The Path to Enduring Innovation in Schools

It is difficult, if not impossible, for a school proud of its reputation for excellence not to feel the need to claim to have a firm grip on “innovation.” Leading in innovation suggests many things that the school is — such as being technologically advanced, current in pedagogy and practice, and generally ahead of the curve. It also suggests many things that the school is decidedly not — including the always-feared label of being seen as antiquated and dated.
 
Yet, in reality, while most schools espouse a belief in innovation, few have navigated the innovation challenge quite right. There is, in fact, a science to the art of innovating well in schools that eludes many.
 
Innovation is not just about investing in the latest technology or building new spaces. At least the conversation does not begin there. Innovation is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that begins and ends with questions.
 
The right way to innovate is to identify the right questions your school needs to ask. At my school, The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania), we began this journey of identifying the right questions to guide programmatic change amidst rather unique circumstances. About 15 years ago, we made a bold move in deciding to sell our two existing campuses and build a brand new, $200 million, 123-acre campus from the ground up. We moved into our new home in 2008. This move prompted some immediate questions about what we were bringing to these new spaces. What is core to an Episcopal Academy education? What is lasting? What does an Episcopal Academy diploma really mean and what differentiates us in meaningful ways from other schools?
 
While the move was very much about bricks and mortar and how spaces could shape our program, the move also helped us to hone in on what mattered most to us in teaching and learning: what happens inside the classroom. The emerging strategic plan a few years later synthesized our thinking and laid the groundwork for our new pathway, giving us a chance to ask even deeper, more challenging questions about what happens inside the walls we had just constructed.
 
I think there are lessons here for all schools pushing for change in an era that essentially requires us to evolve. Episcopal Academy’s promise is in the extraordinary quality of our academic program; our firm belief in a balance of mind, body, and spirit across our program; and our commitment as educators, coaches, and mentors to inspiring our students. As we seek to innovate and improve our program, we can now hone in on questions that push that core rather than change it in some unintentional way. To put it more generally: Your school’s initial questions should not be tools to define your core; rather, your core should define the questions you ask about innovation.
 

Find Your Beginning

 
Many schools want to get into the innovation game quickly by investing in something big — state-of-the-art computer technology throughout the campus, some sort of new “creative commons” or innovation lab, a new top administrative position as an innovation director — and figure the rest will follow. That is the easy way to attempt innovation, a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality that will certainly make a splash. It is highly unlikely, however, that this approach will enable any form of sustained innovative practices in your school.
 
Last year, I heard about a school that had just recently completed an innovation lab. It was an impressive space, with high-end graphics tools, a designated area for designing and making, and a bank of 3-D printers. The room also had no students in it. When asked how often the room gets used, the director paused and admitted that the room was built because a donor was eager to fund it. At that time, it was only used one period each day for the yearbook club, but they were hopeful it would lead to some good use over time.
 
This is a common story, one in which good intentions (and sometimes a checkbook) drive a school to race ahead before it has even laid out the course. It is not that these investments will prevent innovation; it is that they are not the most effective ways to get where you want to go, and they can often lead schools to think they are done when they have not yet begun.
 
This same buy-your-finish-line approach was certainly a tempting pathway for us when we built our new campus. We had the opportunity to outfit our classrooms with shiny, new technologies and to claim to have innovation solved in just a few months. We did our best to avoid this trap, however, and focused on the tools, resources, and facilities that matched our mission, that pushed us forward in innovative directions, but which also allowed us to be authentic in that journey.
 
We also made mistakes and invested in some tools for our new campus that failed to serve our mission or that did not support teaching innovation in the way we had hoped. Because of the growing sense of urgency in schools these days, it can be difficult to keep the quick-fix enthusiasts at bay while the school works through this process, but hold strong and stick to a plan that will truly innovate your school in a sustained way.
 

From Independent School Bulletin, March 1942

 

A Plea For The Humanities


There is no more disturbing or reactionary influence at work among the schools and colleges of the United States than that which questions the wisdom of the study of any foreign language or the study of the humanities. This is intellectual isolationism of the most extreme type and can lead only to an ignorance that would be as dismal as profound. Those who would deprive the American youth of today of their intellectual inheritance and start them in the practical work of life so impoverished and limited are doing the greatest damage to American youth and to American education that can possibly be imagined. It is the study of the humanities which lifts human nature out of its immediate local and personal environment and takes it up to the high places of life, from which it can see and understand what life means and has meant, what are and have been the influences and the controlling power of intellectual and of moral ideals. It substitutes the life of a true human being for that of a rather intelligent animal.

From “A Plea for the Humanities,” by Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University
 
 

Start With Teachers

 
The real heavy lifting of beginning the innovation conversation starts with questions about howwhatwhere, and when we teach. It starts with the premise that there are only a handful of real variables that affect teaching and learning in big ways. It also assumes that teachers have to be at the center of this conversation.
 
There is no doubt that a school’s push toward a collective innovative mindset needs to be mission driven, rooted in the school’s fundamental aspirations regarding learning outcomes. It is also crucial that innovative changes have strong administrative buy-in and leadership, with the head and senior academic administrators taking clear and visible ownership of the process. Missing either one of these ingredients will lead to initiatives that fizzle out or that unintentionally shift the culture of the school in adverse ways.
 
The next step is to engage teachers in the hard questions about pedagogy and practice. You want your teachers to begin wrestling with the questions of how changes in timeplacepath, and pace can impact teaching and learning. These questions should be framed through the lens of what matters most at your school. Given your school’s goals and mission, how can innovating one of these variables make a positive difference in learning outcomes?
 
You do not need to tackle all four areas simultaneously; in fact, you may find greater success in identifying one key strand as your starting point. At Episcopal Academy, our strategic planning process proved to be the ideal way to dive into this process. While ultimately led by the trustees, the process included dozens of faculty and administrators, who served on all of the subcommittees. The conversations in these committees dug deeply into the core of innovative thought, exploring how our new spaces could transform teaching and learning, how our program could innovate and best serve our students within our mission, and how we could best increase the capacity of our faculty along the way. These discussions led to a comprehensive strategic plan in 2010, which served as a key platform and road map for our work over the next five years.
 
The point of this article is not to laud the changes at Episcopal Academy, nor is it to suggest we have “solved innovation.” Rather, I hope that by highlighting what we have tried, and where we have struggled, I can emphasize how asking the right questions of the right people leads to innovation.
 
The first major innovation to emerge from our strategic plan was a curricular innovation. We launched JTerm, a two-week interdisciplinary program held in January during which each upper school student takes one course all day for the entire two weeks. Most of these courses are team-taught and all have some interdisciplinary components. Faculty spent two years designing JTerm. While not a new concept in education, JTerm was a significant shift and a bold move for our program. More important, JTerm proved to be a critical springboard for conversations about how, when, and where we teach. By opening up the boundaries of the school day and the fundamental structures of our traditional courses, we were able to put teachers at the center of the conversation about innovative teaching. The outcomes of JTerm are, without question, some of the best teaching I have ever witnessed. While that alone is reason to celebrate, JTerm also led to new insights into what innovative teaching and learning looks like in our school.
 
As we consider our next evolutionary steps, we continue to focus squarely on time, place, path, and pace. There are two priorities currently dominating our conversations in this arena. Our new learning management system, Canvas, has opened up new dialog about where and when we engage students in learning — specifically regarding online learning environments. As we initially benefit from the practical elements of an organized learning system that solves many of our communication challenges, our faculty are discovering the wide range of new opportunities this robust tool provides. It is not about the technology; it is entirely about the teaching. There is no prescription for where this will take our program. If we do our jobs well — as we push, explore, and question — that pathway will emerge.
 
The second area of focus right now is all about time. The more conversations I had with teachers about exciting innovations, the more frequently the confines of our schedule proved to be the brick wall that ended exploration. It had become increasingly apparent that we had boxed ourselves in with tight time confines, leaving us with a long list of ways in which we questioned whether our current schedule best accomplished our teaching and learning goals. What new doors in teaching open if we took the lid off the schedule? It was an exciting question to ask.
 
We are completing a two-year study of our own schedule and are preparing for changes for the coming school year, in which class periods will be longer and classes will meet a little less frequently in the cycle. Our faculty are now deeply embedded in the exploration and design of how to adjust curricula for the new class meeting pattern, and how to best capitalize on these extended class periods for more innovative instruction, more focused time with students and colleagues, and a more dynamic learning environment for students.
 
As with all other innovations, there is no recipe for an “innovative schedule” that smart schools should adopt. There is a lot of heavy lifting involved to engage teachers in meaningful ways as your school identifies academic priorities, explores possibilities, and debates the very real trade-offs in adjusting how teachers and students spend time each day. It is a process with some high stakes, but also potentially with some very high dividends. Using time right can prove to be a profound catalyst for innovation in schools. Getting teachers involved at the center and beginning of this dialogue is essential.
 

Excellence = Innovation

 
In my experience, educators are constantly seeking ways to improve teaching and learning. I have yet to meet a teacher working today who turns a blind eye to a new teaching practice or tool if he or she sees concrete evidence that it is better for kids. This growth mindset that now permeates great teaching has not always been the norm. A half-century ago, excellence in teaching was more often defined by the teacher who honed one great teaching trick or method. Over the years, the teacher became better and better at that one thing, never really tempted or pushed to add new tricks to the bag. With a focus on content and coverage above all, there was little room for conversations around topics such as differentiation and student engagement.
 
Our assumptions about teaching excellence have changed dramatically. The best teachers are those who are constantly seeking to stay current in their field, who search for the best resources to support their instruction, and who are always rethinking a lesson, assessment, or curricular goal. The fundamental assumption is that we can always do our jobs better and that certain innovations can be transformative for teaching and learning.
 
There is the obvious benefit to this: that teaching innovations can bolster students’ critical-thinking skills, abilities to collaborate, strength in effective communication, and resourcefulness. Innovation in teaching also promises student learning that can be more authentic, deeper, and more interconnected.
 
While these are compelling reasons to believe in innovative teaching, the strongest case lies in the ways in which innovative teaching is self-perpetuating. Truly innovative teachers are constantly seeking to grow, to learn, to reflect, to improve. This kind of lasting, sustained innovation is, by definition, transformative.
 

The Pathway

 
How do schools begin this complex process of identifying a direction, engaging faculty, and moving toward sustained innovative change?
 
The starting point has to be strategic and needs to be owned by the school’s leaders. This is big, bold stuff that has to be supported at the mission level in order for it to really stick and endure.
 
Each school needs to identify its overarching learning and program goals, recognizing what current practices are essential to the school’s core learning experience and what needs to change.
 
Once the school has a firm grip on the strategic innovative direction, the real heavy lifting begins. With teachers at the center of the conversation, the questions here focus on learning outcomes and what teaching excellence looks like in its classrooms. Moving to a truly innovative mindset necessitates an openness to a range of questions aimed at the core of the work we do in schools. Is the content right? What are the learning goals? Are we using the right assessments? Is learning being structured in the best way possible? This process is highly iterative, without a fixed endpoint. Rather, this is an attitude that guides the practice of teaching through questioning.
 
As the answers become clear, they help bring shape to a school’s evolving practices. In turn, they clarify the eventual conversations about resources. The latter are the “action” items that will cost the school something, whether in terms of time, money, or space. These resources — intended to best further the school’s specific innovation goals — can be divided into five broad categories:
 

Technology Hardware

 
Schools innovating correctly see the hardware as a useful conduit to support innovative teaching. These tools absolutely need to work and be reliable. But it is most important that they serve — not drive — your school’s specific mission and agreed-upon learning outcomes.
 

Technology Software and Online Tools

 
These are the less visible, but equally robust partners to the hardware. These utilities are inroads to interactivity, connectivity, and resources for learning. These tools should liberate teachers and open wide doors. Canvas, for us, is an example of an online innovation tool.
 

People

 
The people involved in innovation work serve vital roles — from teacher coaches focused on professional development to technology support people keeping everything humming. Investing in the right people is essential. At Episcopal, we have invested in faculty as coaches and trainers, creating a peer network of passionate, talented teachers who are willing to invest extra time to learn more and share their insights with colleagues. We are also fortunate to have partnered with the Global Online Academy for our professional development work this year, drawing on its wealth of talent and expertise in innovative teaching and learning. The right people are a precious commodity.
 

Time

 
The academic schedule is one of the most important levers to move when innovating schools. It is also the most difficult to change in a way that preserves the essential parts of a school’s program while opening new pathways for teachers to use time differently. Some of the greatest possibilities in innovating teaching lie within the schedule.
 

Space

 
Both existing spaces and newly defined spaces can transform teaching and learning. By designing and recrafting spaces intentionally to meet the school’s articulated goals, great innovations in teaching can occur. The trap to avoid in this area is the buy-the-finish-line approach. Investing in spaces that create opportunities for faculty to explore and ask new questions is the place you want to be. The driving force in designing innovative spaces must be teaching and learning, not the other way around.
 
The five resource categories need to be constantly rethought and retooled as the school transforms its practices. By definition, being innovative as a school means that teachers and administrators are continually asking questions and reflecting. We have a long, exciting road ahead of us at Episcopal as we seek new ways to innovate that also further our goals around excellence in teaching and learning. As we dive further into this complex work, many more questions and doors will open.
 
The key for us — and for all schools — is to keep the questions coming.
Author
Catherine J. Hall

Catherine J. Hall is the assistant head of school at The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania). Follow her on Twitter (@cjohnsonhall) and on her blog (teachlearninspire.com).