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5 Ways Educators Can Start Innovating

Project Zero authors show that making change doesn’t have to be daunting
Pop art illustration of lightbulbs

Innovation can be a powerful tool when it is built on the opportunities and challenges educators see on a daily basis. However, educators don’t often believe they have time to innovate and the idea of innovation can be daunting. What’s more, educators aren’t always given the necessary trust or ability to act independently to come up with new ideas for schools and see them through.

“The concept that you have to do something that is world changing or changes everything can be a barrier to teachers and school leaders,” says Andrea Sachdeva, senior project manager at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and an HGSE graduate. Instead, as she points out in Inquiry-Driven Innovation, the new book she cowrote with HGSE lecturer and Project Zero principal investigator Elizabeth Dawes Duraisingh, innovation can be something small. 

Dedicating time to innovation, they say, can lead to positive school-based change and even reinvigorate practice. They saw this story play out in research they conducted for four years with Project Zero colleagues. “Educators found it energizing to create the time and work together with people they normally wouldn’t work with. It renewed their sense of purpose,” Dawes Duraisingh says. “It goes beyond, ‘Here’s my list of tasks,’ to thinking about what are we striving for and how can I build that into my work as a teacher and revitalize what I’m doing?”

Here are five principles Sachdeva and Dawes Duraisingh recommend for educators who want to make change in their schools: 

  1. Be purposeful and intentional. Think about why you are pursuing innovation in your school or practice. Innovation can be a buzzword for many people, conjuring up major technological advances. It doesn’t have to be big, but it does need to be relevant and responsive to your local context.
  2. Include diverse perspectives. Create diverse study groups of educators and listen closely to everyone involved. Put together colleagues who don’t usually have the chance to work together — whether that’s educators from different subject areas or with different levels of authority or types of life experience — and be sure to pay attention to voices that are often left out of conversations about school change, such as students and their parents. By working to include diverse points of view and experiences, you’ll have different conversations than usual and are more likely to get beyond “to do” lists. Your innovation is also more likely to gain traction within your school.
  3. Push for local ownership. Make sure innovation is starting from needs and wishes in your local community, rather than defaulting to current trends in education or recommendations for change that come from outside. Help everyone involved to feel ownership, pride, and investment in the changes, for example, by giving your innovation a name that connects it to your school.
  4. Get your structures and support in place first. Educators can’t just innovate right away without the proper supports and structure in place to be successful. This means establishing working teams that enjoy support throughout the school including with leaders, and who are given permission to try new things out.
  5. Keep it going. Consider how to sustain the initiative even after the initial enthusiasm. Create supportive structures to help people keep developing and refining the innovation over time. Some of the professional development tools that can help with this process can take as little as 10 minutes a day in practice.

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