Final Reflections on a Transformative Year: 5 Characteristics of an Innovative Educator
These past twelve months in the Education Innovation Fellowship have been a transformative journey, stirring in me a desire to rethink not only our centuries-old understanding of school and classroom design, but also what it means to be a truly innovative educator.
My journey culminated on Saturday at the second annual Education Innovation Summit here in D.C.—a daylong conference convening more than 150 teachers, school and industry leaders, and policy experts on the state of education innovation both in and beyond Washington. Thanks to the support of CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund, as well as the leadership and will at D.C. Public Schools and D.C.’s robust charter sector, I believe that the city is reaching a critical moment in this personalized learning movement. Personalized learning for all students is no longer this impossible dream, but actually a feasible reality.
And you don’t have to be a superhuman teacher—nobody is “too old,” “not smart enough,” or “too inexperienced” to do this work. I’ve seen this transformation happen throughout a very diverse cohort of 20 educators, and Saturday’s Summit made me realize that there are hundreds more yearning to innovate in our city. Over the course of the day, we heard from national education leaders like U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton, Matchbook Learning Founder and CEO Sajan George, and Education Design Provocateur Aylon Samouha, and the Fellows led workshops to share the knowledge and practices they’ve learned over the course of the year. So what does it mean to be an innovative educator? While we’re still figuring out, I’ve put forth five traits that I think are vital to those willing to take the plunge:
1. Innovative educators (still) put students at the center of their classrooms. When I first joined this Fellowship, I thought I’d be learning mostly about SmartBoards, ST Math, 3D printing, and coding—at least, that was what came to mind when I thought of “education innovation” and “blended learning.” I quickly realized that education innovation is something much simpler than that—perhaps because there hasn’t been much innovation in education during the past 100 years. Alex Hernandez captured it best on our first program day when he told us that personalized learning is about “providing kids exactly what they need, when they need it.” This means the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage” but rather the “guide on the side,” empowering students to be the founders of their own learning.
2. Innovative educators are empowered designers. They are rethinking the way we deliver education, and this means redesigning both classrooms and schools. Although only three of them are featured in this video, all of my colleagues in the Education Innovation Fellowship have completely redesigned their classrooms to meet the needs of their students.
3. Innovative educators embrace the smart use of technology. In many classrooms, even some really strong ones, technology is babysitter rather than an engaging tool that can deliver data-driven instruction. Technology is certainly not a necessity in or the end goal of innovation, but as the Education Innovation Fellows have demonstrated across their cohort, intentional use of data-rich technology truly transforms the student experience.
4. Innovative educators are open to new ideas, and they fail fast. Many of the new practices in classroom and school redesign involve relinquishing control of students, blowing up the traditional bell schedule and pacing guide, interpreting complex sets of data, and trusting technology. That can be scary, and I observed many Fellows struggle through implementing these new classroom designs. But I learned that that struggle is an integral and irreplaceable part of the process.
5.Innovative educators build community and share practices. Redesigning schools and classrooms is a daunting task, and instruction will likely get messy before it begins to take on a whole new life that meets all kids where they are. Above all else, this Fellowship has taught me that we can’t do this work in isolation; to be most effective, innovative educators have to develop a community of practice around this very challenging work. More than anything, this year was transformative because of the community of educators who were willing to learn with me, to push my thinking, and to embrace challenges. In order to grow, we must collaborate, and there are many resources out there to build community—like this blog, Edudemic, and Blended Teaching DC (a blog started and run by the Education Innovation Fellows). As my Fellowship colleague Dwight Davis said on our final program day, “Isolation is the enemy of improvement.”