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Tarsi Dunlop is Program and Operations Manager for Learning First Alliance. During her three years supporting public education and associations at the Alliance, she gained a deep appreciation for the...
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What is Innovation?

What is innovation? Google the term and it is~ the action or process of innovating a fairly unhelpful definition for those who subscribe to the notion that you cant define a word using a derivative of it. Synonyms include change~ alteration~ upheaval~ transformation~ or breakthrough.

People frequently imagine new technologies~ electronics~ scientific advances~ startups and other types of change when they hear the word innovation. People~ including those who care about education and those who work in education~ frequently want to be innovative. Yet innovation frequently connotes disruption; not always the best environment for students and children. But~ can simply changing a process itself be considered innovative? If a process is changing or transforming~ then isnt it by definition~ innovative? Whats more~ when the conditions are ripe for innovation through process~ its not just about an innovative change-maker bringing in an idea; it becomes about the innovator inside each and every person with the expertise to create a wider scale change. The collective power of people~ in a community~ with good ideas~ changing the process to produce different outcomes: thats legitimate innovation.

Partnerships can help create an open collaborative environment that fosters the inner innovator inside every educator. In Best practice for spreading innovation: Let the practitioners do it from this months issue of the Kappan~ a PDK International publication~ Cathy Gassenheimer~ executive vice president of The Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC) writes: When you listen to what educators want and partner in ways to help them achieve their own well-informed goals~ amazing things can happen.

What then do educators want? What any committed professional might want (or any young innovator for that matter): a community of fellow collaborators.

The Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC)~ a professional development arm of A+ Education Partnership~ was created because its leaders believed there was great potential in forming substantial partnerships with educators at all levels in public education to help inform policy-making on the state level and address disconnects between the intent of policy and subsequent implementation. ABPC began its work around the time that Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) released a revision of Standards for Professional Learning. They originally intended to identify and highlight schools using the practices as aligned to the standards~ but then their process transformed into advancing collaboration~ which in many ways aligned with the Learning Forward standards.

Powerful conversations were facilitated examining standards and measurements that tracked a schools progress. When asked to reflect upon these conversations~ held at 16 different schools~ educators responded by affirming the value of the process~ Cathy explains: They want to meet with each other at a time and in a place devoted to professional learning~ and they want to learn from and inspire each other in ways that result in improved teaching and learning across all participating schools.

In a 2010 TedX presentation Steven Johnson talked about where great ideas come from~ and he notes the role of the coffee house in a great flowering of innovation called The Enlightenment. Not only did people begin drinking caffeine~ as opposed to alcohol~ but it was a space to share ideas. He explored where good ideas come from what is the space of creativity~ and what shared patterns show up? As part of his process~ he encourages people to move away from the idea that an idea is a flash~ light bulb or eureka moment and instead look at an idea as a network. Innovation comes from sharing and cobbling together pieces of ideas through a fluid network~ a chaotic environment full of powerful conversations perhaps~ which allows for a collision of pieces of ideas. He closes by tracking the fifty year journey of developing global position satellites and GPS technology as one example of how great innovations~ big new ideas can develop over decades; they dont have to just happen and become commonplace. They grow and change.

Unfortunately~ although we have millions of public school teachers~ there is always a reality that conversations are too often siloed in a school. But we can change that for example~ ABPCs Powerful Conversation Networks that developed from their facilitated work described above are communities that share best practices from teacher to teacher; they now exist in 175 schools. Ideas very rarely come into existence without outside support; they do not come into being in isolation.

Fostering environments for educators to innovate is as simple as creating a space for connecting minds and ideas. Perhaps others have similar ideas~ better ideas~ or pieces of a puzzle. Doesnt it make sense to provide expert educators with that opportunity? Doesnt that make them better learners and teachers? Is that not a practice that builds capacity~ which we can scale? Next time you have a great idea~ or any idea~ think back to the pieces where did it start~ who else was involved~ what did someone say? You may be surprised.


This content was originally published by Tarsi Dunlop on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.