Teachers, Ideas and Mark Cuban: Adapting 'Shark Tanks' In Your School

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Shark Tanks are making their way from the television screen to conferences and….schools?

At the CUE National Conference in Palm Springs, Calif. on March 17-19, six teachers pitched their big lesson ideas as part of “LeRoy’s Big Idea Challenge.” Up for grabs: a $2,500 grant. One of the key criteria used by judges to evaluate each idea was whether it was innovative, relevant and replicable.

But you don’t have to wait for big education conferences to watch—or participate. Developing a Shark Tank or Big Ideas competition in your school can help educators feel safer to test and try new and innovative teaching models. Asking teachers tough questions at the beginning of the ideation process—such as whether an idea can scale beyond their classrooms—can very well increase the chances that their ideas can spread.

Want to create your own challenge? Here are some tips:

1. Create a Culture of ‘Yes, And’

Teachers often preach to their students that there are “no stupid questions.” So why, then, do teachers worry about pitching to their administrators for things that they believe would positively impact their students?

In improv, one of the main exercises is that whenever anyone says something, you always need to answer with, “ Yes, and,” followed with another idea. These ideas may seem off-kilter and outlandish, but there are no bad ones—just those that can be shaped and molded by the collective group. Schools need to make time to have these types of conversations among their teachers. To start, encourage your teachers to brainstorm their innovative ideas in groups using “Yes, and.” Making the brainstorming process more collaborative enables teachers to think beyond the walls of their classroom, making the idea more likely to spread.

2. Identify the ‘Big Idea’ & Develop a Pitch

Now that teachers have had a safe space to brainstorm, encourage those who want to move forward to choose the idea they would like to pitch and implement. A “big idea” may be as large-scale as Big Idea finalist, Ronalea Freeth, who pitched using a 3D printer to combine her first graders interests in art and coding, or winner Jonathan Natividad who wanted to inspire his students to write narratives based on video taken through the classroom GoPro.

All presentations should ideally address the following elements:

  • Idea: Will this idea have an impact on student learning?
  • Implementation: How possible is this idea given resources and time?
  • Timeline: What are the milestones and expected outcomes over what period of time?
  • Outcome: What does success look like?
  • Budget: How much will it cost?
  • Replicability: How will this impact the rest of the school? How will you help others get on board?

3. Pick Your Judges Wisely

For innovative ideas to grow beyond the classroom, judges cannot just consist of administrators. This creates a power struggle where teachers can feel like they are asking for permission. It also creates a fear of failure or judgement by their higher-ups. Invite a few teachers along to judge alongside administrators—perhaps one who is good at making things happen in the school and one who is a bit more skeptical of innovation. By involving all parties you create buy-in for long-term implementation.

4. The Job Doesn’t End When the Competition is Over

Promising ideas and good pitches don’t always turn out well. Entrepreneurs and startups often change their product and vision many times—and still they will fail. This is also true of new ideas that teachers pitch.

To create a culture of innovation, administrators should set realistic expectations so that teachers are fully aware that their ideas may not work. And just as important, peers and colleagues should form a team to support teachers should plans go south. To do this, you want to ensure that the teacher’s support team should be meeting consistently throughout the process. A helpful framework for organizing these meetings would be to use the Consultancy Protocol such as this one provided by Teacher2Teacher.

5. Plan to Replicate

Teachers should identify what works and how they can bring those learnings to other teachers in the school. Make sure that the teacher has set a timeline. At the end of the timeline they should be prepared to reflect on what works, and develop a plan to support other classrooms in implementing elements of the big idea.

6. Reflect on Culture

With the rise of online personal learning networks (PLN), teachers often ideas outside of school. As the popularity of education-focused Twitter chats suggests, ideas spread online because people feel safe to share and ask questions without internal judgement.

This is an atmosphere that administrators should aspire to create. Creating a climate for innovation schools starts with culture. Offering teachers greater opportunity to invest in student learning, even if it is not a guaranteed outcome, creates an environment where more people have a willingness to take chances with new ideas. Using this model you can begin to create a collaboration around innovation in your school enabling the teachers to take more chances. This culture will then trickle down to students. A teacher or an administrator who is not afraid to try, proves to their students that trying doesn’t have to be scary.

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