An innovative spin

February 2017


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Carolyn STUART says schools need to establish themselves as “hubs of innovation” to meet the needs of their communities.


The start of each new school year brings excitement and a freshness of opportunity. Teachers and leaders welcome the precious cohort of learners who will be in their care for the next 11 months. It is a lovely time of the year with everyone coming together, revitalised from their long summer break, and ready to begin another exciting journey of learning and discovery.

A new school year brings the chance to implement new ideas. It is also an opportunity to review past practices to decide if they still meet the needs of today’s learners. Education, like most other areas of our society, is changing at such a pace that what has worked well in the past may no longer be appropriate. To stay up to date, schools need to establish themselves as hubs of innovation, so that they continue to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

We all know the old saying: “Give a person a fish to feed them for a day or teach them to fish to feed them for a lifetime”. We need to apply the same kind of thinking to innovation in our schools. Is it more important to focus our energy on implementing the latest ‘best practice idea’ or are we better served focusing on setting up environments in which continuous innovation can occur?

Nurturing innovation

Setting up the right conditions for innovation in our schools and classrooms is really important. Innovation occurring haphazardly and without boundaries can be as detrimental to student learning as teaching approaches that belong in the past.

In a research project* investigating how to lead change with digital technology in education,  the conditions for innovation in a school were studied and summarised using the analogy of a spinning top.

The spinning top balances on a spindle of authentic relationships. These are relationships that exist across the entire school community and are built on the common platform of understanding and respect. At the start of the year, teachers should be encouraged to take the time to build these relationships, not only with each other, but with and between the students they teach and the whānau they serve. Often in the rush to get initial assessments completed, teachers neglect to put the relationship roots down deep enough, negatively impacting the critical teacher/learner relationship for the rest of the year.

The spinning top is powered through inquiry-based practice, with teachers, leaders and students thinking deeply about how to maximise the learning opportunities in front of them. Having a growth mindset about the way we do things keeps the energy flowing and brings momentum.

Shared values and vision sit at the centre of the spinning top because it is important that everyone is working towards the same clearly understood purpose. When values and vision are not well articulated, the potential for a competitive culture rather than a collaborative one is high.

Representing vision and values through catchy slogans and signs is relatively easy. Getting people to articulate and live them in their everyday practice is much more challenging. Embedding vision and values in everyday conversations, mantras and practices helps to bring them to life.

Moving out from vision and values is future-focused expectations. This is being clear about what are the essential skills and knowledge that today’s learners need, in order to experience success both now and in the future.

The next ring illustrates the balance that is required between trust in process and trust in people. People feel safe when there are clear processes around how things work. For example, if an organisation has an agreed process around how people will behave in meetings, then it is more likely that everyone will feel safe contributing. They will feel even safer, if they know that any breaches of the protocol will be addressed. Too often schools spend considerable time developing shared understandings around processes, but lack the organisational courage to tackle the individuals who think they are exempt from the agreements made. This speaks to the final ring of the spinning top.

Collective responsibility for agreed norms is about everyone being committed to living out the organisational norms and being collectively responsible for ensuring that everyone does what has been agreed. The spinning top becomes powerful when everyone takes responsibility for living each layer, not standing back and expecting this work to just sit with the leaders.

It is the collective responsibility around agreed norms, underpinned by trust in people and process, future-focused expectations, and shared values and visions that gives people the freedom to innovate.

Spinning top 2Making it spin

The spinning top was originally developed to illustrate the dynamics of leading innovation and change in a school, but it works equally well at the classroom level. As the school year begins:

  • spend time developing protocols around how you will treat each other
  • develop an environment where it is the norm to ask ‘why’?
  • don’t just put the vision and values on the wall, put them into your speech and model them in your actions
  • spend time thinking about the future and locating what we do today into our tomorrow
  • processes that enable people to trust and support each other so everyone has the chance to be the best they can be.

Schools that are hubs of innovation have the best chance of remaining relevant and serving the purpose for which they were established. Today’s students deserve to learn in relevant contexts, and what better time to ensure this happens than now?

Carolyn Stuart is Deputy Chief Executive, Education, for The Network for Learning (N4L).

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