How Leaders Can Guide More Innovation in Their Schools

“Innovation” is touted as the solution to many challenges within K-12 education. But how do schools begin their innovation journey? Creating a culture where innovation thrives is a good start.
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Blog date
4/18/23
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Innovation is something of a buzzword, one that’s assigned to nearly every aspect of K-12 education. A successful school or school district that implements an out-of-the-box student-centered learning solution or new learning technology is often labeled as “innovative.”

But the word itself is a bit broad and nebulous, especially for school leaders who continue to work through the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic: teacher and staff shortages, the social-emotional health and well-being of their students, and the larger inequities in the K-12 education system. How can innovation help us navigate those challenges?

The truth is, innovation isn’t so much of a “what” as it is a “how.” To get to those new tools or solutions, there first needs to exist a mindset and culture of innovation. Innovation requires a clear process of experimentation, collaboration, and reflection—where school leaders, teachers, and staff feel safe taking risks and trust one another.

The truth is, innovation isn’t so much of a “what” as it is a “how.”

So what is innovation, exactly, and how can school leaders create a culture where innovation is encouraged? 

Innovation: a process of introduction, implementation, and iteration

The dictionary defines “innovation” as “a new idea, method, or device,” and “the introduction of something new.” If we dig a little deeper, innovation is a new way of solving a problem or delivering value. It’s based on creativity and curiosity, the willingness to take risks, testing assumptions, and iterating when you learn new information. And, it’s based on questioning and challenging the status quo. 

This differs from “improvement”—which is doing what you’re already doing, but better. To give a concrete example, consider the release of Apple’s initial iPhone. It was an innovation because it essentially replaced much of the cell phone technology that had been built up to that point. An improvement, on the other hand, would be the latest iPhone release. It includes a few changes so it’s better than the previous model, but it doesn’t represent a radically new option.

Not all improvements are innovations, while most innovations are improvements. Both represent change, and schools and districts need both to continue to move their schools forward. The key is to find a balance between the two and focus on managing—and implementing—school improvement and educational innovation. 

One important note about innovation: it’s really about purposeful problem solving. Innovating for innovation’s sake rarely helps you solve the pain points you currently have. It can also feel like just another thing piled on to the plates of your teachers and staff—which can lead to a healthy dose of implementation fatigue and change exhaustion.

One important note about innovation: it’s really about purposeful problem solving. Innovating for innovation’s sake rarely helps you solve the pain points you currently have.

So, how can schools and districts get a start on creating an innovation culture and mindset? Here are a few insights: 

Practice inclusive innovation

“Inclusive innovation” is a major driving practice of Digital Promise, one of the nation’s leading organizations for equitable school innovation. In their report “Designing a Process for Inclusive Innovation,” they introduce the idea, which they define as “the process of ensuring people closest to the challenge lead, participate in, and benefit from innovation.” Not only does an innovative solution need to meet the needs of those affected by the initial problem, the solution also needs to be based on their insight and expertise.

Not only does an innovative solution need to meet the needs of those affected by the initial problem, the solution also needs to be based on their insight and expertise.

That sounds simple, but it’s something that takes deliberate practice. Fostering a culture of innovation reinforces that great ideas can come from every corner of your school community. For example, let’s say you’re looking to change up your school schedule in a big way for the coming year. It’s essential to speak to teachers and parents about how the shift will affect them, but you’ll also want to talk to your support staff—bus drivers, food service workers, and custodians—to learn their perspectives. What issues do they see with the change that you haven’t considered?

The same goes for your students, who need to play a critical role in your innovation process. After all, they’re the main reason you’re innovating and ideating in the first place, so any potential solutions or tests should be centered on their agency and them having a say in the decisions that get made. At this Texas school, several students from all grade levels serve as “student ambassadors” to the administration. These ambassadors come from varied backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, which lends more diversity to the feedback.

In addition, look for ways to engage your broader community in your innovation journey. Not only can local companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and colleges or universities give you valuable feedback you may not typically receive, this also represents an opportunity for partnerships down the road. These entities might also be able to provide expertise and support your efforts. 

Start by assessing the most pressing problems

We said it above, and it’s worth repeating: true innovation solves existing challenges. It’s more than just new ideas. To understand the problems at hand—and what’s the most critical to solve first—it’s important to have all the information at hand about what’s working and what’s not. 

To understand the problems at hand—and what’s the most critical to solve first—it’s important to have all the information at hand about what’s working and what’s not. 

It’s possible that you and your team conduct a type of end-of-year retrospective already, but if you need a place to begin, consider a simple “start, stop, continue” exercise with your teachers and staff to determine what the priorities are for the year ahead. Not only will this help everyone get on the same page, but it’s also great for starting to get everyone’s ideas about how to solve the challenges out in the open.

After conducting the retrospective, dig deeper with your team. For example, if there are things you’ve always done, ask—Is it because it’s easier to do them than figure out another way forward, or are they indeed beneficial to student achievement? Should we really stop doing something, or is there a way to get to our original goal in a different way? These conversations can help you narrow down what truly needs innovating—and what might need improving. 

Reframe your role in the innovation conversation

You’ve likely heard about the “principal as superhero” myth—and how you and your fellow leaders are expected to overcome the day-to-day challenges of your roles by calling on your reserves of internal strength and resilience. 

Similarly, it might feel like when it comes to innovation in your school, that you need to be the one fully leading the charge—both coming up with the “big idea” that will solve your teams’ largest challenges and stressors, and devising a plan for implementation of that idea.

This is a reminder that you don’t have to lead alone—and you certainly don’t have to innovate alone, either. “Top-down” innovations are rarely successful without any collaborative learning, and the solution you develop will only be sustainable and long-lasting if there’s a sense of ownership among your school community. Instead, think of your role as a guide—someone that shows the way and keeps the initiatives on the right path.

“Top-down” innovations are rarely successful, and the solution you develop will only be sustainable and long-lasting if there’s a sense of ownership among your school community.

Innovation means testing—and not being afraid to fail

Just because you’ve come up with a completely new way of solving a stubborn challenge at your school doesn’t mean there won’t be roadblocks. Innovation isn’t a box that gets checked—it’s a messy, wobbly, and iterative process. It’s also an empowering and energizing one.

With anything new, give yourself and your team the time, space, and grace to test assumptions, shift course if your original plan isn’t fully solving the problem, or slow down when you get overwhelmed. There might be plenty of failure in your innovation journey—but it’s more than worth it when you land on something that changes everything

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