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Humane Innovation for Today's Schools: Three Tips for all Educators

21st Century education has its share of buzz words: "innovation" being chief among them. From my first years of teaching (in the midst of Y2K and its anti-climactic aftermath), everyone in education was focused on the future. To innovate meant to do school differently: to throw out the factory models of education in favor of schools for different purposes--technological, thematic, globalized. 

16 years into this new century, and the factory model of schooling still exists. However, much has changed as well.

Numerous schools, from charter to independent to public, are blowing up the concept of traditional education in favor of more experiential and intentional learning experiences that meet the needs of today's students.

Some schools are responding to advanced uses of technology, like Michigan's Clintondale High School, a public high school in the Detroit area whose core focus is the flipped classroom. Other schools are innovating by unplugging, such as The Mountain School, where students and teachers work side by side on a farm in Vermont, learning core life skills connected to daily living. Other schools are innovating in response to larger systemic challenges, like The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem and Wyoming Indian Elementary School--the former offering young women of color pathways for college and careers in STEM, the latter focusing on academic skills while keeping Native students connected to indigenous cultural values and practices. There are even programs, like UnCollege, that offer students alternative pathways to college through a gap-year program. All of these institutions are responding to the times by optimizing the student experience--providing learners what they most need to flourish in today's world.

To innovate means  to completely remake something, to do what hasn't been done before. And in researching these schools--and many other places focused on innovation--I found 
all these institutions were focused on not only changes in schooling, but changes in the system of education itself: more humane teaching practices, more access for everyone, and a leveled playing field for all. 

Clintondale High School has a low-achieving population, and typical of urban schools such as this one, students often don't complete work outside of school (for a whole host of reasons). Consequently, school leader Greg Green decided to flip the classroom, allowing students to complete their homework in class while viewing teacher's lessons at home. In effect, Green reported his aim was to "provide a level playing field for all students." And it's working.

Wyoming Indian Elementary School uses a math program called "Strength in Numbers," a hands-on, games-based math curriculum to help improve the achievement of students in STEM subjects; simultaneously, this school believes "Reliance on the strong cultural traditions of grandparents and great grandparents is integral to education..."  This school understands the world students will inherit while maintaining a connection to the old ways of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone. And students are thriving.

These schools' revolutionary practices are emblematic of the possibilities of a 21st Century education: better access for everyone. If that's innovation at its core, then hopefully more schools will see its validity in this new century and find an urgency to make important changes.

And still, there are a lot of societal, systemic, and political roadblocks in place that may stymie innovation, which begs the question: In the absence of institutions that support innovation on a grand scale, is there something all teachers can do to remain innovative and student-centered amidst institutional demands, state and federal demands, budget cuts, and the tidal wave of traditions that preclude schools from thinking differently? 


Whether schools are striving for greater change, or individual teachers are looking to do something differently, the following three items are a starting point for those hoping to stay innovative--to provide access and equality of opportunity for all students:

  • Tap into students' prior knowledge: and use that prior knowledge to shape classroom experiences. We oftentimes have desired outcomes for our courses, or our schools/departments have desired outcomes. However, the more we can ask students "What do you know about...?" or "What has been your experience with...?" or "Bring in an example of..." the more we're asking students to take ownership of their learning. The more we ask students to solve problems from where they are and the ways they learn best, the more they feel valued in the learning process. What makes this approach innovative? Tapping into prior knowledge presupposes that learning will always be new and different because our learners change each year or semester or trimester. Why don't we focus on changing alongside them?
  • Throw out your curriculum every few years: Many independent school teachers toil to create a dynamic, engaging curriculum. For many, the exercise of curriculum creation is invigorating and intellectually stimulating. And it's even cooler when we see our curriculum in action. Yet every few years, it's healthy to shed some skin in our teaching lives. To remake our classrooms, we need to be willing to re-see what we do, which can mean purging what we hold most dear. In journalism it's called "killing your darlings." In Hinduism, it's the cyclical process of destruction and creation that allows us to renew ourselves. In Buddhism, it's called the "Beginner's Mind." All three of these approaches invite us to leap into the unknown and be a learner all over again, to admit we don't know everything. Our students will have more optimal experiences if all of us are willing to take risks and try something different.
  • Ask "Why?": Whether we're brand new to a class or a school, or whether we're a seasoned veteran, the question "Why?" can be a powerful one in fostering innovation. Whether we ask, "Why am I teaching this outdated grammatical construction?" or "Why does our department value these topics?" or "Why do we do things this way?" the question "Why?" can serve as a probe for deeper reflection, and oftentimes, opens up new possibilities for us and our students. "Why?" also is a gateway word for systemic change. Although this question may lead to some defensiveness or some ego bruising among our colleagues, it also can serve as an important salve that can ensure our teaching has clear intentionality--so our students can learn from reflective practitioners who are brave enough to question the way things are in favor of new possibilities.

While these three tips may not immediately overhaul education as it is, they at least allow us to aspire for what might be, which in effect, allows us to model--for our students--the traits of today's world: one that aims for access and equality of opportunity for all.


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