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K-12 Innovation: It's About Time

Note: The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) will be blogging this week. Today, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year and 2015 Texas State Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples joins us.

Francis Bacon said that time is the greatest innovator. Nowhere is this more true than in public schools—but it's the thing we seem to have the least amount of.

We suffer under the delusion that innovation is synonymous with technology, so we input technology with the hope of achieving innovation as the outcome.

Principal George Couros in The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, defines innovation as "a way of thinking that creates something new and better. . . It is not a thing, task, or even technology."

The last part of his definition gets at a fundamental misunderstanding about creative change in schools: the belief that innovation comes from technology. Technology, such as one-to-one programs, carts of tablets in every classroom, or even graciously allowing students to use their smartphones in various "bring your own device" policies, energizes everyone.

Technology certainly is exciting and can provoke envy in our colleagues who don't have all the cool stuff others have, and parents love seeing shiny new tech on back to school night.

However, I've yet to see a student mention technology as critical to their learning on my end-of-year surveys of their experience.

Tony Wagner, in Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, quotes former Procter & Gamble executive Ellen Bowman who defines innovation as "creative problem solving." This comes closer to the day-to-day innovation experienced by teachers and students, in my view.

You can't creatively solve problemsas a student, as a teacher, or as an administratorwithout time. I'm as in love with ed tech as anyone, yet I'd pack it all up and send it next door if offered an exchange of time.

Time is what I need, and what my colleagues and students need more than new tablets.

My own definition of innovation, arrived at from working exclusively in Title I schools for almost 14 years, is an equation: empathy combined with different perspective-taking to create immediate use solutions. It takes time to put yourself in someone else's position and to consider their needs, and that is a skill found in the best teachers and students.

Some of the most innovative, creative and powerful lessons I've ever helped to design were created from collaborations with colleagues in a small group given time to really think through a lesson.

I'm fortunate that my district gives each secondary content-area teacher a daily hour of collaboration time. My principal further developed this collaboration by creating "inquiry groups" made up of eight teachers grouped by similar interests who meet twice a month.

In my group, we voted to study classroom discussion. We argued, researched, and questioned everything we were doing. We filmed class discussions, reflecting on what worked and what didn't, surveying students, sharing the video in the group, and then using the resulting collaboration as a revision of the lesson. Our classrooms changed in a powerful way: suddenly discussion highlighted student voice and choice, provoking much deeper learning than we'd ever seen.

This took lots of time, but I argue that it is the single best investment our campus made in professional development. It didn't cost anything other than a willingness to play with scheduling, and a willingness to move regular meetings to online spaces.This freed up face-to-face time for the actual work of creation and innovation.

Wagner identified five "critical innovation skills" as perseverance, a willingness to experiment, take calculated risk, tolerate failure, and a capacity for design thinking. What stifles these, he quotes a senior executive at IBM as saying, is "rigid bureaucratic structures, isolation, and a high-stress work environment." Unfortunately, that sounds like too many campuses across the country.

What would happen if we gave teachers time and trust? What if we gave our students time and trust? What kinds of amazing things would we discover?

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) believes that we transform the profession when we promote the conditions, capacity, and culture needed to foster great teaching and learning for all students.

Trust, one of the most valuable assets on any team, only grows from time. We can only create trust with time. This, in my opinion, is true innovation: being willing to devote ample amounts of trust and time to teachers.

We will see real school transformation when we resist the urge to buy newer and better gadgets and instead critically look at how we are using time and fostering trust with teachers. 

--Shanna Peeples

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