Innovation: Refining my Approach

The journey this year in the role of innovation support staff has taught me much about myself as an educator.  I’ve thought constantly about what the term ‘innovation’ means, I’ve paid attention to who is using it, when and in what context. This is my twentieth year of teaching, and I am sensitive to buzzwords. I am conscious that many teachers continue to equate it with tech integration, some see it as a buzzword that will get thrown around until the next one arrives and a few see it as the essential to the metamorphosis of teaching and learning.  The Oxford dictionary defines innovation as “the introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something.”  In my own practice and in talking with many of my colleagues this year, I feel comfortable defining innovation as Oxford does, with the emphasis being on ‘ways of doing something’ … it is, as George Couros reminds us, more about a mindset, or a way of thinking than the tools we may (or may not) use to get there.   It is also about approaching our work as educators in a way that encourages us to explore familiar ideas in new ways.  To this end, I think educators are some of the most innovative people on the planet! Our charges demand that we be so; it isn’t possible to engage our students unless we commit to understanding the forces which shape their lives, and use those insights to guide the evolution of how we innovate our approaches to curriculum.

At the outset of action planning this year, I wanted to understand how I could best be of service to my colleagues in the role of innovation support; I got stuck into the idea that I had to have an awareness of all the tools / approaches to the idea of innovating curriculum.  I muddled around in this area of my action plan for a good part of the year; I really appreciated the visit with @jmedved who helped me to gain some clarity on what it means to lead in this area; Justin, the positive approach you shared with me that day was instrumental in the development of my ‘innovators mindset’ and I think my peers will recognize in your words the approach which is responsible for the success of Cohort21:

“Understanding, honouring and respecting what people have already done and then helping them to come together around ideas that will take their work forward.”

To me, this idea is pivotal in the mindset and approach needed to support teachers in their innovation journeys.

Towards the second half of the year, I started to feel that I had gone too big in terms of my ‘sphere of influence’, this work of mine was 20% of my part-time timetable, and I wanted to feel like I was going to have some success around my own understanding of what an innovative classroom could look like. So, I started to focus more on my own classroom. I had been inspired through my PD workshop at The Nueva School in San Francisco to morph my Grade 10 independent study project into a design thinking experience that would run every Day 7 throughout the year and would get at some 21st century skills I was looking to learn more about and develop in my students.  I read ‘The 20Time Project’ by Kevin Brookhouser, I used the insights I gained from The Nueva School, my teacher mentor role in the Global Ideas Institute and the idea that I could model my professional learning experience of Cohort21 in the classroom … and I basically mashed those all up to create a new approach to independent study.  I had been following experienced educator/coach/mentor Katie Martin’s blog:  and came across this question which really got under my skin as I was thinking about my action plan this year: I’m using this image straight off her blog because I love it – credit to Katie Martin


I turned that question back on myself to consider: am I designing curriculum for students to comply or innovate?  Wow.  That is such a good, sticky question.  Immediately my brain goes to – what about the MOE / IB standards that I have to meet within a limited time frame?  At this point, the train had left the station, my students and I were already moving through this evolving project.  I had students choose the direction their project would take by selecting a course theme (curricular relevance) and encouraged them to investigating it in a local context; I wanted them to 'root' their project in a curricular context, but then determine for themselves how to explore the theme.  I have been (messily) scaffolding the skills of design thinking, project management, research, reading and notetaking, expert/empathy interviewing, behavioural economics and reflection through a blog in the hopes that these skills will provide a base for authentic exploration of a real world issue that is meaningful to them.

As my students work evolves, I am encouraged to see some of them attending conferences to learn more from expert speakers, persistently requesting interviews from experts, following blogs and Instagram feeds of those that are doing the work that they are interested in and using the design cycle to leverage the evolution of their project as they learn more.  But some are also really stuck. They are uncomfortable about the approach, I feel like they don’t trust themselves to lead their own inquiry in this way, and I wonder if they have grown accustomed to assignments designed for ‘compliance’, and perhaps that is why this is so hard.  It’s hard for me too if I am honest.  I was trained to have the answers, to lead the learning, to be in control of my classroom.  I worry when they are feeling stuck and I don’t have the answers.  I worry that when I can’t immediately get them unstuck, that I’m not doing my job.  This is a learning process for me too, I am trying to dwell in uncertainty with more grace and confidence.

As I continue to explore approaches to curriculum development I want to keep this question of compliance vs innovation close.  I'm conscious of not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I have worked a long time in education and I confidently feel that there are some things about my current and past practice that work really well.  When I evaluate what gets taught; skills vs content I think solid skill building around how to read, take notes, research ... maybe that is something I need my students to comply with; these skills can then launch a more innovative inquiry.  Maybe that is the shift I feel prepared to make; to honor and respect what I have done, and continue experimenting with how I can move my practice forward.  Thank you Cohort21 for another year of meaningful connections, learning and a safe space to be professionally vulnerable.


4 thoughts on “Innovation: Refining my Approach

  1. Beautiful reflection, Allison! Your candour and authenticity are evident in all you do. I have loved seeing your creative confidence grow and I want to pick your brain about the skills/content piece, it is something I grapple with as well.
    Can't wait to see you IRL on Friday!

    1. Post author

      @lmustard thank you so much for reading & generous feedback! You have been such a positive cheerleader these past two years and I sincerely appreciate the advice and support. Let's absolutely get stuck into a convo. about innovating skills/content soon!

  2. Marc Brims


    What a thoughtful and reflective post. You frame innovation in here in an eloquent, purposeful, and accessible way for educators. Your experience has clearly allowed you to settle into your innovation support role with a sound grasp of context within which to gently innovate. I think that many teachers (myself included) are in the pedagogical pot of interplay between skill development, content coverage, and promotion of student driven innovation that you describe. Looking forward to discussing further how our shifts from predictable and planned content based learning outcomes to more innovative inquiry have crystallized this year.

  3. @acampbellrogers Your blog writing is so lovely! Your deep thought and consideration of different aspects of your role and your practice are so evident here. I feel like there is a lot of pressure on modern teachers to teach kids how to innovate, but you have to wonder about how they would learn other basic skills without having some compliance expectations. With most things, balance is important. And just like you said, some of those skills are necessary to set them up for success in innovation - for example, if we didn't comply with the design-thinking protocols during Cohort21 F2Fs, how would we be supported in our efforts to innovate?!

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