,

      I think you are conflating the Common Core standards with policy decisions around the implementation of curriculum intended to support teachers who are expected to treat the standards as a minimum bar of what their students should be able to do and to know.

      I don’t mind critiques of the standards as goals, but I think we should be careful not conflate different issues together as it makes discussions about those issues muddy and hard to untangle.

  14. John,

    I think your headline at the beginning of this post is a bit misleading. The rest of your post has some nuance around the use of “boxed curriculum”.

    As a contrasting example, when I first started teaching, I was given a single sheet of legal sized paper with 20 different questions on it, and the instruction that “You will be successful as a teacher if your students can answer these 20 questions.” I was not given paper, pencils, textbooks, or any other resources for at least three weeks. In my opinion, this was educational malpractice.

    I’ve been writing curriculum for a non-profit organization for about 5 years now. Our goal is to write a complete curriculum that is both intended to be modified and adapted (and licensed as such) AND flexible as given. My experience is that almost all teachers prefer to have resources to work with and that time spent searching for what to do Monday is better spent adapting and modifying resources.

    David

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