There are a few things in Education that spin my wheels. The thing that spins them the fastest is innovation. Today I was asked if I was going to blog about the Innovations Team we set up at our place earlier this year, and given I was asked by someone who is pretty innovative herself, and someone I respect a great deal, I felt I had better oblige!
As a teacher I spent hours reading about what was happening in classrooms, and I was happiest pouring over the latest book or research on the subject of teaching and learning. This all in the days before Auntie Google provided information at the flick of a fingertip! I enjoyed visiting other classrooms, and I was extremely lucky to work in a province that was innovative and for the time, cutting edge. Most importantly, I spent most of my teaching career within a school that allowed its experienced teachers to 'think outside the square'. When I look back now, I realise that some of us did some amazing things, with little to no resources and certainly no budget.
As a leader, I still thrive best when I am in an innovative environment, and in all three schools I have been lucky to lead, I can say that I have worked with some incredible teachers and senior leaders that have worked together to create some pretty innovative and creative learning environments.
It is important to note that innovative outcomes take time and quite a lot of ground work. It doesn't happen overnight and it can not be taken as a given. The conditions for innovative practice need to be in place.
Every school is unique and every school has a its own culture. When I reflect on my early years as a teacher, I realise that I was very lucky. The key to my early forays into innovation was the support I had from leadership - both the Principal and the Deputy Principal. What sat behind their support were two critical elements that guide my own leadership now - trust and freedom.
Condition One: Trust
Both my DP and the Principal trusted my curriculum knowledge (incidentally, the better you understand curriculum the easier it is to innovate), my ability to inquire into my practice and my teaching skills. They knew that I would still meet deadlines, ensure student assessments were up to date and that the personalised learning programmes I was implementing would benefit and not harm my students. In short, they trusted me not to let them or my students down. It is because of this trust that I worked extra hard for my school.
Condition Two: Freedom
This works hand in hand with trust. Leadership gave me the freedom to explore, experiment and to try new things - to test pedagogies and challenge status quo. They knew that if something worked, I would share the successes with others, and if it failed, I would look at why it had not worked. Allowing me to innovate kept me excited about teaching, engendered a respect for the people I worked with and gave me the opportunity to unlock the best teacher within me.
As a leader I do strive to create the conditions needed for innovation to thrive. It is not always easy and I don't always get it right, but I do try to look for opportunities and maximise the skills on our team. I felt that the timing was right for us to branch out a bit more in my current place, but I wasn't sure what direction that might take. Then two things happened.
Firstly, at the end of last year, I got some feedback that there might have been a communication disconnect. I thought a message about any teachers wanting modern learning furniture for their classrooms had been made across the board but it hadn't quite got to where it was meant to. I only discovered the disconnect when a teacher had her students complete an inquiry into if they could have a certain piece of kit, what its benefits would be and how they would use it; which they then presented to me. Hence the Innovations Form was born. (I will come back to that shortly)
Secondly, over the Summer break, I read Grant Lichtmans book #EdJouney - A Road Map to the Future of Education and it struck a chord - in particular, it struck a chord about what innovation looks like, and how the issue of time and workload is managed in schools. From that, the Innovations Team was born.
The Innovations form came first and out of a need to give teachers some choice and options for buying and trialling new things in their classrooms that are bigger assets. This might be tech based, furniture or some other big ticket item. As a leader, I am not one to go forth and replace everyones furniture all at once (or buy all one type of technology), and certainly not because the school down the road did that or because a fast talking salesperson came in and convinced me. I find that wasteful. Not all teachers want new things thrown at them when they haven't had a chance to research the benefits or see if they work. It is one thing to replace assets that are broken or no longer fit for purpose, but to go forward all holds barred is foolhardy.
When I realised that there had been a communication disconnect, but that I had some teachers who wanted to trail new things, the Innovations Form was born. Now teachers can apply for money to buy assets for their classroom that they want to trial - it might be furniture or a big ticket resource. All they have to do is show their Inquiry into it, how it will be used and report back findings. Interestingly. it was also opened up to our Teacher Aides who were one of the first to put an application in. It doesn't mean we don't replace assets or buy in new technology, it is alongside that process. It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of the year when we review it. I notice so far that I need to remind teachers it is there. It does however, provide teachers with a vehicle for exploring innovation with support for the funding of items.
The premise for the Innovations Team was that I initially wanted a group of keen teachers to investigate innovative ways to manage 'time' and 'workload' issues, as these are two of the most common complaints that teachers have about education. My initial wondering was that if teachers investigated ways to improve both, there would be more chance of success than if senior leadership imposed ideas. The more I read of Grants book, the more I wondered about what an Innovations Team might look like and how it might operate.
It was timely for us.
We had just put in place a new Charter based on 3 Bold Steps (I will blog about that at some stage). One of the steps was around Student Ownership over learning, with a foundation of engagement and collaboration. Then I found an inspiring article on Edutopia with a video about a school in Australia that was doing similar things to what we wanted to achieve. They were further down the journey, but they had a similar philosophy and they were only in Melbourne. So, I showed it to my Board of Trustees (who thought it was great), then I showed it to my Senior Leadership Team, floated the idea of setting up an Innovations Team, which they supported, and then I showed it to the staff. I have added the link below, under resources.
After we watched the video of Wooranna Park Primary, we had a discussion about our vision and what we wanted to achieve. I shared with the staff that I had been reading Grants book, and I asked for volunteers to start up a new group - the Innovations Team, essentially a place for like minded teachers to come together and explore what could be possible.
We used the following questions as a guide around what Innovation is.
- What do we currently do that is innovative? How do we know?
- What is the big deal about innovation?
- What impedes our innovation?
- How do we imbed our innovation?
- What role does research and data have in innovation?
- What opportunities are there for our students to innovate?
- Who leads innovation?
- What is our culture around innovation? What happens if we fail - do we learn from it and try again or do we give up?
- What is the best way to support innovation?
Once our volunteers indicated they were keen, we had our first meeting.
We set up under the following guidelines:
- It was an 'opt in' not a requirement
- I did not have funding for release (but could provide coffee and cake/treats)
- It would need to be above and beyond their Improvement team involvement (each teacher is part of an Improvement Team in our school)
- It would not have a leader but I would be happy to 'coach' people and if they took on a leadership aspect I would be happy to support that
- Nothing was off limits and anything was possible - we just needed an open mind
- It was not open to Senior Leadership (but they were able to inquire into options and put it to the team)
- We set up an Innovations Team google site to share resources, track our journey and bounce off ideas
- Our first meeting was a brainstorming session exploring what changes might happen and what would it look like if we started our school from scratch - would we keep things or would we do things differently
The team has been set up now for just over a term, so it is still quite new. So far, the team are investigating a number of things, from Emilia Reggio principles integrating across the school (and what that might look like), flipped learning in a junior class - how might the learnings apply across the school, personalised learning timetables (and how to free up time in a classroom from a year 1 perspective to year 5/6) and how tools like SOLO and Creative Thinking/Problem Solving fit into our Inquiry.
According to the team, their team and individual explorations will lead into wider questions about how their learnings apply to freeing up workload and time across the school. In addition to the above, they have already put in place a plan of how to streamline our whole school assemblies to the school, which was debated by the staff and adopted.
Where to Next
I have been wondering about what our Innovations Team might look like in 2016. So far they are just wonderings, which the team will help me tease out further, alongside the staff, but I'm wondering if we look into putting some funding behind the team, including funding for a professional development component and linking it to the Innovations Form. Staff may also want it to become an Improvement Team with a salary unit attached. All things we can explore and set in place for 2016 - watch this space.
Wooranna Park Primary School Click the link to read the article and see the video of what this school has done to engage students.
Modern Learning Environments vs Modern Learning Mindsets - it is not about 'stuff', it is about a growth mindset.