Innovation seems to have gone full circle; we talk about it frequently, look up to leaders who innovate, have job titles that include the term, initiatives are set up for the very purpose and we want our students to be critical thinkers that can innovate. I could go on but you know the score. Aligned closely to innovation is another keyword within education that we are likely all more familiar with hearing, impact.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines innovation as “the introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something.” Yet many people see innovation as delivering us closer to the future, a creative idea that generates value or the introduction of something that adds value, a well-executed idea, being relevant, applying ideas that are both novel and useful. While there is parity in much of these ideas, although they don’t take context into consideration, it is likely that a challenge is overcome and value has been added as a direct result of some form of intervention/change.

If we disagree on this then how can we define ourselves, or our schools, as innovative when there’s no ‘standard’ by which to measure ourselves against, and we are solely subjecting our experience as the benchmark by which we adhere to. The answer to this can only be rooted in context; we are measuring ourselves against ourselves, given that we are reflecting and critiquing progress against our prior situation.

I’ve always enjoyed a good quote from a leader, in whichever arena they specialize. Perhaps it’s the rawness to which they speak or the simplicity with which they can convey complex scenarios, when presenting I often try to include quotes to help reaffirm whatever point I am trying to make. While reflecting on innovation, impact, and leadership I am reminded of a few nuggets of wisdom which I’ll share with you throughout this post.

“Failure is an option here. If you’re not failing you’re not innovating.” A quote by a personal hero, Elon Musk. Whichever side of the fence you sit regarding this statement, you can’t deny that on either scale within an organization or classroom (macro or micro) we learn from our failures. There is poetry in this to me, as we either try to hide or mask our failures when in reality they should be celebrated as they are a part of the journey to success. The obvious danger here is that we fail too often in pursuit of a goal leading to wider detrimental effects, therefore it’s key that we systematically check the temperature to see where we are. 

As a result we have to play it safe, after all, we are placing the education of the future generation on the line which is no small throw of the dice. However, as we are becoming ever more aware of the implications and suggestions of how we can be more effective practitioners thanks to cognitive science and educators’ genuine desire to improve. Are we innovating too much or not enough, how do we strike the right balance in our classrooms on a daily basis and how can we ensure we are in fact leading for innovation?

Changing mindsets is often at the core of innovation within schools as we need to take people on a journey, change their habits and provide a safety net. As Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” This resonates, as when we talk of the future and our vision within schools we need to convince people to come with us by explaining clearly what that future looks like, what it will be like on the journey and the challenges we may face, why we are aiming in that direction and how we will know when we’ve arrived at our destination. Similarly, in a classroom context, we can make small changes for a larger impact which too could be identified as being innovative if it is a shift in practice for an educator; Tom Sherrington wrote his suggestions on this in his blog here

Leadership, plainly, is about creating the conditions for success while growing others. In doing this we must provide opportunities for others to grow professionally, ensuring that we are constantly reaffirming our point and taking the chance to check our progress towards the shared future. The results will come, we need not focus heavily on them if we have clearly articulated the roadmap towards the goal and empowered teams that are aligned in the shared vision. This has been wonderfully explained by Steve Radcliffe in his leadership model of Future, Engage, Deliver (which you can read about here). Share the future vision, engage all stakeholders in the journey and the results will come provided you keep tabs on your progress along the way; constantly check the temperature. 

As Andy Buck says, “Only through the effective engagement of others can leaders at any level make change happen.” Relationships (and the character of leaders) are key to any organization, this is certainly no different in schools, in fact, it is almost more important to make this a strength of your school given that education is most successful when there are strong classroom routines paired with strong teacher/student relationships. If mutual respect and the culture of learning is a golden thread across everything we do then it is likely an innovative school to work in/for. Staff will feel safe to try out new pedagogical practices and research strategies within their classrooms, adjust their teaching and reflect upon the process.  

Provide opportunities for growth. Often vacancies in schools are shrouded under a cloud and staff play the game of rolling the 8-ball in anticipation of what may happen next year. Surely, for the collective good of the organization, everyone should know if new roles are coming up and have a fair shot at applying. For me, this links to a shared vision, make it as transparent as possible so that there are no illusions are to where we are heading. This drives autonomy and reduces accountability as it empowers others as they are trusted, in their knowledge and expertise, to get the job done even when being supported along the way.

Provide yet more opportunities for growth, as for the better part, educators have a love of learning and quite often the chance to grow can pass many of us by due to the busy nature of schools. Creating new opportunities, even at a micro-scale, generates more opportunity for cross-fertilization of staff. Collaboration is a cornerstone to success and so the more opportunities that can be created in schools, the more chances there are for staff to shine. Think outside the box and enable others more frequently, you’ll be surprised at what you might find out and achieve.

Harness technology for the good! It can enable teachers to become more effective and efficient when systems are put in place that enable data sets to inform teaching and learning; the data should be collected to inform teachers and leaders, it’s a marker of learning not a benchmark. For many schools, this will likely mean stripping back some of the systems in place as too many will likely stem workflow and reduce effectiveness.

My final thought is that of emotions. Over the years I have seen it happen within schools and with teachers, we must remember to care. We enter into teaching to try to change the world or at least make an immediate difference to others and all too often somewhere along the way we forget and start being drawn by figures, statistics, and revenue. Leadership for innovation should be simple when we come back to one key guiding question; will it benefit students and/or staff?

After all, as Drucker said, “if you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” While innovation is another axiom in education right now, if you are engaging in research, reading, leading and any part of your daily practice is changing or has changed as a result of your learning and experience then you too are an innovator.

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