How NOT to Create Innovators

I had the privilege, along with a group of colleagues from Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, of presenting at ISTE 2014 in Atlanta this year. We reported on our experiences in implementing a program to increase innovation in the classroom. We each had something different to offer and my part was about, as the title suggests, how NOT to create innovators.

Change is hard. Improvement implies change and it takes a certain kind of person to be open to doing something out of their comfort zone in their classroom. After all, if what your doing is more-or-less working (or at least you have convinced yourself that it is) why do something different that might not work? Well, here’s why:

If you never take a chance and try something new, you’ll never find anything better than what you already are doing. And, if you try something new and it doesn’t work, you can always go back to what you were doing before, or better yet—try something else.

Simple enough. But like I said, change is hard.

Besides reading and discussing Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, a half dozen of us were each tasked with working with two other teachers in our schools, to work together to try something new and different in their classrooms. More than that, we hoped we could make a more permanent change in teaching styles in our buildings. This was predicated on somehow showing that whatever “new and different” ideas we presented, they actually led to increased student engagement and learning.

A lot of things went right for us and we did have a positive influence; more in some cases than in others. In this post, I will give a version of my six minute talk at ISTE 2014 with the hope that some of the things that went wrong in our effort to increase innovation in teaching (and as a result, improve learning) can be avoided by you. The thoughts here are a distillation of not only my experience in this particular project, but over the past few years, as I have tried new things to do what’s best for kids to prepare them for a future that no-one can exactly predict. Oh, and to make it so that school doesn’t suck. That too.

Work with People Who Have No Stake in the Future of Your Organization

Steven Depolo

Steven Depolo

Some people are not in a good place in their careers to find taking a risk a fun, rewarding, and interesting idea. For example, people who are in their last year of teaching before retirement. Or, people who are within a few years of retirement even. I remember a few years ago trying to get people interested in using twitter for communicating with colleagues and parents. It didn’t go over too well. One person told me “I am a few years from retiring, I don’t think I need to learn this” or something to that effect. Maybe I just didn’t do a good job of selling the benefits, but that was an eye opener.

Sometimes you don’t know if a person has a stake in the future. Part timers are an unknown quantity as well. Maybe they will be brought on permanently, maybe they won’t. They might be looking for another job, not plan on coming back, or who knows what else. Not much you can do about that.

You probably have an idea of who around you is willing to take a chance. If someone is set in their ways, they probably are not a good candidate for becoming an innovator. You never know for sure though. They might surprise you and volunteer to be a part of an innovation team. In that case, let ’em! Otherwise, keep looking.

Work With People in Completely Unrelated Subject Areas

Image by Maria Popova

Image by Maria Popova

Diversity on a team is good right? Uh, not necessarily. In my experience, my fellow math and science teachers are usually (but not exclusively) more in tune with the way I think and approach things. That is not always the case, but in general, I find, that coming from a research world where people thrive on experimentation, problem solving, and where a hard problem that is not always clearly defined is a good thing, it is frustrating to work with people who would rather avoid such things. It is also a lot more likely that <insert subject here> teachers will be open to suggestions from other <insert same subject here> teachers with respect to what might be a good thing to try in their classrooms. After all, “what does a danged <insert subject here> teacher know about what I have to deal with as a <insert different unrelated subject here> teacher?” And another thing….

Work With People Who Have Totally Different Schedules



If you are on a team whose members have significantly different schedules, it causes problems. This will often be the case if people teach different grade levels or, as stated above, are in different subject areas. It is hard to schedule meetings when your team has planning, lunch, and after school activities and responsibilities, all at different times. That is a recipe for getting not much done. So, similar subjects, and similar schedules—yes, that can work.

Whatever You do, Don’t Change Things Up if Needed

Nobody needs to get fired from an innovation team. If it isn’t working they will probably just sort of fade away. We came up with a new idea and invited a couple of other people to join us. It started to work. By making a change, we went from getting no traction whatsoever, and having no impact on teaching and learning, to actually doing something that might have an impact. Which was…

Lesson Study

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer

This is not a “don’t”. We didn’t give up and eventually hit upon something that might actually work.

I haven’t mentioned that my two teacher teammates were actually already pretty innovative. It was like hooking up with Aaron Rogers with the goal of improving his passing game. Kind of, sort of like. What we needed to do was find a way into other classrooms where we could actually have a chance of getting something different to happen. What we hit upon was lesson study. You know, the method credited to the Japanese, wherein teachers get together and plan a lesson, do and observe the lesson, and then get together to debrief on the lesson with the goal of developing better lessons. In our case, we wanted to influence the development of more innovative teaching methods and engaging lessons.

We got an open-minded teacher to volunteer to be the observed-one and another teacher volunteered to join us as a planner-observer. So now we had transformed ourselves from an ineffective team of three to a forward-thinking team of five that actually had a chance to do something positive in our school.

Our initial experience with lesson study was encouraging. Exactly how we did it is a subject for another post, but based on that first go around, we drafted a procedure on how to conduct additional lesson studies in the future. It was near the end of the school year so we only were able to conduct one lesson study. As it stands, the plan is to implement more lesson studies throughout the building next year. I like to call that “subverting from within.” Of course this will the good kind of subversion. The kind that creates innovators.