Removing the Obstacles in Education so Innovation and Academics Can Flourish

Many administrators expect teachers to “innovate” and create better experiences for our students that go “beyond the test.”  I think the expectation is great when the action of the administrator corresponds.  For example, if you say “relationships matter” and we “need to tell our stories” but the majority of the communication that goes out to the community about the effectiveness of your school is in terms of numbers and rankings, you are telling people what is valued through what you communicate to your community.

The reason I bring this up is that I often have teachers pull me aside and say they want to try to create a much more compelling learning environment for their students where they are finding and solving real-world problems, but they feel stifled by their administrators. What is interesting, is that many administrators see themselves as the pathway, not the obstacle.

Here is something I wrote in “The Innovator’s Mindset” that is an easy way to support our teachers in their work:

I often took my laptop and would sit in a classroom for anywhere from three to six hours. While I worked on administrative tasks and answered emails, the teachers and students went about their day and eventually forgot I was there. Being physically present in the classroom helped me develop a better understanding of the experiences of the teachers and students. I wasn’t there to evaluate the teachers. In fact, it was more about evaluating the environment that the school district had created. One thing I noticed during that time is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do to make things work. Whether it was going through an arduous computer logon process with students, or dealing with constant issues with wifi, they looked less like teachers and more like magicians. And yet, time and again, I saw frustrated educators go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to flourish in our schools, we have to be willing to immerse ourselves in the environments where it is going to happen. If you’re thinking you don’t have the time, remember that your technology is mobile. You can do what I did; take your computer or tablet and work in classrooms. I might be able to answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom. Being able to discuss the realities of teaching and learning is chief among those reasons.

The point of being in the classroom and spending a lot of time there was that I should never assume that “innovation” was as simple as flipping a switch in our teachers and they would start doing mind-blowing projects.  I needed to see for my own eyes what the barriers were and how we could remove them.  Especially, the obstacles that we as a leadership team were creating.

I have said this several times, but just in case you are new to my work, this is not about “being innovative” vs. “getting good scores.”  We can do both in education if we think about how we can innovate inside the box. But when our students can get good scores on tests, but can’t think or create for themselves, we have a problem.

In the article, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” by Adam Grant, he discusses the idea that academic success is not always an indicator of future success:

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance. (Of course, it must be said that if you got D’s, you probably didn’t end up at Google.)

Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.

One thing I have struggled with lately is the almost demonization of a student who does well in school.  That getting straight A’s is somewhat of a bad thing.  I know a lot of students who did very well school who have been very successful in many facets of life. I also know people who struggled in school that have had their share of success. That is not what I took from the article at all.

What stuck out to me is how important it is that we develop “creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence” within our students.  We are held accountable by groups to produce students that can do “well in school,” and I know that is a constraint many schools feel in pursuing those essential qualities in our students.  We have to realize that we are not in an either/or scenario. Having innovative teachers and students as the norm instead of the exception will come down to leaders that think differently and create environments where a culture of innovation can flourish, not become something teachers do in spite of the extra and unnecessary constraints that are placed upon them within their schools.

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