How to Create a School Culture Where Teachers Lead Innovation

column | PK-12 School Models

How to Create a School Culture Where Teachers Lead Innovation

By Jin-Soo Huh (Columnist)     Jun 14, 2018

How to Create a School Culture Where Teachers Lead Innovation

Teachers have awesome ideas but it can be challenging for school systems to surface them and turn them into reality.

In my previous column, I looked at two school systems that created structures that did just that. Gwinnett County Public Schools teamed up with The Teachers Guild to help create a mechanism to do this and KIPP LA Public Schools created an in-house mini grant competition. Minnetonka Public Schools, a K-12 school district of 10 schools serving 10,500 students in Minnesota, has also tackled this and come up with a solution of its own: The Big Hunt for Ideas.

When Eric Schneider joined Minnetonka Public Schools seven years ago as associate superintendent, the district was already pretty innovative, but the ideas were coming top down from the superintendent and executive leadership team. Schneider was charged with developing a culture of innovation where the ideas come from the workforce. He looked at private companies in the Twin Cities area including 3M, Target, US Bank, and United Health and learned about their crowd-based internal innovation, where ideas are sourced from within. After modifying these structures for the school setting, The Big Hunt for Ideas was born.

On the Hunt

Seven years later and after several iterations, The Big Hunt has become a signature innovation driver. Each fall, all 1,300 staff members including teachers, operations staff, and instructional support staff are able to post ideas onto an online platform and comment on ideas for a month. Ideas are categorized based on grade levels (elementary, middle, high) and sorted into three buckets by the amount of resources needed for the project (small, medium, large). “People are talking about ideas throughout the submission window virtually and sometimes live. There’s a whole flurry of conversations and socializations,” Schneider said.

Once the submission period ends, voting happens. The platform shows voters two ideas at at time and they select the one they like better. The algorithm then uses these votes to rank ideas. Engagement across the district is high with around 50 percent of staff members voting. The Big Hunt generates around 250 ideas each year. There is no cap on the small ideas that can be implemented and effective principals implement these top low-cost or no-cost ideas. For example, Schneider points to a change in date of high school orientation that was a wildly successful idea that required no cost outlay.

Big Hunt Minnetonka
Minnetonka Public Schools

The top three medium and big ideas in each grade band then moves onto an idea workshop in January. Teams engage in human center designed workshops and spend the next few months testing prototypes. Major strategic initiatives have stemmed from these prototypes including VANTAGE, a multicourse integration at the high school level that blends schoolwork with offsite real world work, and Tonka Codes, a K-5 computer science curriculum.

Whether the program becomes a strategic initiative or not, the staff members are getting a unique leadership experience. “These are ideas coming from teachers,” Schneider said. “We’re not twisting arms. We’re not trying to talk people into this program. Teachers are leading. I’m just trying to clear the obstacles and have the resources they need to keep moving forward.”

Amplifying New Voices

Another benefit of this program is that it allows any voice to be amplified. The structure of the Big Hunt takes away factors like seniority, and whether a teacher has a good relationship with administration. Schneider says that there are dozens of ideas selected from staff members who did not have a great social network of colleagues because people get excited about ideas. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a traditional leader or have that credibility. If you have a great idea, you have a shot,” he said.

Minnetonka has partnered with other districts to make this platform available for others and to receive training to lead workshops. These partner districts formed InnovateK12 and are opening it up to other districts. Those not in Minnesota can join in for a free trial year with virtual workshops; afterward, districts will pay $3,000 a year to help cover the costs in subsequent years.

“The lack of teacher voice in the decision making process is a major problem in our business and it’s an asset that if you know how to engage our frontline staff, not just teachers, in the right way,” Schneider says. “They’re passionate about student learning, they know all too well what the pain points are and they’re super creative and have great ideas. Put that all together, and it’s a natural fit.”

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