• Brent Kaneft

Check Yourself: When Is Classroom Innovation Just for Show?

This is a great time to be an educator. The abundance of educational ideas is overwhelming; educational superstars like George Couros and A.J. Juliani are pushing for innovation in the classroom, and thanks to leaders like them, teaching is again an exciting profession. Teachers feel more important, but not in some sappy teachers-sacrifice-for-the-greater-good sort of way. This educational revolution is about empowering teachers who've been, historically, powerless.

On Friday, September 8th, all the major TV networks aired a special on "Project XQ: The Super School Project." Hollywood came out in support of the project, but what could have been a more interesting (and informative) special on how schools are re-imagining their curriculum and pedagogy turned out to be a musical telethon. I appreciate the hype, but I think it may have caused more harm than good for innovative teachers. As we know, this new drive in education - student choice, project-based, multi-modal - is not accepted by everyone. Some teachers think it's just a fad (and having Hollywood promote the movement doesn't help with that outlook), that the tried and true ways will remain constant and are still good. Many are convinced that innovation in the classroom is about entertainment, not learning. As innovators, we must be careful. The new dynamic in our classrooms always has to improve learning.

What I hear about innovative teachers:

  • They just want the kids to like them.

  • They entertain, I teach.

  • They love the attention.

  • They think anything different is better.

So, do you innovate because it helps students learn? Or is it something else? Here are three questions to consider:

1. What is your motivation?

Recently I read a blog post called "What Parents Wish We Would Ask Them About Their Child" by Pernille Ripp. I loved it, and I almost immediately sent the questions to the parents of my students. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which was great. Even better was the detailed feedback I received about each of my students. I accelerated my knowledge of my students to where it usually is in the spring, but now I had it in the fall. As you can imagine, it was an incredibly productive and helpful exercise. Innovative technique: using parents as a resource, not as invaders into your sacred space.

Did parents praise me for that effort? Yes, of course. Was that my motivation? No, not at all. Did the praise make me feel good? Yes, of course. But will it sustain me? Nope, not at all. What motivates me is teaching and teaching is about relationships. Parents voluntarily helped me know their kids better. That's what was amazing. I have shared this exercise with my department and any teacher I've come into contact with over the last two weeks. I think everyone should try it. Will there be colleagues who doubt my sincerity? Who will believe I was motivated by the praise? Yes, highly likely. But "Innovative" teachers are not deterred by that. Who can answer what motivates us, but us? That being said, it's always great to have a friend at the school who can help you check that motivation from time to time. We can all fall prey to praise and lose our way.

Forward-thinking school leaders will always address the motivation of your ideas first, and then address the results. They will reward failures when they hear a clear motivation from you (in my case, I wanted to develop a richer understanding of each student to help craft the way I approach them in the classroom), which will maintain your desire to innovate in the future. School leaders who are stuck in the past will only address the result, good or bad. If it's a good result, leaders often don't even ask about your motivation, which is a mistake. They are missing an opportunity to learn more about you. What's worse, if it's a bad result, they will reprimand you and though they might hear you out, addressing the result first keeps teachers from trying new approaches in the future.

Have a clear motivation (a "WHY" in the language of Simon Sinek). When people question results, be able to explain why you believed your idea would enhance the learning in your classroom.

2. Are students learning or are they being entertained?

This is a tricky one. If you're innovative, students usually enjoy your class, if for nothing else than its fresh perspective on education. When they walk into your classroom and they are not hit with a 45-minute lecture, when your opinion isn't the most important one in the room, and when you allow them choice in their educational journey, they are relieved. That relief is positive, but as good educators, we have to make sure that first, your approach improves student learning.

Make sure that your innovative ideas align with or are informed by the most recent mind, brain, and educational (MBE) research. We live in an educational field abundant with such research. One of my favorite books on the learning brain - and, I think, the most accessible - is Neuroteach by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, director and head of research, respectively, at The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. Whitman and Kelleher provide clear information about teaching practices that should be stopped immediately because they have no relationship to learning (e.g. high-stakes pop quizzes). And they also provide easy, practical changes you can make in your class tomorrow to begin improving student learning. Another good resource is Small Teaching by James M. Lang. Though focused on college teachers, transference to the high school classroom is seamless. You don't have to have a degree in neuroscience or education to use these resources to your advantage. These authors have done the work for you.

Innovative teachers are learners. They see it as part of the job. If you stop learning, you will stop being innovative. Laughter and smiles are great. They prove something is working. If nothing else, students are engaged, but it's your responsibility to assess whether the innovative ideas in your classroom improve learning. Besides your motivation, you will need concrete evidence that your approach works, which is why you need to keep up with the latest MBE research.

3. Am I a competitor or an innovator?

I love this question, and I hope everyone who reads this post answers "innovator." Unfortunately, you may teach in a culture that has fostered learning silos: "The Silo Effect" (when information ceases to flow between groups). In schools, silos can refer to teachers or whole departments or administrative teams that isolate themselves from the rest of the school. The "Competitor" thrives in this environment:

"The Competitor:" A teacher who does not involve him/herself with anything but his/her classes. Competitors are motivated by praise and awards, not by improving their culture, encouraging their colleagues, or developing their school. When another colleague shares a great idea, "The Competitor" feels a tinge of jealousy. In fact, competitors often undercut their faculty with students and other colleagues. They will criticize other people's ideas, sometimes openly, in hopes to distinguish him/herself. "Competitors" are often innovative, but they are not motivated by student learning. Innovation is a means to an end (i.e. them on top).

In a culture of silos, innovation can only thrive in pockets. An "Innovative Mindset" is not fostered throughout the school, and that's a problem. Learning silos are the biggest threats to education because educational ideas and learning become secondary - rank is primary. If you teach at or know of a school comprised of learning silos, you will notice that the school's mission is either unknown or irrelevant. The mission was a fill-in-the-blank exercise some administrator did years ago. No one thinks about it and no one cares.

Hopefully you teach in a school that fosters collaboration. Doors are open, ideas are shared, praise and encouragement are ubiquitous. Collaborative environments develop "Innovators," teachers who...

  • love what they get to do;

  • are motivated by student learning;

  • insist on observing and learning from other teachers;

  • try new things and risk failure;

  • crave feedback from colleagues and administrators;

  • stay up-to-date on MBE research;

  • find ways to collaborate;

  • care deeply for the mission of the school.

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