Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Classroom Innovators

 I posted that I have this one day per week job (as well as my regular classroom) to seek out and spread innovation.  It has been so much fun!  I get to see big, little, and medium-sized ideas.

A lot of teachers who I have seen have put a lot of thought into their classroom environments.  They have come up with some really creative ways to personalize their spaces for themselves and for their students.  (In future posts, I will post some examples of things people have done to their classrooms, but for this post, I will concentrate more on innovation in general).

In broad terms, I have seen:
  • teachers reaching students in unusual ways.
  • creative uses of tools and technology to present ideas and to allow students to show their learning in non-traditional ways.
  • integrating curriculum to meet the needs of students.
  • building community within the classroom walls, but also schools reaching out to the community so that the school is a place that helps adults as well.
  • a conscious effort to bring imagination back into the classroom (to downplay the idea that school is just a place where we disseminate information, and instead to promote the idea that schools foster wonder and creativity).
  • collaboration among teachers, classrooms, schools, and community groups to improve learning and educate the whole student.
  • learning in the natural world, and not just reading about it, but experiencing it first hand, plus finding ways to improved our environment.
I don't want to go into too much detail.  The teachers I have visited over the past few months know that I will be sharing the details of my investigations with my own district first, so I can't give too much away here yet.  But I can talk about some non-specific things until I get permission from my teachers. 

Here are some interesting patterns or observations I have found out about innovation so far.
  • Innovation is supported in my district.  We have a lot of mechanisms to try new things.  A lot of the teachers I interviewed also said that it was important to have some kind of support (e.g. administration, colleagues, district structures, university cohorts, etc.).  In some cases, the support was in the form of being a sounding board, and for others, for example, it was a bit of financial support.  I found it interesting that many of these "innovators" thought it was important to have support from others because I always envisioned innovators as "lone wolves." There was some time that the innovators had to work out things by themselves, but for the most part, my small sample enjoyed the support of others.  It seems like there is no "set mind" for innovative teaching, but the support aspect seems to suggest that even if innovation can or can't be taught, it might be able to be cultivated in the right circumstances. 
  • Innovation is somewhat community-minded.  The changes that these teachers made all seemed to have an impact on the classroom, the school, or the neighbourhood.  It usually was not targeted to one student or to merely the teacher him or herself.  It might have started with a narrower focus, but always seemed to expand to create some kind of change with a wider audience. 
  • Innovation seemed to originate from a specific need or a problem.  Here are some examples: 
    • "I felt cut off from my students, so I rearranged my classroom." 
    • "Not all of my students were getting the same or correct information, so I tried _______________."
    • "My students have such challenging lives at home that I had to help their parents first."
    • "My kids don't sit and read, so I had to find a different way for them to learn and show what they learned."
  • The path of innovation is not a straight one.  Though the original need may have been specific, the course of action was not.  People tried many things and either failed miserably or went along fine and then met some unforeseen obstacles.  Sometimes the need was there at the beginning, but NO courses of action presented themselves (for a long time), and then one seemingly random event would change things, or a series of occurrences would converge together.    
  • Innovation has a playful nature.  One of the reasons why these teachers hung in there so long was because of how much fun they were having.  Though the problems were important to them, the teachers did not take themselves too seriously.  It is like when we played when we were kids: we just tried all sorts of things until one of those things stuck.  It didn't have to be perfect; it just had to feel right.  Innovators still play. 
  • Innovation has a slightly subversive feel to it.  When I talk to these teachers, they get this strange gleam in their eyes, or their voices go into a low conspiratorial, but proud whisper.  They know what they are doing is not traditional, and it is actually one of the reasons they find it so fun.  Picture leaders of the French Resistance and you get the vibe (without the cool berets). 

So, if I was to sum up my findings about innovation in a few sentences, it would be something like:

"I've got this interesting problem that's bugging me, so help me or get out my way, because I am about to try something weird and I have no idea where it might go." 

Okay, one (long) sentence.

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