The active practice of innovation

by Elaine Plybon

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I’ve been attending the iNACOL symposium this week in San Antonio. iNACOL is an organization that researches and supports innovations in education with a focus on personalized learning, online learning, and competency-based systems. One of the sessions I attended today was a delightfully done storySLAM – a series of people who stood up and artfully told stories about how their schools have redesigned their processes and practices and done what is best for students. To drive home the point, two students each told their own stories.

After the scheduled lineup was finished, the emcee invited audience members to tell their own story. Two men stood up and each told their own story. As I listened, I thought about what my story would be. I decided to write it here, instead of standing up to say it:

I once worked for a school that started off as a mission to rethink school. The entire teaching and administrative staff spent months before the school opened, brainstorming and planning to be sure that the school would be the best opportunity for the low-income and very diverse student body that was about to arrive. They implemented many of the practices I’ve heard about this week. They designed a practice for professional learning communities that would be based on the students they taught, rather than the subjects. They designed three schools within the school, with students being taught in all subject areas with a focus on their personal career interest. They developed student-centered advocacy – teaching students how to speak up for themselves, how to set goals, and how to own up to their own progress.

The school was very successful. Its students were not hand-picked and were chosen by lottery with no qualifying requirements regarding GPA or discipline. The students rose to the expectations the staff laid out for them. The success of the school meant that other schools wanted to use the model, so we conducted Design Studio each year – an opportunity for other schools to come and learn how we did things. Many of the schools that came to Design Studio went on to develop programs that took everything we did to the next level.

This may seem like a success story. It is, but it is not. Our fatal error was in not practicing active innovation. When we practice something, we never stop. We continually work to get better, to sharpen and increase skills. Our school didn’t practice innovation, we continued what was initially created. The reality is that what was innovative when the school started could not continue to be innovative indefinitely. We watched as other schools took over the innovation limelight and we continued to do what we had done so successfully for all of those years.

Today, the school is very similar to any comprehensive high school you would find in any district. When the innovation died, the spirit, the drive, and the rush was gone. Teachers left, administrators left. Without the champions, the district lost the vision that had built the school in the beginning.

If we could have a do over, what would we do? I can’t speak for everyone, but I would hope that we would spend each summer the same way the original staff spent their initial planning time. We would evaluate how things went, what was good, what was bad, and asking the question – how do we take this to the next step?

I am saddened when I hear people excitedly talking about new innovations today and I realize how much of it we did at that school. The school opened 15 years ago. 15 years of lost opportunities for innovation. Let my story be a catalyst for your own continuous evaluation of the innovative programs you implement. When you think about a school redesign, consideration of how you will continually evaluate and practice active innovation can ensure that your school will always meet the needs of your students.

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