How are schools managing innovation?

Little boy walking into desert

In a recent discussion with an innovative educational leader I admire, our conversation turned to the issue of constant change and signs of change fatigue in her staff. She noted that the fatigue she saw with her educators wasn’t evident in her parent community.

When you consider that the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and federal government continue to remind us the nation needs to be agile – we need to embrace innovation, that we’re going to be part of an ‘ideas boom’ – then it’s likely change will become more pronounced, not less.

So how do we manage that fatigue?

Change in education comes from a variety of directions, some technological, some cultural. There are new standard frameworks, the Australian Curriculum, new databases and administration systems, online reporting and portfolio development, new email systems, new learning management platforms, content management and marketing initiatives.

If your school experience has been anything like mine, most of these ‘innovations’ have been seen by staff as disruptions conceived by education bureaucracies, committees, or members of the school’s executive. They’ve been received as changes imposed from the outside, by a group of others who don’t understand or appreciate the realities of staff working conditions and the intricacies of their roles.

The real challenge is internalising innovation thinking. Transforming it from an outside-in mandate or an internal ‘testing bed’ into the school culture at large.

With our current approach, I can understand why we isolate innovation to a specific development group to pilot its launch. If not, fledgling ideas would be very likely sucked up into the vacuum of existing school policies, where they get lost forever in a haze of bureaucratic negativity, if they aren’t nurtured and protected in the early phases. We all appreciate there is one sure fire way to kill innovation – just keep saying no!

But what if there was a different approach?

Every day, a leader with a good idea fails at change management. Most fail because they can’t get beyond the vision. Most employ the tried and true method of “Freeze, Move, Refreeze”, then backfill the move with staff training. This process reinforces the notion for everyone that innovation is an event, associated with a seismic shift.

Innovation has milestones, but it is continuous. We have to give ourselves room to experiment, and work on practices that free, rather than shackle us.

In the past, best practices for implementing new technology in schools have at least included the following elements:

    • An ICT strategy that is part of the school’s strategic plan;
    • A change management strategy that reflects the culture of the organisation, including policies, procedures, and practices;
    • A roll out plan that includes stakeholder engagement, a communication plan and technical resources.
    • A well-resourced training plan.

Until recently we’ve been focused on replacing multiple non-integrating pieces of technology with a master curriculum and administration/finance systems program. A one size fits all approach.

These practices provide order and security for managers, but the question is, will they continue to be effective in a supercharged innovation environment?

If new products, initiatives and ideas are continuously arriving at an ever increasing pace, will schools miss out because their frameworks simply aren’t accommodating the possibilities?

And what about schools who don’t have the resources to load up for training, roll outs and technical implementation?

The majority of schools in the world survive on skinny administrative resources. How might they embrace and step up to innovation?

Asking the right questions

As a profession we place an enormous emphasis on developing smart classrooms, characterised by nimbleness and creativity. There’s some inspiring work.

How do we extend this same desire and mission to developing a smarter school as a whole?

School councils, school boards, principals, heads of departments, staff and parents could begin by asking themselves the following questions:

  • How would you assess your school’s readiness for adopting new technology and processes?
  • Does your school understand the difference between a change-ready school as opposed to an innovative school?
  • Do you have established ways to promote innovation and change?
  • Do you have staff who are ready and able to innovate, and staff who can lead change?
  • Does your Principal and their leadership team promote and manage change?
  • How flexible is all of the above?

Is your school change-ready or innovative?

School girl with business men

Innovation is the new normal, and schools need a culture of it to help our young people to  innovate themselves. It’s not something we can silo, or bolt old thinking around.

I encourage you to read Digital Transformation requires total organisational commitment, an excellent post from Ron Miller that speaks to our challenges. 

I continue to learn and be inspired from others that have bridged the digital divide and constructively equipped themselves to navigate for continuous change.

Got 10 minutes? Watch this great presentation by U.S. entrepreneur Diana Kander about a better way to approach innovation. Kander entered America as an eight-year old refugee of the Soviet Union. She’s become a hugely successful businessperson and educator, and understands from experience that innovation is less about planning and more about people.

Here she uses the world of business and products as a frame of reference, to explain where so many of us are going when we’re trying to innovate.

Read the first article in this series, Innovation: Are you ready for it?

Photos: Ian Burt, elmimmo

Author: Sam Sapuppo

Sam has over 30 years experience in the education sector in Australia and believes in the transformative power of education. He worked for Xavier College, Kew, where he held leadership positions in Curriculum, Deputy Head – Administration and Director roles for Boarding and the Community Relations Office. He is a “Visiting Teams” member for the Council of International Schools’ accreditation process and has held national and state executive positions in the Australian Boarding Schools Association. He specialises in stakeholder engagement, change management and innovative problem solving in the educational setting. Sam is also the consultant advisor for the boarding program at the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School.

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