How to Create Authentic Innovation in Schools

The Teachers Guild, a nonprofit based out of the design firm IDEO, brings together teachers to solve challenges in education. This year The Teachers Guild is launching a new design question — How might we support public school districts in creating a culture of creativity? While this question is new for The Teachers Guild, it is far from new for IDEO, who is known internationally for helping organizations design creative cultures to foster innovation.

In his article, Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate, Bryan Walker, one of IDEO’s Partners, argues that “culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.” Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.”

Despite school districts desires to be more creative, they have long struggled to move away from a culture focused on compliance. While districts crave a more connected ecosystem that can better support student learning — a culture where all employees feel as though they can create change to meet the evolving needs of their students, too often districts thrive on a culture that incentivizes information silos and top-down directives.

But what would it look like to create a culture where everyone felt empowered within a school district to create change?


The Teachers Guild defines a culture of creativity as a culture where everyone believes in their capacity to create change and has the ability to embrace, act on and share their ideas. This year, The Teachers Guild is launching a movement that activates teachers as creative leaders capable of orchestrating change to and from their classrooms with the hope of impacting system wide change.

“A culture of creativity as a culture where everyone believes in their capacity to create change and has the ability to embrace, act on and share their ideas.”

On the surface, this makes sense. Empower teachers or those on the front lines with students to bring the needs and desires of students to the forefront. Put teachers at the decision making table with district administrators to bring a nuanced perspective into the conversation. Simultaneously, partner with the central office and principals to create conditions that welcome and invite teacher-created ideas to be heard and nurtured.

But how do districts get started in building a culture of creativity?

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts is unique — more than 100,000 people live within 6.5 square miles of each other. It is home of some of the most well-known institutions in the world — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which have helped to create a community abuzz with energy and technological innovation.

While the city overflows with new ideas, Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) does not reap the same benefits as the city — it has had pockets of innovation, but has struggled to bring innovation to the district as a whole. However, the new Superintendent of Cambridge, Dr. Kenneth Salim understands that the needs of the city’s students are changing. He is anxious to start bringing together diverse perspectives to collectively and intentionally design solutions that will impact the future of Cambridge’s students. The city has longed for this partnership between their schools and their community, which they all agree is a necessity for local, sustainable innovation for their 18 schools and 7,000 students.

At the forefront of Cambridge’s thinking is the idea that teachers are the innovators the district needs to bring new solutions to life. Angie UyHam, a Cambridge educator, saw the untapped potential in creating pathways for teachers to be creative leaders throughout her district.

“It’s not about empowering teachers. I believe that teachers already have power. It’s about creating opportunities for teachers to be shared decision-makers in the district.”

Angie believes that teachers want to create solutions to problems they see in their schools, but too often the culture does not celebrate trying new things or taking risks. This belief in teachers as decision-makers led her to create The Design Lab to change the historically top-down approach in education and instead validate educators’ insights and capitalize on teachers’ experiences and expertise.

The Design Lab is grounded in IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit which offers teachers tools and methods to apply a human-centered design process to real-world problems impacting students. Discovery is argued as one of the most important phases of the design process as it requires the designer to empathize with people first to understand the unique needs and perspectives of the end user. In this case, teachers are asked to first understand the motivations and desires of students by collecting data through interviews or even shadowing a student for the day.

The Design Lab infuses the Liberatory Design cards a collaboration between the Stanford d.school and The National Equity Project into their design process, which includes two additional phases of work — noticing and reflecting. According to the d.school, these two additional phases help “designers emerge with a [heightened self-awareness] of their identity, beliefs, biases and values. They are able to make authentic connections between who they are and who they’re designing with. They co-create and co-construct a new paradigm of design, one that is diverse, inclusive and equitable.”

The Design Lab gives teachers a dedicated space to play and experiment without the high-risk of evaluation or fear of failure. In the Design Lab, teachers have the freedom to brainstorm ideas and tackle real challenges that they are currently facing in their classrooms. Teachers have the space to tweak existing ideas to make content relevant for the students sitting in front of them everyday.

In this safe space, free from judgement, teachers collaborate and build upon each other’s ideas, test their hypotheses, collect data from their classrooms and share what’s working and what’s not in an optimistic environment that encourages experimentation and rapid feedback loops. And when they find something that is working, the Design Lab gives teachers the opportunity to share their ideas with the Superintendent to help spread new practices across the entire district.

But just because you create the time and space for teachers to innovate does not mean that innovation will automatically happen. “Innovation can be intimidating” says Angie, now the district’s first Design and Innovation Coach. She believes that although anyone can be a designer, it takes time to learn how to do human-centered design well. She also acknowledges that she does not want to be a gatekeeper, regulating which ideas are good and which are not, but rather sees her role as helping teachers to understand the design process and its potential impact.

It seems that this is something even the union can get behind. Dan Monahan, President of Cambridge Education Association, said:

“The Design Lab has the potential to reshape the way educators and administrators see their roles in our schools and district — not as cogs in the wheels of a system, but rather as designers of the cogs, shaping them to ensure that they work with all of the other cogs to create a truly effective system — to make our schools the best they can be for our students.”

As part of the design process, teams initiate How Might We questions that allow every problem to be turned into an opportunity for design. Here are a few sample How Might We questions that Cambridge Public Schools began to tackle last year for inspiration:

How might public schools capitalize on educators’ experiences, expertise, and passions by changing the way in which problems are identified and addressed as a district?

How might we create an effective and efficient teacher space to support the needs of all students?

How might educators with different expertise in reading come together to create a cohesive and impactful reading plan for students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)?

How might we empower and educate teachers to be comfortable and confident teaching in different digital ways?

How might we create an integrated, standards-based curriculum that incorporates the interests of students?

The Design Lab is a collaboration between The Cambridge Public Schools, The Center for Artistry and Scholarship, and The Cambridge Agenda for Children OST Initiative.

The Teachers Guild is a professional learning community that grows teachers as creative leaders and supports districts in building a culture of creativity.