February 1, 2013

Failure Is Mandatory: Creating A Culture Of Innovation – From Tom & Justin on Edudemic

Progressive school administrators understand that teachers need room to explore and experiment to uncover ways to use technology effectively in the service of learning. These administrators recognize that initial tech integration forays may fall short, or even fail, but they realize that experiences gleaned help build institutional knowledge of best practices.

Ultimately, enhanced community-wide knowledge and understanding of tech integration practices reduces fears and uncertainties — at both an individual and school-wide level — and provides a foundation for growth. A common trait of successful education technology programs is a culture of innovation where administrators understand that increasing institutional growth means that failure …. is mandatory.

Strategy #1 – Remove the Fear of Failure

As educators, we ought to encourage our students to take chances and risk failure. We understand that failure is crucially instructive and necessary on the road to success and learning. Yet, we often hesitate to take risks in our own practice because we fear lost time, or not being in control, or discomfort if things don’t go right. We value risk-taking traits in our students, but we often avoid in our own instructional practices.

Teacher fear of failure is pervasive and takes many forms, which together constitute a significant impediment to effective technology integration. Teachers may be fearful that technology will not work, or may lead to a waste of time, and they question its effectiveness as a replacement for traditional practices. In addition, teachers are uneasy if they don’t know the technology as well as their students, and they fear that students may do or say something inappropriate online. Technology represents a broader fear of change and, to some, a threat.

Thus the challenge for administrators is encouraging experimentation and failure so that teachers work through their fears and gain an understanding of how technology enhances classroom instruction in ways that go beyond the affordances of pen and paper. When teachers uncover innovative ways in which technology engages students and nurtures essential skills such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, they can begin to move beyond instructional practices perhaps best suited to a bygone era.

Progressive leaders make room for failure, analyze instructional shortcomings, and use that information to build institutional knowledge of best practices. They work to set teaching and learning priorities and point out how effective tech integration supports the institution’s primary learning goals. They encourage faculty to collaborate and share their experiences. They alert others to shortfalls and ineffective uses, and support faculty as they think more constructively and effectively about technology integration. An institutional cycle of experimentation and reflection thus reduces some of the individual or community fears about technology while building institutional capacity and growth.

As teachers progress through this cycle, they gain increased access to an aggregated collection of lessons, strategies, tips, and resources created by their colleagues. These resources can help alleviate some of the trepidation surrounding the use of technology as teachers realize that they can turn to colleagues in their building — or beyond at other schools and institutions – and move an entire community along an avenue towards increased experimentation.

The rub is that a cycle of experiment and experience will only be successful if tolerance of failure is part of the equation. Sometimes, it’s only through making mistakes that teachers begin to really understand and recognize success.

Strategy #2 – Create Skunkworks

Another specific way that administrators can nurture a culture of innovation is to create formal or informal skunkworks or groups of experimentation. These groups may informally congregate to discuss best practices and strategies when it comes to technology in the classroom, or be formally sanctioned by the administration — empowered to develop recommended strategies or tools to be shared with the faculty.

Administrators can encourage these skunkworks by providing educators with planning time so that they can meet to discuss technology integrations, lessons, activities, and strategies, or by designating individual time to experiment with and share new technologies and their incorporation. Administrators can provide professional development, whether through external consultants who provide “lessons-learned” or strategies developed at other schools, or by encouraging teachers to attend conferences or edCamps as well as other types of professional learning environments – such as online webinars, seminars, and chats. In creating a culture of supported innovation and experimentation, each failure can be seen as a success on some level for the learning and institutional knowledge that it creates.

Strategy #3 – Promote Success

A quick but public acknowledgement of a teacher’s innovation often spurs increased experimentation and encourage others to develop innovative approaches to pedagogy and instructional practices. The simple, proverbial pat-on-the-back or verbal recommendation can often have immeasurable results.

Administrators can further cultivate a culture of innovation by providing public recognition as well as teaching opportunities for innovators. They can create avenues for progressive, innovative teachers to present in front of the faculty or in department meetings. Teachers who are using technology in thoughtful, purposeful ways to meet learning objectives should be encouraged to publish news of their innovative pedagogies and instructional practices, whether through class blogs, in emails to the faculty, or in news to parents and other stakeholders. These successful teachers become ambassadors – encouraging their colleagues to take risks, try new tools or techniques — and share both their successes and their failures.

Strategy #4 – Align IT & Curriculum

At EdTechTeacher, we work with schools and districts across the country and a common trait of the most successful programs is a close alignment of the IT functions and faculty needs. Teachers who feel technically supported are more likely to try new approaches and feel more secure should something go wrong.

Administrators need to ensure that a technology committee collects, retains, and disseminates institutional knowledge of best practices, that teachers share lessons, activities, and practices, and that curriculum advocates have a prominent say in technology directives along with the IT Department. By enlisting curriculum support from department heads or specialists, and asking them to proliferate the achievements of their various faculty members, administrators can ensure that IT departments understand pedagogy and learning objectives, so that they can in turn provide the requisite technological support.

A culture of innovation

In all, there should be an aligned and cohesive attempt to create a culture of innovation that is defined collaboratively by the administration, IT department, and classroom teachers. Where there is an understanding of the mission of technology as it pertains to the service of learning, and where all of the constituents are pulling together so that they have the infrastructure, the professional development support, the resources, and best practices available to them to ensure that their technology program is purposeful and not purposeless. Finally, all constituents should understand that Failure is not an option…. it’s a requirement!

Tom & Justin will be further discussing these concepts at the upcoming EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Atlanta, April 10-12 (Early Bird Registration Open until February 8th!).