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The Boston Public Schools Innovation Incubator

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By Karissa Goff and Camella Scott, Boston Public Schools Office of Innovation

Boston Public Schools (BPS) is discovering that designing the future is not just about ideas, but about making ideas happen. We wanted to build an experience that says "yes" to the unconventional, embraces ambiguity, and celebrates problem-finding possibilities. The nation's oldest public school district is giving schools the freedom to approach a problem of practice in a way that is as seemingly unusual as necessary: by participating in a unique professional development network and hacking toward solutions in their schools.

Educators Want to Be Networked

In 2017, the BPS Office of Innovation wanted to better understand Boston educators' needs and wants for professional development. We worked with Harvard Graduate School of Education students to survey 129 educators across the district. We asked them to rate themselves in terms of the eight characteristics of the Innovator's Mindset--derived from George Couros' work. The survey participants ranked themselves highest in terms of empathy and lowest in being networked. Further root cause analysis, including empathy interviews, unveiled an opportunity to strengthen BPS educators' internal network.

We asked ourselves, "How might we activate a network, full of human connections and instructional resources, that enables powerful change in teaching and learning?"

Knowing that serendipity is essential to survival in a rapidly changing world, we sought to uncover who, in our system, was either operating at the edge or at least willing to venture to the edge of serendipity with us. Over time, through programming, observations, and conversations, we identified school leaders and educators exploring various entry points into personalized learning for their students. Moreover, the schools most successful in the exploration of personalized learning as a lever to innovation had cultivated the buy-in of leadership. We noted that this team-level of exploration, underpinned by supportive leadership, was exactly what we needed to harness and amplify, in an effort to activate our innovation network.

Launching the BPS Innovation Network

In February 2018, the Office of Innovation was awarded a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to collaborate with School Retool, a professional development fellowship created by the Stanford d.school and IDEO, to build the BPS Innovation Incubator (Incubator). The Incubator is designed to support school leaders and educators in growing their capacity to innovate both as individuals and as part of a team.

The Incubator, launched in September 2018, aims to develop the ability of 21 school-based teams to hack and problem-solve toward deeper, more personalized learning experiences for students. Incubator participants function in their new network as a full cohort, as individual members of their school's team, and as part of an online community where we spotlight progress and crowdsource ideas. As members of an Incubator cohort, school teams spend their time in the following ways:

  • Developing foundational knowledge about Deeper Learning and setting aspirations

  • Adopting a hacking mindset and practicing hacking with one-on-one support from School Retool coaches

  • Visiting buddy schools to learn from one another's design

  • Scaling their designs and leading their school in a set of hacks

The inaugural cohort members are Boston Adult Technical Academy, Boston International Newcomers Academy, Charlestown High School, Fenway High School, and Snowden International School!

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We anticipate a shift in mindset, reflected in student-centered learning environment design. It is our hope that exposure to various innovation spaces and communities around Boston will foster innovative collaboration processes amongst the newfound network. We are excited to share the progression of the BPS Innovation Incubator in the coming months.

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Photos by Camella Scott for Boston Public Schools, from the top:
  • Charlestown High School educators, Lauren Brett and Ivan Quinones, brainstorm hacks for measuring content mastery and habits of work for their students, in a Boston Public Schools Innovation Incubator workshop this week.
  • Cohort 1 of the Boston Public Schools Innovation Incubator in the Accelerate, Wentworth Innovation + Entrepreneurship Center
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