The why and the wherefore of innovation

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones, who loves sharing ideas, is a Google Certified Teacher interested in creativity and innovation in the classroom. She thrives on trying new things and engaging and empowering students. Her blog was a finalist in the 2013 EduBlog awards and was recommended by The Guardian as a must-read for 2014.

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Innovation to teachers is usually something that arrives via INSET or a day jolly out to a course. If it is well done, there is nothing wrong with being introduced to new ideas in this way - but if it is done badly it can cement pedagogical inertia and make real change in schools very difficult to effect. A top down approach of ‘you must always’ very rarely sits well with a profession that can be highly (and rightly) critical of change for its own sake. Real innovation, the grass roots stuff, is much more powerful, and can have much more meaning to the children in the classrooms of the innovative teachers.

Innovation need not be using technology, think about it. Innovation could be changing any significant part of your practice so that you can help learners to achieve better results in your classroom. This might not be in terms of academic achievement; for many the changes may "Don't be fooled into thinking that all learning looks the same."improve behaviour and engagement, both of which are pretty dang tricky to measure. So - why bother? Why go to the effort to try something new, when for most teachers their practice is refined and gets results. I strongly feel the reason to bother is because the children in your care deserve it. They deserve a teacher who is engaged in actively trying to be better.

I guess if you are reading a piece like this, you are interested in being better, or perhaps especially how to innovate, then you might like to give these ideas a whirl. A word of caution though: never guinea pig your pupils to satisfy a desire to have a tinker with something innovative. That way lies poor results, disenchanted learners and often angry parents. Treat each child you teach with respect for the time you are taking up in their lives - do not waste away precious learning opportunities with things that may well not work. It is a fine line between being brave enough to trust your Batman-like instincts for ‘what works’, and curbing the fear of getting it wrong.

So let’s get our inner Marvel mojo on and see what kind of things you might like to try:

1. Writing on any surface other than paper. Literally anything. This oddly seems to make children want to write a lot more. I have tried massive rolls of paper, windows, T-shirts, the floor, iPads… Think about the task you want them to complete and think could there be another way for them to do it, the change in writing surface often produces miraculous results.

2. Room layout. Why innovate? Well, if not for innovation kids up and down the land would still be sat in Victorian style rows. Fine for some teachers, but really not for me at all. Try moving the room layout depending on what task you are doing. While you are at it, think about how they use the space. I teach a lesson a week where all the children sit under the tables, or make use of art room stools, to make their own recording studios. The outcomes for the learners have been dramatically improved by letting them make use of the space as children will, which is very often not the same as adults would. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all learning looks the same.

3. Don’t be afraid of project work or subject overlapping. Some of the best ideas I have seen in practice in schools have been STEAM day projects, which could for example make use of the BBC micro:bits in subjects other than Computing. Think big, talk to other like-minded members of staff, and see if you can build into the kids’ timetable an opportunity for learning to take place across subjects. I have been running a Lego club this year where we are building an exact small scale replica of the school. It took them most of the year to do the maths to work out how many of each brick we needed - but it is wonderfully rewarding watching them build now with that experience of real world application of mathematics.

4. Technology can do amazing things, but you need to be careful about what platform and applications you use. Do some research, have a practice at home and seek support from colleagues if you need to. There are a lot of splendid free websites and apps that children can access on desktops, smartphones and other mobile "Remember why you went into teaching in the first place."devices if you are lucky enough to have them. Some cutting edge things are happening in classrooms, using the likes of Google Cardboard (which by the way looked in my lesson a lot like kids bumping into tables!), 3D printing, Minecraft, Lego and even old favourites like Explain Everything.

5. The most innovative thing a teacher can really do is resist cynicism. Remember why you went into teaching in the first place and try to resist becoming one of those miserable folk in the staff room who actually seems to actively dislike children. Remember that there are many things about teaching that are really tough, but the joy you can bring to the lives of many young people is immeasurable. If you can’t do that, it is probably time to innovate yourself into a new job.  

Maybe you are a school leader reading this. I know that in an ideal world we would trust our staff to do the best in every single lesson, but that the daily grind and school politics can get in the way. If you are blessed with an innovator on your staff body, try to support them rather than squash them. Let them run CPD for other teachers, give them a place of responsibility for sharing best practice - do what you can to encourage them, but do not say no because “that's not what we do here”. You will end up losing your innovators, and we all need people like this in education to inspire not only the children but also other members of staff.

Innovation is not something that works for its own sake, but something that is done to improve classroom experiences for the children. Be you teacher, or school leader, you can play your part to building a more innovative community where the traditions of the school that define its character can co-exist alongside the best of what your innovative staff can offer. A school is a learning community which is defined not only by its traditions, but also the way it seeks to continually improve.

How do you look to continually improve? Let us know below!

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