Between the Extremes: The Fundamentals of an Innovative School

Between the Extremes: The Fundamentals of an Innovative School


The call for innovative solutions that will disrupt an antiquated school model have grown to a din. Yet even with more education innovation groups emerging--incubators, graduate programs, funds, and companies--two stifling trends remain frustratingly prevalent. 

The first is a top-down approach, in which teachers are subjected to innovation rather than serving as the innovators themselves. We see this, for example, when a principal dictates that using iPads for a specific amount of time every period constitutes “innovation.” At the other extreme is a lone-wolf approach, creating pockets of innovation that produce unparalleled results. Their magic, however, remains exactly that--frustratingly elusive to others. In these cases, individual teachers work like artists producing masterpieces rather than innovators forging solutions that can be recreated in other classrooms.

As the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Alpha Public Schools--a network of innovative charter schools serving high need students in San Jose--I’ve seen these trends play out both locally and nationally. We want everyone at Alpha to be an innovator who continually makes, breaks, and recreates solutions through small pilots. Ultimately, we want all of our staff to create scalable solutions that address our schools’ greatest needs. We’ve found the best way to do this is by balancing the two extremes of a top-down and lone-wolf approach, using the three fundamentals outlined below to create a culture of innovation across our schools.

1. Build the Culture

In schools, building an innovative culture comes with an additional challenge. Years of overly structured environments, hyper-structured lesson planning templates, and “best” practices have left many educators with a form of post-traumatic structure disorder--anxiety resulting from feeling constrained and unable to question or redesign existing practices.

To alleviate this anxiety, we’ve embraced the mindsets below, many of which we borrowed from IDEO, the global design and consulting firm.

  • Act: Just build it. Acting quickly to build something that can be tested is superior to relying on a hypothetical model.
  • Start small: In education, we have a bias towards scaling first and fixing what’s broken later. Until a solution has been tested and refined, it should be kept small. We don’t need to validate the initial idea with more than a handful of users.
  • Yes (and): Our solution will have some strengths (Yes!) and some weaknesses to improve upon (and…).
  • Fail forward: We expect that every solution we test will have some failings; that’s why we tested it. Gaining insights and learning from those failings in order to refine our solution is always a step forward.

As we approach the next school year, we plan to focus on building improv into our on-boarding process by pulling a page from the playbook of the non-profit education incubator 4.0 Schools. As unusual as this might sound, practicing improv is perhaps the best activity to introduce and sustain a culture of innovation; it forces everyone to embrace all of the mindsets outlined above. Improv is a problem-solving strategy in itself, and we expect to use it not only to teach these mindsets but to help quickly solve challenges throughout the year.

2. Drive Innovation but Don’t Let It Drive You

One of the greatest challenges we’ve encountered with staff is answering the question, “What does innovation look like?” It’s an excellent question, for which we haven’t yet created an answer. In fact, when school leaders answer this question unequivocally, teachers frequently find themselves subjected to innovation--instead of driving it. This is the first step towards the top down innovation extreme. We believe it isn’t the principal’s job to define what innovation does or does not look like. The question a visionary leader needs to ask instead is, “Where should we be innovating?” In building the language skills of English language learners? In developing non-cognitive learning assessments? By framing these questions instead, school leaders can afford teachers the latitude they need to innovate while focusing the effort in areas where it’s needed most.

While this might seem obvious, the numerous demands placed on school administrators make it challenging for many to identify and commit to priorities. As educators, we often feel that we’re expected to solve all of society’s ills. More frequently than not, this can make us bloated with so many “priorities” that the word ceases to have meaning.

To clarify our priorities during the innovation process, we’ve borrowed from Patrick Lencioni’s book on organizational health, The Advantage. We suggest identifying up to three “strategic anchors,” areas in which a school wants to focus its innovation efforts. They might include something as specific as accelerating the growth of students’ foundational math skills, or as broad as creating a joyful staff culture. These anchors serve as focal points that continually answer the question, “Where should we be innovating?” and keep us from trying to boil the ocean.

Anchors are ultimately chosen by the school leader and should always be informed by the school’s vision, teacher input, and evidence from classrooms.

3. Innovate as a Team

Despite the popular American mythology of the singular creative genius envisioning the future in his garage, innovation is a team sport. Innovators are not lone wolves. At Alpha, we’ve found that the most successful innovators work in teams that include:

  • One administrator: Once the school leader identifies the strategic anchors to guide the innovation work, a team’s administrator keeps the team focused on achieving goals and refining the solutions within those anchors. Teams need an administrative level advocate to gather resources and political support, to provide insights about the larger context the team is working within, and to keep an eye towards scaling successful solutions.
  • Two or three teachers: The primarily role of the teachers is to improvise--moving quickly to develop, test and refine solutions. This might mean tweaking an existing practice or it may involve laying waste to an entire structure and trying something completely new. With multiple teachers, teams can test variations of a solution simultaneously, thus refining it more quickly. And with several teachers, a team is better able to consider how an idea might be executed across a range of classrooms, ensuring that the solution isn’t a lone-wolf innovation.

The fundamentals outlined above have cultivated collaboration and creativity across Alpha’s schools, where we work to make every member of our team an innovator. As with most things, the solution lies in between the extremes. When leaders provide a direction without dictating a destination, and when individuals work together with the latitude to create, innovative schools can reach their full creative potential.  

Will Eden is an Entrepreneur in Residence with Alpha Public Schools, and Founding Principal at Alpha Collegiate in the Bay Area. Will is responsible for managing Alpha’s blended learning program and data, and for designing Alpha’s high school model.

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