How can you tell if your school system has a culture that enables innovation? If you’re an education leader aiming to transform teaching and learning to better serve all students, do a quick culture check by considering these scenarios:
- If teachers want to work together on instructional design or assessment strategies, do they have space and time for shared planning? Can they collaborate across disciplines or even grade levels?
- When students have an idea for a new elective, club, or project, do they know how to get their proposal off the ground?
- If potential community allies want to support student success, do you make it easy for them to partner? For example, can they choose from a menu of options for engaging with schools?
In systems that have what we call a “green light culture,” strategies that have potential to transform teaching and learning are valued and encouraged. Barriers to collaboration are removed. The green light reaches everyone in the system—from the superintendent and building leaders to teachers, students, families, and extended community members.
In our conversations with education leaders during the pandemic, we heard how systems were best able to adapt if they had a culture in place that welcomed creative problem solving. When principals empowered their site-level teams to innovate, the results ranged from wraparound services to meet students’ social and emotional needs to student-produced videos to help parents navigate blended learning.
One word of caution, however: Cultivating this culture doesn’t mean giving the green light to every idea.
Jason Glass, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, was formerly superintendent in Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado. In that role he actively encouraged innovation and experimentation—as long as it aligned with the district’s collective vision of student success. He advises other school leaders to define what they will greenlight, and then support and showcase those who take up the invitation to innovate.
In Jeffco, Glass gave a green light to initiatives that enable authentic student learning. Among the outcomes is a collaborative approach to professional development, with teachers forming learning labs to focus on problems of practice. They inquire together, observe one another’s classrooms, and push each other’s thinking about how to improve outcomes for students.
One recent project shows how the green light message creates opportunities for students and community partners. When a Jeffco sixth-grader raised concerns about an algae bloom in a favorite lake, a team of sixth-grade teachers designed a citizen science project in collaboration with the local water department. The ambitious project got the green light from the principal, who in turn knew that her superintendent supported real-world problem solving.
The start of a new school year is an ideal time to make sure your system has the right culture in place to help your students succeed. Here are three more strategies to turn on the green light across your school system.
Try stuff (and share)
“If you want innovation, you have to be willing to try stuff.” That advice comes from Mike Marks, a former CEO of two successful tech companies and an international expert on innovation. In education, known for its glacial pace of change, it’s equally important to share the results of experimentation so that good ideas spread (and less effective ones aren’t repeated).
When Brian Stack was a new principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, he saw a need to change assessment practices. “The way we were assessing and reporting progress on learning for kids was haphazard at best,” he told us, with little calibration from teacher to teacher or grade level to grade level. He wanted to challenge his teachers to consider new approaches and not be tied to traditions that were not serving students’ interests.
Rather than implementing top-down change, he gave teachers the green light to explore what mastery looks like for different skills. Within their professional learning communities, teachers had space to explore different ways to transform instruction and assessment to better meet students’ needs. Collaboration expanded across content areas so effective ideas could spread. Change didn’t happen overnight. Instead, competency-based assessment was introduced first in a ninth-grade academy. As students moved into upper grades, assessment practices moved with them.
Embrace failure (and learn from it)
A culture that values risk-taking has to allow for the occasional misstep. Not every initiative will succeed.
Anna Nolin, superintendent of Natick Public Schools in Massachusetts, nurtures green light culture by what she describes as “destigmatizing failure. We support our staff to take risks without judgment,” she told us. She calls innovative ideas for teaching and learning “bright spots,” and shares them across the district. Innovation teams also conduct what Nolin calls “post-mortems,” to learn from attempts that did not succeed. “This makes us one set of colleagues working towards the best,” Nolin said.
Be curious (and learn from others)
How are other schools in your region or across the country tackling challenges similar to the ones you face? Where can you go to see promising practices in action? Who might want to join you on field research?
A few years ago, David James, superintendent in Akron, Ohio, decided that urban schools like his needed to change to better prepare students for the next steps in their lives. He began looking for inspiration and heard about the career academies in Nashville, Tennessee. James organized a delegation of business and education leaders to see these high schools in action. Their field research ignited an outpouring of community support for the concept back in Akron. Today, the district operates fifteen career academies, each supported by one or more organizational partners in the community.
Curiosity is a valued commodity in school systems that cultivate a green light culture. In fact, being inquisitive is a highly valued commodity in the world awaiting our students. As you nurture a green light culture for the adults in your system, make sure that you create fertile ground for student curiosity to thrive, as well.