“Innovation.” If you were playing buzzword bingo at a faculty meeting, professional development session, or conference, you might just hit the jackpot with that little gem. In fact, the word innovation has become so commonplace in our educational conversations that it may as well be the proverbial “free space” on our card.

Innovation is not new. It is a process of development that has been prevalent in our industrial psyche for centuries. Perhaps the discrepancy comes because education has been slow to accept change, and innovation is a word that implies constant change. Our education system had been slow to change simply because change often required resources and time we simply did not have. That is no longer true. Today we are finding better ways to educate our students, parents, and ourselves. In today’s schools, innovation is a gateway to unlocking the unlimited potential and human capital of our schools and community. 

Exploring Innovation

As is the case with most ideas in education, a major hindrance to creating truly innovative schools is agreeing to a common definition. I have heard innovation defined as “getting better,” “improving a product or service,” or simply “doing something new.” These definitions often rise to the top because they are easy to quantify. But if we want to truly create innovative schools, we need a definition that provides a clear rationale for why we innovate and how innovation allows us to better serve our schools. 

When I discuss innovation in schools, I profess the belief that innovation permits us to identify new solutions within an environment of evolving parameters and needs. Educator and author Don Wettrick says, “Innovation uses a fresh approach to solving real problems with the resources you have and finding clever ways around the resources you don’t have.” Innovation to me is finding new solutions to real-world issues while maximizing our resources and human capital.

Why Innovation Is a Necessity

Author Simon Sinek rose to fame on a simple concept—start with “why.” He argues organizations that successfully navigate change do so because they see problems and solutions through a pattern known as “the Golden Circle.” Rather than see the pattern in a traditional format focusing on the “what,” successful organizations and leaders focus on the “why.” As we discuss innovation in our schools, we must begin with this simple question—why do schools need to innovate?

Survival in the Real World

As school leaders, we are collectively preparing our students for a greater path forward. That path can take many different forms, yet the skills that each path demands are ever present. For many years, schools have focused heavily on critical thinking skills as the linchpin for lifelong learning. While important, critical thinking is just one skill students need to succeed beyond our doors. Collaboration, adaptability, initiative, curiosity, perseverance, a willingness to experiment, and a tolerance for failure are also crucial in today’s global environment. If we want to promote these skills in our students, then finding ways to promote innovation in our classrooms is critical. Without opportunities to innovate, our students will be ill-prepared to address real-world issues within the confines of resource management.

Call for Creativity

Think back to your childhood. Remember the joy of learning? As children we are unencumbered by the constraints of adulthood. Artist Erik Wahl talks about asking a room of adults who is an artist and seeing one hand emerge; ask a room of children and every hand will shoot up. Imagine what schools could do if we could lift the constraints of adulthood and reignite the passion and creativity inside each of us. 

The most identifiable story of unleashing our collective creativity can be seen in “20 percent time” at Google—the concept that employees got to use 20 percent of their work time to explore/advance personal projects. Former Google executive Marissa Mayer estimates that 50 percent of Google’s new products were a result of “20 percent time.”Why can’t schools be more like Google? Fostering innovation in our schools allows us to unleash the creativity inside each one of us for the betterment of the individual and the school community. 

Building Better Schools

I believe we would be hard-pressed to find a school leader who does not want to improve his or her school. Yet how often do we sustain the status quo for the sake of “that’s the way we’ve always done it”? As individuals we look for doctors who use new methods of treating illness, we stand in line to purchase technology with the smallest of enhancements and upgrades, and we constantly seek to better ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. Yet, in education we hold true to standards of practices because “they work.” Yes, many of them work—but we can do better! 

Innovation allows schools to become better versions of themselves. Unleashing the human capital within our schools promotes an internal change process that makes us stronger on our own terms.

Leading Innovative Learning Cultures

We are now standing at a time in history where technology and creativity allow us unlimited opportunities to enhance teaching and learning. Our job as leaders is to capitalize on this unique moment and transform our schools for the better.

When we talk about leading innovative transformation in schools, I believe it is important that we look through the lens of our understanding of school culture. You cannot build innovation; innovation is a mindset through which we transform our work. As leaders, what can we build? We can build innovative learning cultures. 

In an innovative learning culture, all stakeholders—students, parents, staff, community—are engaged in promoting and sustaining an environment where learning is a process of addressing problems with unique and attainable solutions. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Innovative learning cultures for students can be characterized by identifying and promoting opportunities for student-directed learning and engagement.
  • Innovative learning cultures for staff can be characterized by redesigning professional learning to maximize the capacities and leadership within your own building.
  • Innovative learning cultures can be characterized for parents and community stakeholders by seeking new ways to engage them to serve as positive agents for change and improvement in our schools.

Leading an innovative learning culture is not an easy task. It takes perseverance, collaborative spirit, initiative, curiosity, a willingness to experiment, and a tolerance for failure. In other words, it takes the exact skills that we are trying to foster in our own students. Through leading a transformation to an innovative learning culture, we ourselves are transformed as leaders. As we transform ourselves, we are better suited to offer unique and new solutions to real-world problems while maximizing resources—we innovate. 

Jared Wastler is assistant principal at Liberty High School in Eldersburg, MD. He was the 2014 Maryland Assistant Principal of the Year and will be a presenter at Ignite ’16 in Orlando, FL, in February.

TWITTER TALK “In education we often complain that policymakers are out of touch-they are only as out of touch as we let them be. #APChat” — Jared Wastler (@jcwastler)