Planting the Seeds of Innovation

Four steps to build capacity for long-term innovation

By: David C. Barrett, Christy S. Murray, Veronica L. Miller


Innovation has become a widely-used term in education with a variety of interpretations. Generally, innovation implies novelty and inventiveness that leads to improvement and thus, is considered a positive contribution to society. But in education we must be careful not to equate innovations with research-based practices, proven practices, or even best practices. This thinking is faulty and potentially dangerous. Instead, we must remember that innovations are something new, based on existing information or ideas, with the potential to be effective. Fortunately, we can increase our confidence in innovations by basing them on existing, high quality research. Therefore, large-scale education innovations should be developed purposefully and intentionally, using high-quality research as a guide, and eventually demonstrated as effective through careful data collection and analysis.

Classroom teachers innovate on a smaller scale regularly. They are driven to find efficient solutions to challenges everyday by improving lessons or their instructional delivery. While it is best to inform these instructional adaptations using existing research, these types of innovations do not necessarily require proof of effectiveness unless they are used on a regular basis with struggling or at-risk students.

But, larger district- or school-wide improvement efforts (for example, an initiative to improve attendance rates or an intervention for students struggling with math) must be (a) grounded in an existing, research-based approach, (b) adapted for use in the school’s context, and (c) carefully monitored to ensure the innovation is effective. Once demonstrated to be successful, it is then necessary to plan for sustained implementation over time so precious work and momentum is not lost.

Cultivating Capacity

Gardening is a perfect metaphor for innovation development. However, before we can harvest the fruits of our labor, we must build the capacity for innovation to grow. Just as gardens need sufficient rain, healthy soil, and strong roots to generate long lasting and recurring blooms, educational innovation will not succeed in the long term without systemic efforts and a solid grounding in research.

There are four steps educators can take to develop effective, long-term innovations; innovations that yield a perennial bloom versus those that quickly wither and die:

  1. Enrich the Soil - Ground decisions in solid research.

    Strong and responsible innovation lies at the intersection of creativity and research and can lead to improved student outcomes. Innovative educators should ground their work in the body of scientific evidence for effectiveness that already exists. This practice provides a strong foundation and increases confidence that the innovation will be effective. But, buyer beware—not all research and evidence are created equal.

    Many products and programs claim to be research-based but are, in fact, not backed by rigorous studies. Educators must learn to be savvy consumers of research and ground innovations in only the highest quality research.

    One highly recommended tool is the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). This free resource provides comprehensive research reviews of various programs and products in education. Educators can use the WWC online tools and filters to inform innovations and affirm important decisions.

    Grounding creative solutions in solid research is also an ethical and fiduciary duty. As educators, we have a responsibility to a variety of stakeholders, including students, parents, and the community. Building our innovative solutions on solid evidence is a part of that responsibility. For example, matching research-based interventions with identified student needs is a responsible means of renewing and restoring their access to a successful education.

  2. Plant Seeds and Nurture Growth - Achieve buy-in, implement faithfully, and ensure effectiveness.

    When planting the seeds of innovation, it is important to establish buy-in from staff and stakeholders. Teachers will want to understand the basis for the innovation—its research-based roots—and why it is necessary. Teachers should have the opportunity to provide input on the development of the innovation (fitting it to the needs of students and context of the school) and regularly report on progress so problem solving can occur and “weeds” can be eliminated. Finally, responsibilities should be delegated to various grade levels, departments, or individuals so the seeds of innovation are cultivated as widely and deeply as possible.

    Next, innovations and school improvement efforts must be supported by a school culture committed to using data to improve student outcomes. A critical piece of the innovation process is reflection and refinement, so a continuous examination of the data is vital. Sometimes even an experienced gardener ends up with a less than bumper crop, so it is important to ensure that the seeds we have planted are in fact taking root and blooming.

    Innovation is part of the continuous cycle of improvement. It is an integral piece of finding solutions for all students to succeed. We need to dig deep into the data to identify those students with further needs and search again to find evidence of what may help them. Ask yourself:

    • Have our innovations yielded the desired results?
    • Have we accomplished our goals?
    • What other areas still need to be addressed?
  3. Stop and Smell the Roses - Celebrate your successes big and small.

    When the flowers of innovation do bloom, it is equally important to enjoy them. This action further embeds the use of responsible, research-based innovation into the school culture. Celebrate all success, no matter how big or small. More times than not, change is gradual with subtle, but important, results. For example, slight modifications to the master schedule can have a major impact on the campus as a whole.

    Recognize students, staff (including cafeteria, custodial, and maintenance staff), parents, and other stakeholders for their contributions to the school and its can do culture. Public recognition fuels pride in the school, builds connections, and serves as a motivator.

  4. Strengthen the Root System - Plan for long-term implementation.

    For effective innovation to have a lasting impact, we need to establish strong roots—that is, develop systems that promote sustainability of our most effective educational practices so they endure year after year. As Dr. Robert Balfanz pointed out during his keynote address at the AMLE2016 conference, much of the innovation in our schools is one person away from extinction—a beautiful, but simple flower without a developed root system. Many innovative practices that improve outcomes for students live and die with the tenure of one particular teacher or one particular principal. We need a way to codify these effective solutions and build them in system-wide. One free resource that does this is the Middle School Matters Field Guide. This document distills rigorous research conducted in the middle grades and organizes it into tangible principles, practices, and traits necessary for middle school success. Educators can select components relevant to their needs and work collaboratively to implement them within their school’s context.

    Moreover, this stage presents a time to analyze progress on broader goals and plan for the next term, semester, or school year. For even when we have a vibrant garden in full bloom, there is always something new around the corner. It is at this time that the soil must be re-tilled, nutrients added, and weeds pulled to allow those flowers to bloom again.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

While innovation can improve outcomes and expand possibilities, it can be a double-edged sword. Too much change too quickly or unguided change can stunt growth. Repeated reforms and faddish programs that are constantly changing—seemingly for the sake of change itself—can bog down educators. This dynamic prevents educators from gaining traction and building momentum toward the sustained improvement they seek. However, innovation that is purposeful, grounded in solid research, contextualized to a school’s need, and eventually demonstrated effective is more likely to take root and produce long lasting solutions for our schools.

The garden of education affords many opportunities for innovation and renewal throughout the year. So, as you roll up your sleeves and start digging in the dirt, be sure to grab those research-sharpened tools. Happy gardening!


David C. Barrett, Ed.D., a former middle grades special education teacher and school counselor, is the assistant director of the Middle School Matters Institute: an initiative of the George W. Bush Institute in partnership with the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin.
dbarrett@austin.utexas.edu
@MSM_Institute

Christy S. Murray, a former middle grades teacher, is the principal investigator and project director of the Middle School Matters Institute.
christymurray@austin.utexas.edu

Veronica L. Miller, a former middle grades teacher, is a school support coach for the Middle School Matters Institute.
veronicalmiller@utexas.edu

The ideas for this article were taken from the
Middle School Matters Field Guide available for free download at https://greatmiddleschools.org/.
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.

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