Leading Innovative Learning in Traditional Schools

Innovative learning requires the alignment of the entire organization, and that comes down to leadership. We know what that leadership looks like, and we now have standards that don’t just reflect that leadership, but demand it from every school leader, regardless of their context. The 2015 Professional Standards for Educational Leaders call for principals to approach every teacher conversation, every interaction with the central office, every analysis of data, with one question always in mind: How will this empower our students as learners?

Principals must, in the language of the standards, place children at the center of their education and promote use of technology for activities that are intellectually challenging and authentic to student experiences. And they have to do it for each student in the school.

Meanwhile, principals have to raise test scores—often the bane of creativity and innovation—and contend with the daily reality of schools. We falsely believe that innovation is for the small charter schools and experimental programs with built-in conditions to promote student creativity. And that perception provides us a convenient backdoor to escape the conversation: “Yes, those experiments are successful, but they can never be brought to scale because my students … and my teachers …” and on, and on.

We have to stop thinking that the schools we have prevent us from creating the schools we want. Our NASSP Digital Principals demonstrate that progressive leadership can flourish within the system we have. I asked three recognized leaders—all principals of comprehensive neighborhood schools—to comment on how they lead innovative learning.

Vote-FaceBookDwight Carter, New Albany High School, Ohio (@Dwight_Carter)

Innovation has been a big push in New Albany for the past six or seven years, especially in the way we use space to empower students. Our academic coaching zones, for instance, allow students to choose the environment in which they want to learn material, whether in a Quiet Zone, a Collaborative Zone, or a Silent Zone. Teachers and administrators have also been exploring new ways to empower students to choose how they want to demonstrate their learning. Each student owns their learning as a result of these initiatives, and they become better lifelong self-aware learners as a result.

Jason Markey, East Leyden High School, Illinois (@JasonMMarkey)

At East Leyden High School we attempt to drive innovation by having two clear areas of focus.  First, we want to clearly identify what the issue or problem is. Second, we want to develop empathy for all stakeholders in the situation prior to developing any solutions or changes in practice. We accomplish both of these by utilizing the mindsets and the process of Design Thinking. Design Thinking not only drives creative thinking, but more importantly, ensures that we are designing schools that best meet the needs of students and teachers.

Glenn Robbins, Northfield Community Middle School, New Jersey (@GlennR1809)

Respect, autonomy, transparency, and relationships are key areas that build the foundation to developing a “creative culture” within your school building. Yet, many leaders focus on standardized scores, political mandates, and the fear of what their worst people will do. As leaders, we need to not only encourage student and staff voice, but embrace their ideas to create a place where they have ownership. Lastly, we must question why many of us continue to use outdated methodologies that were created well before the internet, while Elon Musk, Google founders, and many others within our country’s most advanced minds create private schools where “wonder, curiosity, and originality” are welcomed.

This is not to say we don’t need to remodel our education system. We absolutely do. But these leaders demonstrate we don’t need to wait for ideal conditions before we pursue our ideal model. We just need the right vision, the right empowerment, and the right support.

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