Slow Innovation: What Really Drives Value in Schools

GLP is happy to welcome Kirk Greer as a member of the GLP team and guest blogger this summer. Kirk is currently the upper school history chair at the Latin School of Chicago and previously served as its Director of Studies and Professional Development. He is also a new board member at Baker, a progressive JK-8 independent school on Chicago's North Shore.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to share a beer (or two) with a colleague who reflected on changes he had made to his communication style with students. Having read research that detailed how vital the teacher-student relationship is to the success of students of color in predominantly white schools, my white colleague invested more time in cultivating positive affect and personalizing his communication and encouragement so that he might connect more authentically with all his students. (See Boykin and Noguera’s Creating the Opportunity to Learn).

My colleague’s work is but one example of the kind of conversation and change in practice which we think is absolutely vital to the future of independent schools.

While thinking hard about teaching and learning may seem to be an obvious part of any school’s strategic planning, it’s not always at the core of how schools approach “innovation.” We find that the current approach to innovation tends to escalate cost pressure on bottom lines and tuition pressure on family pocketbooks: a shiny new maker space, 3-d printers and ipads, a refurbished soccer field, or a tacked-on mindfulness program do not drive sustainable innovation that creates value for all learners.

What does transform school for the long term is a vision of deeper learning that prepares each child’s mind and spirit equitably for a globalized, automated world of pressing social, economic, and environmental problems waiting to be solved.

Sam Ford and Francisco Rodriguez Tarditi’s June 26 HBR article “The Benefits of Taking a Slower Approach to Innovation” helps us understand 1) why schools are continually attracted to “fast innovations” that focus on physical plant, tools, and trendy programmatic additions and 2) the institutional challenges to prioritizing “slow innovation” -- precisely the kind of innovation required to refashion our approach to learning, teaching, and the design of the school experience.

Ford and Tarditi argue that organizations will engage in “fast innovations” because they are typically high profile, larger scale changes that have immediate measurable impact, and, therefore, attract lots of employees as champions ready to to take credit.

The analogous innovations for schools are pretty clear. If a school is in the habit of counting inputs as a measure of progress, there are plenty of donors and administrators willing to put their efforts behind fast innovations like more square feet of maker space or a fleet of new interactive touch screens in classrooms. The changes are tangible and credit is easy to claim. But they can be readily mimicked by competitors in the ongoing arms race between well-resourced independent schools. More importantly, they do little on their own to transform the learning experience.

We encourage our partner schools to focus their energy and resources on transforming the student learning experience at its core - an exercise in “slow innovation” in Ford and Tarditi’s terms. Empowering students and teachers to to become partners in the design of relevant learning experiences, effective pedagogy and authentic assessments of both growth and competency is a slower, more comprehensive process that responds directly to what students need today - and for the future. We’ve repurposed some of their guidance for schools:

Anticipate and articulate the need to change: Supporting faculty to change fundamentally how they think about teaching and learning -- instead of adding on a piece of technology so they can do the same but faster -- is the first step in changing practices. Leaders create the conditions for change by making the case for why it’s needed - and what the stakes of the status quo mean for learners, teachers and the fate of the school.

Reframe change... it’s not about deficits: If a school culture doesn’t embrace experimentation in practice as a core professional belief, then faculty may view changes in practice as admissions of failure or of a deficit. Faculty will be likely to avoid changes, let alone champion them as an opportunity to claim credit and advance in the organization.

Prepare for multiple small scale initiatives: Deepening each student’s learning experience across the board requires unique alterations of practice based upon each faculty member’s status quo. Scaling changes in practice can be a challenge because multiple interventions are required at the same time to address various faculty members’ instructional needs - and because it takes ongoing experiments to identify and refine what works.

Get comfortable with measuring outcomes: Lastly, schools that engage in the slow innovation of changing teaching and learning will be committed to measuring student outcomes in skill development and dispositions, not quantities of resource inputs. This requires that faculty have confidence in the cause-effect relation of pedagogical change to student outcomes and trust in leadership to fairly incorporate student outcomes in faculty evaluation.

In returning to my colleague’s change in practice to support equitable learning for students of color, we wonder: what would his story look like if it took place in a learning community that placed slow innovation at the center of its culture?

  • Instead of relying only on his own initiative, he would have a clear incentive to search for and identify changes in practice in response to multiple classroom observations and patterns in his student feedback and outcomes.
  • He would be encouraged to document his students’ improved experience and share his success with faculty who were working on the same goals, contributing to horizontal bands of mutually supportive colleagues.
  • And, lastly, his change in practice would be embedded in a larger vision of the school as an equitable community of students learning through the experience of diversity.

He would be a member of an independent school prepared to thrive well into the future.

For more on what we think independent schools must do to thrive in today’s challenging educational landscape, look for our forthcoming white paper, “From Financial Sustainability to ‘Thriveability:’ Why We Need to Change the Conversation,” in this space soon!