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If it ain’t broke, innovate anyway

I’m usually a believer in the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when it comes to America’s school children, that’s not exactly a winning philosophy.

Innovation has long been billed as an elixir for the nation’s struggling schools. Reformers are quick to introduce new technologies and resources that promise to change the way students learn. Pilot programs and education alternatives pop up with relative frequency in communities with poor or declining academic performance. Everybody who’s anybody seemingly has the answer to society’s academic ills.

But that same thirst for reform isn’t always so palpable in better-performing school districts. I know what you’re thinking: The best schools are ahead of the curve. They have the best tools, the best resources. What more do they need?

Fair. But don’t confuse flashy tablets and maker labs stocked with 3D printers for academic innovation. Technology is a great accelerator, but cannot by itself drive meaningful academic change.

The reality: High-performing schools need innovation too, writes Katrina Schwartz for Mind/Shift.

From ‘good to great’
Greenwich High School in Connecticut is the epitome of an affluent, successful suburban school. Just 14 percent of its students are on free-and-reduced price lunch and the school features a university-size roster of AP classes.

In a school like this “it’s hard to see the need for change,” writes Schwartz.

But that doesn’t mean students are fully engaged. There are plenty of unmotivated students in affluent classrooms. While many of these learners will do just enough to succeed, more can often be done to help them realize their full potential.

It was with this thought that Headmaster Chris Winters sought to rethink the student experience. Like famed business consultant and author Jim Collins, Winters aimed to elevate academics in Greenwich from “good to great.”

He secured a grant and formed a special working group of five teachers to develop new programs of study designed to excite and empower students. That effort resulted in the creation of Innovation Lab.

Innovation Lab includes four weeks of seminar study and one week of “immersion” into a specialized topic area, followed by a chance for students to design products that solve real-world problems.

The hope is that by taking responsibility for their own instruction, students will be re-inspired to learn–and not just to pass tests. “I want to give [students] an experience where they get to learn something they’re actually passionate about, that’s what school’s about,” Greenwich math teacher and Innovation Lab participant Brian Walach told Mind/Shift. (For more ideas, check out the Innovation Lab blog.)

But can it scale?
While the concept of Innovation Lab might appeal to other schools—and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from Greenwich’s experience—participants are quick to point out that no two projects will be exactly alike. Each school needs to develop programs tailored specifically to the needs of its students and communities.

To do that requires a similarly committed team of innovative educators and a commitment to researching and understanding the interests of students and school communities.

How do you engage students and parents to drive innovation in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to include parents, teachers and other community members in serious conversations about how to innovate in your schools? Check out Let’s Talk!