Innovative Teaching: It’s not the technology, it’s the thinking

Redesign Challenge
Aug 17, 2015 · 6 min read

Written by Christopher Bronke for Redesign Challenge

I can read your mind; I promise. Watch. When I say the word “innovation”, what one word comes to mind? Drum roll, please…you thought, “technology.” Obviously, I really didn’t read your mind; the association of innovation with technology is just that deeply ingrained into our mind and our society. When we hear innovation, we think of that tech startup, founded in the basement of someone’s mom’s house, now a billion-dollar society-changer. We think of the “brilliant mind” coding tomorrow’s future today. And I will be honest, until recently, I thought along those same lines, viewing innovation as something for others, for those with a mind for technology, not for me as a mere English teacher. However, at the ECET2 National event in Seattle, Melinda Gates talked about innovation, and what struck me was how little she, Microsoft connections and all, talked about technology. What became clear is that innovation isn’t a thing and that being innovative isn’t something one is or isn’t; innovation is a state of mind. It is a deliberate approach to creativity in which one allows the mind to think and produce without constraints, without judgment, and without hesitation because no ideas are bad ideas when innovating, and never was that clearer than at The Redesign Challenge (RDC) Innovators’ Weekend.

This event, designed for the winners of RDC’s video challenge, assembled the most powerful teams I have seen in my 12 years in education. Together for three days, innovative teachers collaborated with web developers, design thinking experts, sketch and storytelling professionals, a team leader, and the freedom to create new solutions to age-old obstacles in education. Seeing these teams operate and having the honor to lead one of them, I realized something: teachers are innovators…YOU are an innovator, and we need your help as an innovator to help these teams redesign professional learning in education.

Innovators’ Weekend was the start, not the end of this journey. Each educator at this event is now looking to assemble his/her own innovation team to try out these newly created and revised ideas, and they cannot do this amazing work alone, and, more importantly, after seeing the power of innovation teams at the event, none of them would want to. If you are interested, please click here to learn more.

But more than anything else, you are an innovator, whether you know it or not. The key is for us, as educators, to rethink our thinking, and confidently alter our approach to teaching. How, you ask? Check out these four keys to innovation

  1. Innovation is a good thing to do not too carefully

I am type A, so this bothers me; I work in a sequential manner, carefully completing one step in the journey before turning my attention to the next. However, what I learned at Innovators’ Weekend was that this work is messy, a deliberately carefree exchange of ideas, each one a new and unexpected left turn down a known-too-late one-way street. This work is chaotic and only once we create a deliberate bias towards action can we really begin to create the conditions for creativity. There is a time and place for care in one’s work, that is for sure, but when innovating, it is important to not work too carefully.

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Prototyping time

The precision of clearly packaged details will come eventually through rounds and rounds of iteration, but we must not only allow but in fact challenge ourselves to abandon conventional logic in favor of willful disorganization and carefree intellectual play.

2. Underneath every problem lies the real problem that needs to be solved

Innovation is a form of problem-solving, but what makes innovative thinking so important is its focus on the hidden problem, the one that, deep down inside, makes us all just a little uncomfortable. Over the course of this weekend I heard innovators pushing past the surface of “well that teacher just has a fixed mindset” to really probe at the hidden problem: “why does that teacher have a fixed mindset?” Once we began thinking in these terms, our ideas started to really flow because we were working to solve the root problem. In this case, it isn’t just that this teacher has a fixed mindset, but perhaps this teacher is really lacking in self-confidence. Therefore, he veils his insecurity in the blanket of a fixed mindset, saying “well we have always done it this way.”

When we begin to create and work to support this sort of teacher persona, as innovative teachers, we can begin to effect change grounded in the root problem that becomes lasting and transformational.

3. Physical space matters…a lot!

In working to help plan Innovators’ Weekend as well as being part of it, I have had the good fortune to experience co-work spaces. Simply put, physical space matters.

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The Innovation Team poses for a pic

It is why teachers prefer to grade papers at home on their recliner, or at that same booth in the local coffee shop. It is why some of the best conversations educators have are at the bar on stools and couches.

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Superwoman innovator, Fiona, doing superwoman things!

Innovators’ Weekend allowed teachers to experience this first hand with teachers spread about the beautiful 1776 co-work space in Washington DC working from couches, antique phone booths, rocking chairs, and even sprawled on the floor. So remember this not only for your own innovation but for that of your students, too; physical space matters!

4. Teamwork is key

There is an African proverb that proclaims, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to far, go together.” I have always believed in this idea, and yet, at no point in my professional life has this been more clear and important to me than after Innovators’ Weekend. This weekend’s teamwork had a way of making me intellectually vulnerable, surrounded by experts in fields that I know nothing about yet collaboratively working with purpose and confidence because we all needed one another.

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Collaboration matters; all ideas are better when they are OUR idea.

I have recently sensed a growing feeling of competition in education, each teacher leader working more and more to be able to say “oh ya, I have done that.” However, this weekend wasn’t about any one person or even any one single idea; Innovators’ Weekend and innovation in education are about the collective and collaborative power of the whole. Meal time, “free” time and even bar time were spent sharing our backgrounds, our ideas, our passions — working collectively to problem solve, iterate, and improve.

Innovators’ listened with open minds and pushed back without ego. There was a culture of appreciative inquiry, a sense that all ideas matter, all questions will help us move forward, and none of this can happen in isolation. Innovative teamwork isn’t just working together; it is collectively growing together.

Remember innovation isn’t about creating tech start ups and coding new apps, it isn’t even about thinking outside the box; it is about seeing what has never existed inside or outside the box. In fact, innovation is seeing life without a box at all.

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove (Ill.) North High School and Community Guide for the Redesign Challenge. Read more from Christopher here.


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