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School Culture of Innovation

STRATEGY: Deliberately create a school culture of innovation that promotes trust and collaboration with accountability and ownership.

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist … using technologies that haven’t yet been invented … in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” —Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton

These words are a call to action for schools to develop and adopt new practices necessary to stay relevant to students who live in a rapidly changing world. This culture of innovation develops in the same way as any other component of school culture; it must be communicated intentionally and fostered. Such culture also is valued highly by teachers; research shows that teachers consider professional learning opportunities to be one of the most important elements of school success.


Innovation does not mean dictating new policies to a school staff from the principal’s office. Google and Apple, two companies famous for their innovation, also are driven from the bottom up. Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This does not mean that teachers should innovate carte blanche. Quite the contrary; innovation requires a clear process of experimentation and reflection where teachers and administrators trust in each other and the process. It also requires collaboration among staff members where roles and responsibilities in the process are clearly defined.

This process of experimentation and growth has hallmarks that can be identified and learned. Action research and professional learning communities (PLCs) are two common ways that schools and teachers innovate. In both instances, staff members, either on their own or collectively, identify or develop a new practice to implement. They then implement the new practice in classrooms and collect data to determine whether the new practice has been successful in accomplishing desired goals. The practice may be tweaked or modified along the way, but ultimately it is either accepted into a teacher’s (or school’s) repertoire or rejected based upon the results. New practices may come from a variety of sources, including research literature, conferences, and colleagues, or may be novel ideas generated by staff members.

For these processes to thrive in a school, teachers and administrators must be of a common mindset when it comes to the value of innovation. This requires open lines of communication between administrators and staff members, both at the beginning of the process and throughout the experimental phases. When teachers try new practices—that may or may not prove successful—it is critical for administrators to be aware and supportive of the effort. Administrators must be willing to let teachers try new ideas, knowing that they may not reach the desired outcome. This can be daunting in this era of high-stakes accountability, but it is essential for learning and growth. Ongoing feedback for teachers can provide support during experimentation and refine new strategies.

Developing a clear process for action research or PLCs will ensure that teachers feel ownership over their experimentation and are held accountable for it. Administrators can create regular meeting times for PLCs and provide training on how effective PLCs operate. Teachers conducting action research may be given time during a faculty meeting to share results of their investigations. Administrators may lead PLCs or they may conduct action research of their own.

By participating in or modeling these practices, administrators can advocate for experimentation and learn from their own efforts. Administrators also can invite teachers to provide input into whole-school experimentation efforts (e.g., changes to the school schedule) to build community investment in larger innovations.

First Steps to Consider

  • Engage staff members, voluntarily, in the processes of action research and PLCs so that they understand what well-structured innovation looks like.
  • Ask teachers (and other community members such as students, parents, etc.) to identify areas of growth for the school to focus on and potential new strategies.
  • Create and share documents that outline the school’s commitment to experimentation and innovation.
  • Provide time during the school day or in the school year calendar for teachers to collaborate around experimentation and innovation.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Teachers at various stages of their careers and development have different needs for their growth. Teachers who have mastered the basics of instruction have more capacity for experimentation and innovation than those just starting out. However, new teachers may also bring fresh eyes and ideas to the school. It is the administrator’s challenge to determine and balance the needs and growth trajectories of individual teachers.

Innovation is not a linear process of improvement. It often appears as two steps forward and one step back. For companies, this is a simple fact of business to accept; for schools, it affects the learning and lives of students. The process of innovation can be disruptive and frustrating for individual students and for school accountability measures like standardized test scores. School leaders need to mediate the ups and downs that come with experimentation and innovation to ensure that students and schools can progress as smoothly as possible.

Common pitfalls

  • Doing too much. Innovation is not achieved through constant experimentation or through experimenting with many things all at once. Choose a few areas to focus on and stick with them.
  • Being top down. Ideas for innovation can and should come from all community members, including teachers, students, parents, and support staff.
  • Giving up too early. It takes time to learn new strategies and structures and for them to take hold. When the learning curve for a new strategy is steep, it can result in initial failure before eventual success. With that said, it is necessary to evaluate strategies and to be comfortable ending things that are not working.
  • Failure to communicate. Communication about experimentation is critical, especially among teachers who may be trying a new strategy. What one teacher or administrator learns must be shared with others for the innovation to have a significant impact.

Guiding Questions

  • Do teachers and administrators feel comfortable trying new things at the school?
  • How are new policies and practices evaluated for effectiveness?
  • What structures at the school exist to promote innovation and collaboration, such as PLCs?
  • How are teachers and other community members involved in decisions that involve school changes?
  • How is a culture of innovation explicitly communicated and fostered at the school?