By Selena Woodward
According to the government, there is a current ‘ideas boom’. The buzz word ‘innovation’” is all around – in the community, in business and in education. It is a word that conjures up images of people with one-off ideas, those who think outside the box, the geniuses, the disruptors. To some, innovation means something so big it is completely unconceivable to most; to others, innovation means opportunity.
In business, an innovation is simply a solution to a problem, a ‘pain point’ that prevents a client from achieving something they want. Entrepreneurs are people who spot these pain points, have an idea about how to solve them and go ahead and create the solution. Usually, that idea spawns a start-up business and, with hard work, it grows to great success. Take Dropbox for example. Drew Houston, founder and CEO, could see how hard it was to share files, large or small, easily and across platforms (like Windows or Apple). He created a system that, with little configuration from the client, shifted the norm from USB sticks to cross-platform, cloud-based storage.
Where does this idea of innovation fit within the teaching profession? Are teachers innovative entrepreneurs? When looking to incubate a progressive idea, a start-up might begin with a key question that will enable it to better understand the market it is attempting to appeal to. “What is the fundamental activity of a teacher?”
That is an incredibly big question. A teacher’s job is many things. Teachers inspire, nurture and connect their students to learning and to the wider world and all of its opportunities. They build environments in which students develop skill sets to learn new skill sets. They aim to help students to grow into individuals who are able to learn, adapt, change and operate in a future world teachers can know nothing about.
To achieve all that, teachers follow models, practices, pedagogies and protocols. The world of business is no different. It has tried-and-tested methodologies designed to maximise its potential for increased efficiency and growth. Most new innovations come from humble beginnings. In order for a start-up to survive, the team within it needs to be agile and respond quickly to change.
There is one very well-respected model of practice that many start-ups follow (including Dropbox). Its author, Eric Ries, has a vast amount of experience as an entrepreneur and his text, The Lean Startup (2011), contains a feedback loop that teachers might well be able to relate to. First of all, Ries quickly points out that, in his experience, the key to being a successful innovator has nothing to do with genius, or indeed the idea an entrepreneur began with. Instead, it has everything to do with grit, determination and a scientific process of listening and responding to the client. The feedback loop he devised and discusses in great detail in his book is designed to help entrepreneurs gain these outcomes as quickly as possible.
He advises that, instead of spending too long thinking and considering their solution, entrepreneurs get to work building a minimum viable product (MVP). This product will not be perfect. The team wants to learn more about those pain points and find out whether they have provided a solution. When the start-up delivers their MVP, the team who created it can measure its success by asking questions and listening to the feedback from their client. They take this feedback and create the next iteration (or version) of their product; hoping to improve it to meet the demands of even more customers. They do not stop there though. This new iteration is then treated in the same way as the first and continually passes through the feedback loop of build, measure, learn.
What teachers might not have realised is how close the feedback loop of build, measure, learn aligns to the basics of good teaching practice. That process, which Steve Blank of Stanford University considers “the roadmap for innovation for the 21st century” is something that teachers have been doing for a very long time. Innovation is already at the heart of teaching and learning.
The classroom is a start-up. The teacher is an entrepreneur who is aiming to find the pain points which stand in the way of his clients (or students) achieving their goals. The teacher’s job is to build a product or service to solve these issues so that students can make solid progress. In order to maintain his success and grow his reach, the teacher will need to make sure that he is responsive to his students’ needs and is agile in his response to them.
Teachers need to deliver curriculum content to their students in a manner which will maximise their potential to learn, critique and develop a deep understanding. They build their solution, their lesson plan. As they do so, they make judgements about the value of the resources, tools and teaching strategies they have at their disposal. They also make assumptions about their students; about their needs, their personal interests, about how they will respond to the environment and learning that will be presented to them. In the world of the entrepreneur, these assumptions, which often come from a teacher’s trained gut instinct, are referred to as ‘leap-of-faith’ assumptions. These assumptions will help form the first iteration of the product which can be used to ask questions and validate that leap of faith; a waypoint. This really is the only way to get started. Teachers cannot assume to have all the answers as they start their journey, or even to know the final destination.
As teachers work with students, they will need to learn, to gain an understanding, if not an insight, into the pain points that might be preventing students from meeting their goals. Teachers cannot get a better understanding of that until they start to teach and to experiment with their techniques and resources. That is how relationships are built and intrinsic knowledge of students is developed. Every single one of them.
Lesson plans become teachers’ MVP – their first attempt at connecting with their learners and helping them to meet their goals. Of course, teachers have done their best to plan a lesson in which they hope to address the learners’ needs and meet their demands. They have addressed the assumptions they made in their leap of faith. The result will involve a complex mix of people, technologies, resources, knowledge, words and experience.
Teachers may share their MVPs with their students and be quite pleased with the outcomes at the end of the lessons. It may have gone well, and the objectives seemed to have been met; progress was made. However, in order to ensure that the assumptions were correct, and in order to enable continued success, teachers will need to measure the depth and breadth of that outcome. Teachers are experts at this. The reading of the room, the relationship building, the marking, the formative and summative assessment. Teachers will measure the impact of their MVP and they will learn from the outcome. Perhaps the pace was too fast? Some more differentiation was needed? The SSO could have been directed a little differently? Maybe an app that will allow Miss X to overcome Y? Perhaps there is a need to listen more, talk less?
Teachers validate their learning by reflecting on their practice. Not just the students’ learning, but their own understanding of how their teaching affected student progress. By going through one iteration of the MVP, teachers can learn more about their clients – their students. Teachers accept that they are not perfect and they use their new knowledge to make a decision about how to move forward. In his book, Ries gives the entrepreneurs two options – pivot or persevere.
Were the assumptions correct? Do they persevere with this plan, giving students more time to adopt or catch on if needed, or do they pivot and make a “sharp turn” (Ries, 2011). Teachers can change direction, bring in new resources, apply a different teaching strategy – anything it takes to achieve a better result for students. Either way, teachers re-build – they alter aspects of the lesson, change the plan for the next iteraction and begin the cycle again.
The very best of teachers are so good at validating their learning that they can do this on the fly; minute by minute during a lesson. In those moments where a teacher can tell that someone is not benefitting as well as they might from his approach, the teacher makes decisions. Teachers develop an instinct, a skill set, that is rare in any other profession. They hear the mad raucous of the class charging back towards the classroom door after recess and quickly realise that the starter they planned is not happening. Time to pivot that part of the solution and find something that will help improve the climate for learning. Halfway through a lesson, they realise that a couple of students are off task. They consider a hundred reasons why this might be and they might pivot. Whilst keeping one foot firmly in the original, they make a subtle change to the plan that will enable those students to re-connect with their learning and move forward. This is innovation at its best. The ability to adapt in the face of uncertainty and complexity so that a client, a student, may overcome a pain point and achieve.
Start-ups might build, measure, learn, but good teachers have always followed the feedback cycle of ‘plan (teach), assess (reflect), analyse (grow)’. The key to successful innovation in the classroom is not necessarily in the big idea or new technological tool they want to introduce. Innovation is a scientific process found in the details of the complexities of teaching and learning. Every new idea or tool teachers bring to students starts as a minimum viable product; a gamble, an experiment that may or may not succeed. True innovation in the classroom involves an understanding of how agile teachers need to be and the ability to “focus on the boring stuff: how to measure progress, how to set up milestones, and how to prioritize work” (Ries, 2011). Moving beyond simply delivering one response to a perceived need and, instead, following a teacher’s version of Ries’ feedback model to create a perpetual loop of innovation and growth. Through deep reflection on teaching and on the outcomes of students’ learning, through giving students opportunities to delve into meta-learning practices that help inform (equally important) meta-teaching practices, teachers are able to respond to the needs of students, to identify the pain points that are preventing progress and to help everyone overcome them. This is a continuous cycle of innovation. Throughout this process, teachers promote growth for themselves and their students in order to motivate everyone to continue the joint validated learning journey together. In the classroom, teachers are entrepreneurs.
Selena Woodward is a mum, an English and Drama teacher, author, consultant and change maker. She is co-founder of Reflect Growth, an online teaching community and start-up focused on empowering teachers to define and improve teaching quality. Selena is passionate about edtech integration and has spent many years working with pre-and in-service teachers to demystify technology in the classroom. Connect with Selena at reflectgrowth.com