Six ways to spark change in a traditional school

“San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of….. You could strike sparks anywhere”.
~ Hunter S Thompson

I love this quote because it’s a reflection of the current educational landscape. There are now a range of contemporary schools out there kicking ass like High Tech High, Sudbury Valley School and Egalia Pre-School and a multitude of other innovative programs sparking in their wake.

But what about those of us working in existing and far more traditional institutions? If established schools have proven anything over the last 120 years, it’s that they’re incredibly adept at resisting change. What practical steps can we take to spark innovation in these contexts?

For compelling ideas to thrive we need to see beyond traditional notions of school leadership, professional development and infrastructure changes and focus on growing a culture and community that is receptive to change.

1. Boost educator agency

Innovation will be stifled if educators are required to do the same thing at the same time under the guise of ‘consistency’. We need to trust in the professionals we’ve hired and provide inspirational leadership and support rather than micro-management of their curriculum and calendars.

Encourage staff to bring new ideas, practice and ways of working to their classes and accept they may need to diverge from the ‘topic’, lesson plan or unit. If someone wants to expose students to alegbra via programming then let them. Beats the hell of abstract paper based examples any day of the week.

Most importantly, provide avenues and mechanisms for educators to share their practice as it evolves. You can even implement an Action research type iterative cycle but don’t make it lock-step. Keep it fluid and allow teachers to love the exploration and sharing of their craft. If you’re looking for something more holistic and immediate, consider running a hackathon to spark change rapidly across your school.

The benefits of this type of growth mindset far outweigh the potential disaster of inconsistency across classes when one teachers fails to cover adverbs, igneous instrusions or the causes of World War 1.

2. Explore new professional learning models

Collectively, your staff are a fountain of professional knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped. In the last year alone they’ve initiated a range of personal projects and attended an eclectic mix of Professional Learning (PL) events.

Encourage staff to run school PL opportunities and reduce the number of external consultants (perferably close to zero) that you bring in. Wherever possible, devolve leadership and have teachers take the lead. Mix up your PL plan and offerings so not everything has a top-down, leadership driven agenda. EdCamps, PechaKucha, and even formal debates can be frameworks for tapping into the collective knowledge of your community and exposing new ideas. Realise the wealth of experience in your parent community too and the potential mutual benefits of partnersing them with staff. Imagine a school where you didn’t need parent evenings because they attended PL alongside teachers and were regularly involved in classes too.

Initially, some educators may be reluctant to share but be persistent. Tap people on the shoulder if you need to. Help them plan, present and share their experience. It won’t be long before a melting pot of passion, expertise and interests emerges that you never knew existed.

3. Embrace personal devices

If we value personalised, authentic and creative learning experiences then users need full access to their laptop or tablet. Managing (or locking down) devices inhibits teachable moments, hinders creative potential and ultimately reduces feelings of ownership. Managed devices are more likely to be left at home, damaged and discarded in preference for personal devices. Just look at any trolley of shared laptops in a school.

There is often a concern that personally managed devices will see a blow out of video game playing, pornography consumption, computer hacking and the overthrowing of small governments. Model and share positive ways in which you want to see devices used and and equip parents and guardians with guidelines for conversations at home.

Switching to personally managed devices also brings significant benefits to your IT Ops team. Managed devices are time-vampires that spawn disenfranchised users who need support for even the simplest of tasks. Personal devices free up teams to be proactive, respond to requests, explore new systems and improve internal efficiencies.

Ultimately, as much as some may wish to manage and control devices, it’s at most an illusion of control. There is ALWAYS a way to circumvent these securities. Would you rather foster a culture of positive, construtionist based learning or one of subterfuge and pedestrian use of tech?

4. Showcase exemplar practice.

If something great is happening in a class at your school it shouldn’t be secret to everyone else, particularly the group next door. Make it a priority to capture and showcase any success you see, however small. Agree on a simple framework whether it’s a tweet, blog post or video snapshot. Rough and ready is fine as long as great teaching and learning is at the forefront. If you’re fortunate enough to have learning coaches in your school leverage them as documentarians as well. This showcase will become a catalyst for open and honest discussions about the teaching and learning occurring in your community.

Tie this with an agreed upon Twitter, Facebook or Instagram hashtag and you’ll soon have a visible community of practice that’s not limited by the traditional bounds of curriculum vaults and structured PD sessions.

5. Diversify learning tools.

A single Learning Management System (LMS), productivity or creative tool can’t be everything to all learners, subjects and divisions. Learning experiences ebb and flow at different times in different places. Requiring everyone to use the same platform is counterintuitive to the goal of personalised, student driven learning. It doesn’t even touch on the fact that many of these tools do little outside of shoving the traditional classroom model online.

Learners need the ability to leverage different creative, curation, collaborative and portfolio tools. If a learner wants to use Evernote, Google Docs or paper for personal note-taking then let them. Don’t think about standardising tools but rather think about establishing positive expectations for all.

A great portfolio tool should allow you to easily embed text, media, share your ideas with the world and receive feedback”.

Showcase the tools you personally use and suggest others that may be useful. Remember that a personal device model empowers users to independently explore and evaluate tools and that there will be less of a need to teach them explicit use of tech. Sure it means leaners will need to juggle additional credentials but you know what, it still beats the hell out of Blackboard or Moodle.

“But we need to monitor what students and teachers are doing for consistency and accountability!”.

That old chestnut. Gary Stager nailed it on the head when he stated that embracing a single LMS afforded little change outside of allowing parents to sit at home and day trade their kids. If you’re concerned about transparency provide all learners (including teachers) with a blog and ask that this becomes the conduit for their passions, creations and work, regardless of how they’re created. Oh, and if they find a better platform, let them use it.

If your learning intent is clear, the choice is easy. Would you prefer a school driven, rigid, one-stop data shop for parents or a rich student driven portfolio that is used to showcase learning and share what they love? Which is more authentic? More empowering? More useful to the learner?

6. Evolve spaces

Flexible spaces are are worthy pursuit but before you spend fat stacks on a swathe of slightly odd-looking desks be aware there are cheap retrofits that can be just as beneficial. Put castors on desks, chairs and couches so they can be rolled around. Invest in modular stools that can be stacked out of the way. Provide plenty of space to showcase student thinking and learning (Make Space suggests shower-board as a cheap whiteboard alternative).

Most importantly, have clarity around why flexibility is important. Teachers need time to explore and discuss the pedagogical intent and the practical logistics behind leveraging different learning layouts.

Oh, and buy plants. Lots and lots of plants.


If you value these concepts and are persistent in their growth then compelling ideas will have a better chance of spreading like wildfire. With a culture of innovation burgeoning in your school you’ll be in a stronger position to address the shackles of discrete subjects, rigid timetabling and high-stakes testing and ultimately be empowered to give agency to those who deserve it most, the students.


John Burns is the Director of Creativity & Innovation at International Schools Services. He currently heads up Level 5, a new space for creativity, design and learning based in Shenzhen and blogs at www.j0hn.org.

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