Bringing innovation to school – 5

Chapter 4 – Seeding Innovation

A central message throughout Suzie Boss’ book, Bringing innovation to schools, is to encourage school leaders to figure out how to provide students with the training ground they need to build essential 21st century skills, practice problem solving, research, collaboration and other essential fluencies. Rather than wait for good ideas and innovations to happen, as if by magic, what can leaders do to “seed” innovation?:

  • What policies and practices would multiply innovative efforts to happen at the grassroots level (i.e. within the school or, better, in the classroom)?
  • What new innovations could blossom from these efforts?
  • What if research and development into new innovations were cultivated from within the school house?
  • How can we invite teachers and students to participate in this process?
  • How can schools help sponsor innovative projects proposed by teachers and students through the allocation of seed money for the initiatives?

One recommendation is for school leaders to encourage action research throughout the school building, especially in the classroom. This research would help address the need to develop the “training ground” mentioned above. The key lies in appropriately framing the probing questions that will drive the action research agenda. For example, Boss suggests we can start by posing questions such as:

  • How can we teach children to problem solve using principle of engineering?
  • How can we leverage high-interest activities, such as gaming, to connect with students who are at risk of being disengaged from school?
  • How can we use class sets of digital devices to expand learning opportunities for all  students?
  • How can we reimagine the school library as a media center and collaborative work space?
  • How can we design school spaces and furnishings to foster student collaboration, research, and other activities necessary for project-based learning?

She reminds us that in order to promote ownership of any innovation agenda, teachers have to be involved in the process. They need to know that they are active participants, and valued for their effort, time and insight.

I appreciated the call to reimagine the role of school administrator as part of the innovation process:

If the teacher is the entrepreneur, then the school leaders should take the role of  venture capitalist to provide support and resources. The teacher needs to do the homework, to be able to say why an idea is worth investing in. Then it is up to [the administrator] to find resources. – C. Ratliff, Albemarle County Public Schools

This is different from the administrator telling the teacher what to do, and then maybe offering some funds to help. It doesn’t negate the need for the administrator to review the proposal for measurability and impact to see if an idea will make a difference, just as a venture capitalist would review a proposal for consideration. It does, however, prioritize the teacher’s role and impact in the pro-innovation process. It sends a message that we want their ideas and want to see them succeed.

To seed (fund) such innovations, we should plan for:

  • Support – Is there a plan to support the action research needed to foster innovation and improvement in classroom teaching?
  • Allies – Who else can assist in the innovation process? Are there other people resources to draw upon? What about retired folk in your community? What skills can they share?
  • Selection – Given limited resources, is the selection process for financial resources clear? Are the judging criteria shared in advance? Is the process streamlined and time efficient so that teachers can focus their efforts in the classroom rather than on the application process?
  • Impact – How will impact be measured? Be sure to consider quantitative as well as qualitative measures of impact.
  • Results – What process will be in place to ensure you learn from failures and from successes? How will good ideas be shared and replicated?

Boss includes the advice to start small and manage the risk. “Learning what not to do again is as important as taking good ideas to scale.”

Clearly, if school leaders want to, they can challenge the comfort level of their teaching colleagues in order to transform a school culture to one of innovation as part of learning.


Source: Boss, S. (2012) Bringing innovation to schools: Empowering students to thrive in a changing world. Solution Tree.


Bringing Innovation to School – 4

Chapter 3 – Growing a new global skill set

I am reading Suzie Boss’ book Bringing innovation to the school and have been blogging my observations and notes (my first entry can be found here). The chapter on growing a new global skill set in students helps demonstrate the subtitle of the book, Empowering students to thrive in a changing world.

The following are seven key practices that teachers can put into action in the classroom. These will help build a new global skill set that can foster innovation through better thinking and problem solving:

  1. Welcome authentic questions – Good projects start with compelling questions; questions that spark student curiosity, offer relevance and apply content standards to authentic learning experiences. Authentic questions ensure that students have a “need to know”.
  2. Encourage effective teamwork – We need to make teamwork essential for success, knowing that the impact of a team is greater than the sum of the individual members. Ideas come from individuals; success from teamwork.
  3. Build empathy to see issues from multiple viewpoints – Students who are developing their ability to understand and share the feelings of others are more able to step outside of their own perspective to see issues from multiple points of view. Boss is correct that “innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” We need to help students understand the needs and viewpoints of others in order to help them consider multiple options and ideas.
  4. Uncover passion – Passion motivates us to continue despite facing steep odds and failures. We need to help students discover their passions as a way to encourage innovative thinking. The Motivation MAP can help in this, especially when we think about student voice and choice (the ‘A’ and ‘P’ in the MAP).
  5. Amplify worthy ideas – Again – innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Students need to be able to do more than come up with their own ideas. They need to critically assess other ideas and determine which ones to support – and then go about supporting them by sharing and promoting other’s good thinking.
  6. Know when to say no – If new ideas are not working out, a key component in innovating (and, by extension, the ‘M’ in the MAP) is learning what doesn’t work without fear of failure. It is okay for students to look for potential problems and know when to say no, whether through experience, observation or planning. Remember – Finding out what doesn’t work lets us eliminate options that we first thought were plausible.
  7. Encourage breakthroughs – Celebrate higher levels of innovation and creativity that go beyond the formal curriculum – a “show me” category of something new, unique or impact.

Given these key practices, teachers can help students learn how to:

  • brainstorm, borrow, adapt or improve on existing ideas (in support of  #1 above)
  • frame problems (#1)
  • research in order to better understand ideas (#1)
  • listen to each other (#2)
  • help and support each other (#2)
  • reflect on group interactions and progress (#2)
  • pause and be more observant of what is happening around them (#3)
  • ask questions that challenge preconceptions (#3)
  • draw inferences based on their observations (#3)
  • connect with others from outside their peer groups (#3)
  • interview others to uncover diverse perspectives (#3)
  • present clearly and passionately on topics that interest them (#4)
  • critically evaluate and support others’ ideas (#5)
  • be an advocate for others and their viewpoints (#5)
  • test ideas without fear of failure (#6)
  • process failure as a stepping stone to better innovative thinking (#6)
  • know a breakthrough when they see and/or experience it (#7)
  • celebrate success (#7)

Wouldn’t this be an exciting vibrant learning environment?


Source: Boss, S. (2012) Bringing innovation to schools: Empowering students to thrive in a changing world. Solution Tree.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash



Bringing Innovation to School – 3

Chapter 2 – Seeing Educators as Innovators

The first step in teaching students to innovate is making sure that educators have opportunities to be innovators themselves. – Suzie Boss

I appreciate the practical advice and recommendation towards fostering innovation in the classroom. It is clear that the culture of the school needs to set the stage for innovation to flourish.  When I visit a school, I often try to find evidence if there is a vision for innovation.  Is there a strong foundation for 21st century learning? Does the school share a common language to move forward innovative practices? How is innovation part of the curriculum? Does classroom teaching emphasize the necessary 21st century fluencies? Is creative problem-solving encouraged? What about collaboration and critical thinking? Do teachers provide opportunities for students to apply the core academic concepts in real-world contexts?

Clearly, teachers are integral to fostering innovation in the classroom.

Do teachers see themselves as innovators?

As teachers consider how to bring about innovation in the classroom, they could begin by self-assessing their own strengths and weaknesses as an innovator:

  • To what extent am I a role model as an innovator?
  • How do I encourage innovation among my colleagues?
  • How do I work to increase my ability to think creatively and inspire innovation?

Boss suggests that teachers consider their own “innovation profile”. As teachers share certain characteristics common to recognized innovators, they show students how innovators think and act.

Consider this set of six questions to ask yourself:

  1. Am I action oriented? – Do I look for, recognize and take advantage of opportunities to make a difference? Am I actively developing new projects?
  2. Do I know how to network? – Am I eager to share what I am learning as part of my own professional learning? Do I share student ideas and their new insights that intrigue me further? Do I share what is difficult in my teaching and leading so that I can improve? Am I looking to others within my professional community for their insights into action? Do I look for brainstorming partners who will challenge me to develop further?
  3. Am I willing to take risks? – Am I willing to try something new in my teaching and leading? Do I volunteer to pilot new instructional approaches? Am I willing to access resources in creative ways? Do I advocate on student behalf? Do I challenge those rules and policies that limit my students’ ability to learn?
  4. Can I look ahead? –  Do I imagine where a new idea can lead to? Can I anticipate how others may come on board with a new practice? Am I working to link a new innovation to learning outcomes?
  5. Do I overcome obstacles? – Do I get frustrated when I encounter “yeah, but …” or “we’ve always done it this way” thinking? Am I adept at finding the work-around, when necessary? Do I find it easy to overcome any barriers so that students can accomplish their learning?
  6. Do I help good ideas grow? –  Do I share what is working well so that others can learn from my experience? Do I build “buzz” for someone else’s new ideas? Do I collaborate easily with others to extend our thinking and action?

As I consider my strengths on these six qualities, I can then begin to think about how to foster these same qualities in my students or in those with whom I work.


Source: Boss, S. (2012) Bringing innovation to schools: Empowering students to thrive in a changing world. Solution Tree.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Bringing Innovation to School – 2

Chapter 1 – Coming to Terms With Innovation

I have blogged previously about modern learning routines that enhance student engagement as well as the most significant classroom innovation. I believe that there are core competencies that our students need to master in order to become successful and was reminded of this from Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators: The making of young people who will change the world (you can read a good overview of his thinking here). In it he argues that schools today educate to fill children with knowledge. Instead, they should be focusing on developing students’ innovation skills and motivation to succeed.

Today knowledge is ubiquitous, constantly changing, growing exponentially… Today knowledge is free. It’s like air, it’s like water. It’s become a commodity… There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know. – Tony Wagner

There is an urgency to innovate that we must recognize in our teaching and learning. Can innovative thinking be learned? How do we teach these core competencies? How do we bring an innovating mindset to the schools? We need schools to address this.

I have been enjoying Suzie Boss’ book on how this can be achieved.

The way we design learning experiences must reflect the growing importance of innovation and creativity as necessary professional skills for all students to possess.

Boss notes that being able to work in new ways on new problems is seen as a key career skill. Schooling shouldn’t make students wait until they are adults before they can truly work on new problems. Innovation should lead to positive change and students should be provided with the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

In the long run, engaging student passions may be our best strategy for bringing  innovation to school.

Teaching innovation should search for, and honor, student voice and student ideas. It should help students understand that their ideas are important and can contribute to greater good. This will help make learning real.

By leveraging their passions during the school day, we can give students more opportunities to connect what they are studying with the real-world issues they care about. That’s how students will define innovation on their own terms, as something that will enable them to shape their future. – Suzie Boss

What a vibrant way to learn! This would definitely engage students in their learning as they follow their own motivation MAP.



Boss, S. (2012) Bringing innovation to schools: Empowering students to thrive in a changing world. Solution Tree.

Wagner, T. (2015) Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Scribner.

Bringing Innovation to School – 1

I have been working my way through a very good book on bringing innovation to school by Suzie Boss and wanted to share some initial notes and observations here.

A central idea in the book is that there is a gap between saying we must encourage innovation and teaching students how to actually generate and execute original ideas.

A number of questions must be considered as we think about this gap:

  • What new set of skills and fresh ways of thinking are needed?
  • How can these be taught?
  • How do we provide opportunities to practice these new skills with appropriate support?
  • How can we scaffold the learning experience so that students learn to persist even through setbacks?
  • How can we help students discover their passions through this process?

Success in addressing this gap depends on knowing how to frame problems, generate ideas, test solutions, and learn through the experience. This is part of the design experience and requires a balance of individual effort and productive teamwork; of passion and persistence; of providing opportunities for students to engage questions and issues they care about.

What do we need to offer to our students? – If we can address this gap and bring innovation to school, we provide the necessary “training ground” students need to practice problem solving, research, collaboration and other essential fluencies, such as media literacy.

Essential is the commitment that innovation is both powerful and teachable; that focusing on innovation across the curriculum provides a means for teachers to help build essential 21st century skills in their students; and that teaching thought over content is a meaningful endeavour.

Source: Boss, S. (2012) Bringing innovation to schools: Empowering students to thrive in a changing world. Solution Tree.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Helping Students Motivate Themselves

I have a great interest in understanding student motivation for learning. What motivates students to learn? How can I help students motivate themselves? What are some implications for classroom instruction?

I came across this article – Strategies for helping students motivate themselves – and was struck how 3 out of the 4 qualities mentioned match Daniel Pink’s work on The Puzzle of Motivation (a TED Talk worth watching; or if you prefer, here is a link to an RSA Animate version on the same talk).

Essentially the insight that I had confirmed again is that tokens and rewards work well as motivators for simple tasks. However, they don’t work the way we think they should when it involves the conceptual and creative thinking that takes place in cognitively challenging tasks.

In their place, a teacher has a greater chance in motivating and engaging students in their learning by thinking about the “Motivation MAP” – an acronym I use to focus on the three essential qualities of motivation and engagement.

Motivation MAP = Mastery, Autonomy, Purposefulness

M = Mastery

Are students working to demonstrate their developing competency and mastery in learning? Are students reflecting on how to improve their learning? Does teacher feedback focus on student effort for their learning rather than an innate ability? (Check out this website to learn more growth mindsets; or if you prefer, here is a link to a video about fostering a growth mindset.) Encouraging student mastery in learning feeds their desire to get better in what they do and, as a result, is a powerful motivator.

A = Autonomy

What choices are offered to students that allow them to be active participants in their own learning? Does this extend beyond simply letting student choose who they will work with on a project or in what format they can complete an assignment, whether poster, essay or presentation? Are there opportunities for “cognitive choice” so that students can determine how they will learn something new? Are they asked to self-assess and reflect on their learning? Offering this type of choice in our lessons helps foster student autonomy and their desire to be more self-directed. This also leads to better engagement.

P = Purposefulness

Of what value are the learning activities in the classroom? Do the students sense that they are simply completing “busy work” or do they find the learning activities meaningful and relevant?  Is there purposefulness in what we do together? When students sense a value in their learning, they will be more motivated and engaged to proceed further, if not deeper, into their learning.

Thinking about the “Motivation MAP” is a simple reminder to helping students motivate themselves: mastery, autonomy, and purposefulness.

Where to begin when personalizing learning

As readers of this blog may know, I have a great interest in personalizing the learning experience for students.

I find that in its simplest form, personalizing is offering students choice and challenging them to think in creative ways that are meaningful and rewarding to them. I have been practicing this for a while in my own classroom, and have witnessed a high degree of student engagement in classroom learning tasks as a result.

Lately, though, my thoughts have turned to scaling a model of personalizing learning for an entire school.

Where do you begin if you want to implement personalized learning for an entire school or school system?

I find that “The Honeycomb Approach to Personalized Learning” makes good sense in that it keeps the student learning experience central to all considerations during the planning process.

Honeycomb approach to personalized learningsource: The Institute @CESA#1

This approach developed by The Institute @ CESA#1, rightly notes that our attempts to implement personalized learning for an entire building isn’t necessarily a linear planning approach. It will get “messy.” Instead, we need to remember that all planning begins with the learner at the core of all thinking (and not new schedules, technology devices or even ‘trendy furniture’ as primary considerations.), and the honeycomb allows us to do this. This helps us focus our thinking on three factors (the cells in blue):

Learner Profiles – Comprehensive, data-rich learner profiles convey how a student learns best and are used to plan a customized learning environment and instructional strategies.

Customized Learning Paths – Students help create unique learning paths based on their individual strengths and interests. Content, pace and feedback are calibrated for each learner and needs are addressed as they occur rather than having to remediate later.

Proficiency-based Progress – All students are expected to demonstrate mastery of rigorous, comprehensive standards. Progress is based on what students have learned, not how much time they have spent in school.

From these starting points, necessary decisions can then be made about suitable teaching strategies and engaging classroom learning experiences (the cells in orange), the expectations for the different roles and relationships of both students and teachers (the cells in green), and the appropriate structures and policies to support the personalized learning practice (the cells in purple), with each decision assessed for its potential impact on the core components.

There are a number of advantages in using the honeycomb approach when planning for personalized learning. Of those mentioned here, I think the flexibility of the this approach offers an “organic” opportunity to help develop teacher capacity for instructional effectiveness in meeting every students’ learning needs:

The core components and surrounding cells can guide professional learning activities for individual educators and teams; they are also useful in supporting collegial coaching and feedback.

As the work gains momentum, schools and teams use the honeycomb as a guide for determining where to build out and scale their work as they move forward. For example, they might chose to add opportunities for Customized Learning Paths or Learner Independence as well as expand their work to other classrooms.

This article provides a concise introduction on how the honeycomb approach can work. Be sure to follow-through on the links, too, to get a wider appreciation on the application of each component.

All in all, I believe that personalizing the learning experience will engage students more in their learning, equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills based on their needs and abilities, and empower students as they move forward in their learning career. This truly is Vibrant Learning for me.


Dr. J. Rickbaugh. Finding your sweet spot: The honeycomb approach to personalized learning.

The Institute @ CESA#1. Personalized learning.