How does your school innovate?
At Google, employees have their famed 20% time, where they work on projects of their choice that fall outside the scope of their usual job.
In Drive Daniel Pink tells the story of Atlassian, a software company who run quarterly FedEx days. On each of these days employees have 24 hours to work on any project of their choosing that relates to the company’s products.
Institutional innovation seems common in the computing sector – so why is it not in education?
Barriers to Innovation
- Hierarchy – most schools are built on a hierarchical structure. They will differ in who rigid this is, but I’ve not heard of many where dissent and challenge are actively encouraged. Innovation is a process of “creative destruction”. It can only take place where the hierarchy allows elements of the status quo to be challenged and creatively destroyed.
- Time – innovation takes time. Unlike a software company, schools cannot opt to stop working for a day, or afford to reduce timetables by 20% on account of speculative endeavours.
- Orthodoxy – almost all teachers have been trained in the same dominant orthodoxy, and are used to being told that particular strategies are ‘right’. As a profession we have, until quite recently, been discouraged from thinking independently and challenging orthodoxy.
- Silos – teachers tend to work in silos. Whether they be classrooms, departments, or even whole schools, the physical and organisational structures of education encourage teachers to work in silos rather than cross boundaries into other areas.
The Desire to Innovate
Schools are full of creative potential. Teachers know their students and their needs better than anyone else, and are best placed to drive the ideas and initiatives needed to improve their life chances. These barriers to innovation must be overcome. At WA we strongly believe that the best ideas will come from staff, and have begun trying to shape our culture of innovation.
The first inset day this January was our first Innovation Day. Every member of staff was given the day to work on an idea or project of their choice. The only constraints were that:
- It must contribute to the mission of the school.
- It must have an impact beyond an individual teacher’s practice.
- It cannot assume funding from the school budget.
Staff were in one of two streams. Developers submitted a project in advance, and got the day to work on bringing it closer to fruition. Over twenty five projects were submitted involving over sixty staff.
Innovators began the day with problem-solving around our five strategic priority areas, looking for the biggest underlying barriers and ways to combat them. Groups formed around good ideas, and they spent the rest of the day building these into more concrete plans.
The range and quality of innovations was incredible. To give a quick flavour we had:
- A cross-curricular think tank founded, to develop stronger links and synergies across subjects.
- A community World Cup programme designed, to open the school up as a community hub and take the opportunity to enthuse children of all ages about different subjects through football.
- A programme for improving questioning developed, using a specially designed structure of lesson observation to pick out key successes and areas for development.
- A new programme to develop presentation skills to be delivered through tutor time.
- An improved induction programme for vulnerable students to make sure they settle in and succeed to the best of their abilities.
- And about thirty more!
Innovation Day worked because it lifted the above barriers.
- Hierarchy – we explicitly said that anything goes, and no area of the school was off limits. To make this easier, senior leaders did not join in the rooms with other staff so that challenge could flow more freely. Instead groups that wanted to seek the advice of leadership booked consultation slots to go through their ideas.
- Time – we freed up one day. One day is not enough, but it is a start!
- Orthodoxy – all teachers were encouraged to challenge orthodoxy. Innovators had displays of prompts for their problem-solving, including things such as a table of Hattie’s effect sizes, and Prof Rob Coe’s great scatter graph. These prompted a challenge to some of the orthodoxies we have grown used to accepting.
- Silos – staff chose the groups they worked in, but never fell back into silos during the day. Developers were roomed with projects tackling similar problems from different departments, and innovators were mixed from the start. Activities such as Idea Speed Dating created opportunities for further discussion outside of traditional school silos.
Lifting these barriers, just for a day, unleashed a huge amount of creative energy and has led to fantastic innovations to improve our students’ futures. Our challenge now is further minimising barriers in the longer term, so that innovation becomes part of our culture rather than an annual event.