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Classroom Innovation Means Giving Up Control

The essence of what drives innovation begins with what kids want to learn.
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Newton’s First Law of Motion:

An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

 This law is often called "the law of inertia".

I don’t pretend to be an expert in change theory, but as a secondary school principal in Northern Ontario, I am fascinated by how we move our schools into more innovative teaching and learning practices. Over the last few weeks, one teacher at our school has been working on giving students more responsibility for their own learning, and this recent conversation in our staff room helps me to understand the challenges he faces:

“You know that they are going to go through with this, don’t you?”

“Yes”, I said, “Of course!”

“And you’re okay with that?” he asked. 

“Okay? I am more than okay. I am thrilled! This is what they are supposed to do! Ask questions, and then go find the answers.” 

“But this could get really messy!”

This is the essence of what drives innovation in the classroom. It begins with kids. What do they want to learn? What questions are they asking? How can they find the answers? It can only be cultivated when a teacher is given the professional freedom to let them go, to give up some level of control over where the learning is going.

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Photo courtesy of Colleen Rose (northernartteacher.wordpress.com)

This is the essence of what drives innovation in the classroom. It begins with kids. What do they want to learn? What questions are they asking? How can they find the answers? It can only be cultivated when a teacher is given the professional freedom to let them go, to give up some level of control over where the learning is going.

For so long, the teaching profession has demanded classroom management, discipline, control of students, and adherence to specific course expectations. In the Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA) culture, these traits were long-valued, along with strictly adhered-to lesson plans.  A teacher would not think of veering from the lesson plan in an evaluative environment.

How, then, can we turn around and say to teachers, “put the students at the centre” when for so long instruction has been teacher-driven”? 

It begins with trusting relationships, building capacity, establishing an inquiry stance and creating a supportive environment that encourages risk-taking and moving outside of default strategies. Teachers need to feel like what they are doing is making a difference, and that they are capable and supported as they move forward with their learning.

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Photo courtesy of Colleen Rose (northernartteacher.wordpress.com)

I recently attended a regional conference for teachers who were interested in improving their skills in leveraging technology to enhance pedagogy.  As part of the technical support team, I was making my way around the room, assisting delegates, when I happened to walk by a group of teachers from my area. I was full of excitement with what we were learning, but my colleagues were not impressed. “Sure, this is all very nice”, they said, “But we don’t have wifi in our schools, and the computers are so old that we can’t do any of this”.

“But you can’t just give up!” I said. “You have to keep fighting for what you need!”

They told me that they were getting sick of fighting.

“Yes, of course you are, but that is no reason to stop. Keep at it, and more will join you. You have to believe that change will happen.”

Early in my administrative career, I was very fortunate to work with a thoughtful and committed educator who shared this quote with me when I was finding it difficult to keep fighting, and I turn to this whenever I feel battle-weary.

     “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out.          The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.        Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.        They’re there to stop the other people.” - Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

It takes resilience to effect change. You cannot let yourself become one of the “other people”. But it also takes support, encouragement, and high levels of knowledge and understanding of subjects so that teachers are confident in encouraging exploration, and so that student learning can be skillfully monitored.  A principal who does not see what the teacher is trying to do, and who does not have the confidence to let it happen, is preventing the growth of innovative practices. Change is not linear. It is messy, it is uncomfortable, it is complex, and it is tiring. To maintain the momentum, it is critical that we build principal capacity and not just teacher capacity, because principal capacity can make it okay to have the chaos and the complexity and the messiness.

Change is not linear. It is messy, it is uncomfortable, it is complex, and it is tiring. To maintain the momentum, it is critical that we build principal capacity and not just teacher capacity, because principal capacity can make it okay to have the chaos and the complexity and the messiness.

Supporting practices in the school that break with the norm can put a principal at odds with those who do not understand the importance of creating an environment where the learning may not always work out exactly as planned and where risk-taking and making mistakes are embraced rather than prevented. Others may not share the understanding of the power of connectedness and how it can transform learning for everyone in the school community.

When I first started as an administrator, I ran into a situation where I had to make a decision that I was not sure would be fully supported. My mentor asked me if what I was doing was in the best interest of the student. When I answered that yes, it was, she said, “Then you are making the right decision.” 

I go back to that moment often. Choosing to encourage innovative teaching and learning practices is not always an easy path for a principal. Supervisory Officers may be less open to supporting the uncertainty of outcomes. Trustees may be reluctant to support the purchase of technology that they don’t fully understand.  Other principals may perceive that the sharing of resources is not equitable. IT staff are not excited about the extra workload involved in supporting new technologies. 

But we can’t let that stop us. For the students there is urgency around the need for innovative practices. This is the only time these students are going to be in Grade 11 Art. This can’t wait until after Christmas. These students don’t get another chance at this.

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Photo courtesy of Colleen Rose (northernartteacher.wordpress.com)

The reward? Every day I walk into a rich learning environment where teachers and students challenge my thinking. All day long I have conversations with kids about real problems they are trying to solve as they try to find answers to authentic questions. As I walk through the school, they ask how to change the settings on a VoiceThread and whether their survey will produce reliable data and we problem solve together.

It is transformational when students become producers of knowledge and not just consumers of knowledge. They ask authentic questions that have meaning in their lives, questions that we don’t have the answers to. And then they try to find the answers. Instead of trudging reluctantly to their next class, they are in that class in their heads 24/7, trying to solve the problem.

So even when the roof is leaking, the S.O. is demanding more paperwork, the EA went home sick and the food for breakfast program wasn’t delivered, the principal still needs to have an infectious enthusiasm for learning, and time to sit with others and cultivate ideas. It’s the principal who needs to keep the momentum going, but once innovative practices are in motion, the question is no longer, “What do I need to do to sustain this?” The question evolves into a conversation around what we need to do together to sustain this passion for learning for everyone in our school community.