Why We Need Teacher-Innovators (Part 2)

If you read part 1 of this piece you will have noticed that there is so very much more to say about innovation and teachers and how teachers need to become more innovative in general, but more specifically using technology as the powerful enhancer in teaching and learning.

More Research Oriented Classrooms Driven by Teacher-Innovators

A paper produced by The Canada We Want in 2020 group on Increasing Innovation and Productivity notes the following in K12 education#:

But the inertia and inherent conservatism of the education establishment will not yield to isolated grassroots innovation. Top-down, determined leadership is needed to discover and eventually to implement a new education paradigm. While we cannot move too quickly, because we do not yet know what is appropriate, we must not continue to plod along with traditional models. We require a sense of urgency.

We cannot continue to rest on our laurels as high achievers in the OECD ranking in public education.  We are not alone; many if not most of the countries that are ranked in the top twenty OECD rankings are making every effort to invest in change in education, including but not limited to creating innovative approaches to teaching and learning using technology.  I don’t believe that simply ‘throwing’ technology at an education system will produce change or create an innovative environment. I do believe however that if we give teachers the tools to explore, and challenge their old pedagogical paradigms we will see innovation happen and an educational system that can meet the needs that students have now and in the future.

This cannot happen in a vacuum. Teacher-innovators who are driven by a sense of excellence with serious inquiry at the heart of their exploration into what is innovative and what can change and drive a new way of enhancing teaching and learning need supportive environments. If we invest in the kinds of leaders who can support and guide these teacher-innovators we will produce students who are well prepared to guide Canada in the knowledge economy that will continue to sustain our wealth and our position in the world as leaders and innovators in various areas including education. Investing in and sustaining teacher excellence is part of this process but we must not forget that teachers require strong leaders who are qualified to lead in a 21st Century world.

I believe that one of the failings of our educational systems that will haunt us in the future unless it is remedied is the lack of system leaders who are committed to creating teaching environments where teachers can collaborate, re-think and innovate. If we need teacher-innovators we also need administrators and system leaders who are also innovators and understand that dynamic learning environments do not happen on their own – teachers who are innovators are by nature disruptive because the old needs to make way for the new. If system leaders fail to support and encourage these teacher-innovators then they either look for more ‘fertile grounds’ or they close down and fit back into the system that they were trying to break free of. They need to be stimulated, supported and sustained. Teacher-innovators need to be able to try new things. I don’t mean by this that there shouldn’t be a clear path or that path that is reckless and without merit but I do mean that if a teacher-innovator can substantiate a change in direction with solid evidence and clear thinking then they should be supported.

We cannot assume that the old paradigm will continue to be effective. We know that teachers make the difference in student achievement however we must continue to encourage our education leaders to foster a kind of school dynamic that encourages innovation and invests in research. I believe that all of our schools should be geared toward praxis. And by praxis I mean an environment that embraces theory and practice. We are all on the journey of learning and if we don’t in some way, shape or form invest in learning environments where the teachers are learning as well as the students then we are doing a disservice to education. Students need to see that learning does not stop when school is officially over; learning is life-long and discovery is just as exciting later in life as it is earlier in life. Teacher-innovators create these environments because challenges are seen all across the learning landscape; pedagogy, andragogy and the tools of education, including technology, are seen as factors that can be changed for the better. No stone is left unturned.

There are a growing number of education start-ups that are looking to be the “Facebook’ of education. The one serious thing that lacks in many of these education start-ups is a serious dose of classroom-reality-therapy. Theoretical ideas that have not been initiated in contexts that are driven by real-world problems produce superficial solutions. I can’t say this enough. After having run through various pilot projects for various technology companies I can safely state that most of the problems are a result of engineers and ‘software gurus’ forgetting that the product needs to be successful in environments that are complex and synergistic lead by teachers who are time-constrained and resource weary. The banter that gets chanted by companies about having ‘education experts’ does not amount to a hill of beans if you haven’t thoroughly tested the product in classrooms with teacher-innovators, or at least teachers who can clearly identify the need and see the ‘gap’ that can be filled by using a particular piece of software or hardware. This is where the teacher-innovator can ‘fill the gap’ because they are driven by ‘making something better and more efficient’; give them a challenge and the challenge is met with excitement and commitment.

Teacher-innovators Produce Student-innovators: Like Produces Like.

We need teacher-innovators because by their very nature they produce, encourage, develop and sustain student-innovators. Teacher-innovators get excited about innovation and it doesn’t matter where this innovation occurs. In fact, if this innovation occurs in that teacher-innovators own classroom then it creates a dynamic learning environment. Students feel free to go beyond the expectations to create work that is truly new and innovative. This does mean however that teacher-innovators feel safe with giving students work that gives them the opportunity to extend their work beyond the small confines of a projects expectations, for example. Interestingly, this ‘thinking outside of the box paradigm’ is a bit unsettling to some form-driven teachers and leaders. If teacher-innovators create these synergistic environments however a new dynamic will be formed and this dynamic will be empowering.

Teacher-innovators Produce Exciting Teaching and Learning Environments

As in the above, we need teacher-innovators because they create exciting teaching and learning environments. In today’s world where students are natural consumers of all-things-technology we must at the very least embrace the tools they use on a regular basis to enhance our teaching and learning environments. I don’t believe we will ever overcome the difference – or gap – that exists between teachers and students in terms of technology know-how but teachers can create the right environment where students are exposed to learning contexts that push higher order thinking skills development. Teacher-innovators will use technology to create the kinds of learning environments where students easily work collaboratively solving problems and extending their thinking way beyond the way they would have in an ‘analog’ environment.

We need teacher-innovators! We need leaders who are also innovators and who are not afraid to challenge the traditional learning boundaries that we’ve imposed on ourselves, or that have been imposed upon us. Canada needs teachers who are innovators and we need to make every effort at every level to encourage and sustain this divergent thinking so that we don’t get caught looking at our glory in the international rankings while other member countries catch up and surpass us and leave us in the dust. It’s possible. I do think however with the amazing teachers that we have coast to coast in this country that once we invest in the innovative culture and encourage teachers to investigate solutions and answers found outside of the traditional pedagogical box not only will we increase our rankings but move to the top of the heap. We have the people; we have the know-how, now we need the right attitude and the right orientation!

Timothy Gard
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