This guest article on innovative teaching shares ideas and strategies from the The Startup Teacher Playbook: Turn Your Ideas Into Actions, Personalize Professional Development, and Create Innovative Learning Experiences for You and Your Students.

Education is never going back to ‘normal’ or at least one would hope not. As challenging as Covid has been, it has highlighted many flaws in our systems thus forcing innovation and disrupting industries, education not excluded. Teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to change how they teach and connect with students to ensure that students can still receive a high quality education – even while living through a pandemic.

The question now – how do we keep that momentum going?

For decades, we’ve talked about innovation in education and innovative teaching, but when push comes to shove we often continue to do things the same old way. We have an opportunity right now to truly do something different, to create a new normal. The time is ripe to go beyond talking about innovation to actually creating a culture of innovation.

In our new book The Startup Teacher Playbook we make the case for how teachers can use startup principles to fix problems in education and reinvent learning. One reason innovating is so hard, is because there’s often no real strategy on how to do it. In The Startup Teacher Playbook we provide the tools needed to bring startup principles into education to promote innovative teaching and create the culture of innovation we all strive to achieve. This piece outlines just a few of the ideas we provide in the book needed to begin on this journey. Read on for insights for more innovative teaching from The Startup Teacher Playbook.

Empower the People in Your Building: Turn Problems into Possibilities through Intrapreneurship

Complaints are often just problems waiting to be solved. Staffrooms are notorious for negativity and complaining, but what if we viewed those criticisms as teachers (who might not feel heard) trying to voice what needs to be fixed in their schools and for their students? What if we took it a step further and created an outlet for teachers to solve those very problems they’ve identified?

Intrapreneurship is a concept that the education space should borrow from the business world. Intrapreneurship focuses on how businesses can innovate from within to solve problems and operate more efficiently, sustainability etc. Teachers know what’s not working in their schools and often have ideas on what could be. Oftentimes the first step towards creating a culture of innovation is realizing that you don’t need to have all the answers, you just need to tap into the human capacity all around you. As much as we call for a complete overhaul of the education system, encouraging stakeholders within every school to improve outcomes from within would enable us to create the personalized solutions we often seek to improve educational outcomes for all students.

Cultivate a new mindset: Make the case for entrepreneurial thinking (tip – it’s not just for entrepreneurs!)

Oftentimes when you say entrepreneurial mindset or entrepreneurial thinking people assume it’s about having the skills needed to open a business. Entrepreneurial thinking is really about getting a new lens on things, about turning problems into possibilities. When you understand how to tap into the knowledge, resources, skills, and interests of those around you (including yourself) you’re really able to do something when challenges arise. Fortunately, entrepreneurial thinking is something we can all develop, but we need to overcome the hurdle that this skillset is just for those in business. Most teachers already practice entrepreneurial thinking to some degree (and often on a daily basis) to meet the ever changing demands of the classroom and their students. Imagine however, if we truly encouraged entrepreneurial thinking so that this skill got developed not just for the small fixes, but for the big ones. Teachers have so many great ideas to improve teaching and learning for their students, and entrepreneurial thinking provides a framework to help teachers take those ideas so they get nurtured and can grow.

Make those in your building aware of the power of entrepreneurial thinking by pushing them to do something about the problems they see. Then go beyond talking about it, and create opportunities for them to collaborate and work on their ideas. By providing tools and creating a space for people to turn ideas into action (keep reading), you’ll be developing the entrepreneurial mindset of others and cultivating that culture of innovation you seek.

Create the space for innovation: Revamp the professional learning space and meeting times so people play with new ideas

We live in a system where ‘innovation’ is usually only permitted from the top. That’s another reason why innovating is so difficult. Since we know one-size-fits-all doesn’t work, there’s every reason to test out some grassroots innovation. Professional development is often used to tell teachers what to do. What if instead we used that time to work with teachers to make things happen? It’s great to be a learner, but most professional development seems to be focused on ‘seat hours’; on assuming teachers don’t know what they’re doing. The professional learning space offers an ideal outlet to nurture the ideas of our teachers and help them flex the entrepreneurial mindset we are trying to cultivate. Problems would get solved and we’d be giving educators an opportunity to strengthen the very skill we say we want passed on to students.

It wouldn’t be difficult to completely reimagine the professional learning space or teacher training. These are just a few ideas on how we could use these spaces to promote innovative teaching and create a culture of innovation.

  • We could encourage more ‘unconference’ style learning to share new ideas. New forms of professional learning like Edcamps, twitter chats, book studies, and Clubhouse have gotten teachers fired up and ready to take action.
  • We could use this space to provide personalized mentorship and coaching beyond instructional strategies so that all teachers could be at their best. Executive coaches have long been used in the business world to help professionals reach their full potential. Why not provide rockstar teachers with the same? (See Roger Osorio, School of Reinvention for more)
  • We could reuse meeting time so it’s more productive. For instance, flipped staff meetings would let teachers get presentations emailed to them so time together could be dedicated towards collaborating and problem-solving.
  • We could offer teachers their own genius hours or 10% time. This would enable them to work on their own ideas, innovate, or even advocate so that we could achieve the changes our schools need.
  • We could offer hackathons, incubators, and accelerators to help innovative teachers and schools make their ideas take flight. These spaces could be used to support well-being, collaboration, and innovation techniques. They’ve been used for years in the startup space to help individuals and young companies grow their ideas, why not do the same for teachers, schools, or districts?

Provide tools to help people innovate: Give structure to go from idea to implementation

Sometimes it’s not enough to have good ideas. People need time and support to test those ideas. We love human centered design, the only problem, it’s a very long process. Sometimes you need to test out an idea quickly to see if it has merit. That’s where lean methodology comes up. If you’re going to fail, fail fast. That way you can learn quickly and move forward. You can use startup principles with the same intentions as design thinking (or should we say Human Centered Design as that empathy piece is so vital in any/all innovation), but the process gives you a bit more flexibility to get going.

We suggest that instead of waiting on years of data to try out new ideas in education, we provided a structured approach to innovation so that teachers can actually try out new initiatives to see if they work. By providing implementation tools, teachers could ensure professional learning and meeting time go beyond ideation and result in action. In turn, educators would have the opportunity to actually think through their ideas and execute. Risk-taking becomes the norm because we’d learn to view ideas that don’t work not as failures, but as learning curves that get us one step closer to finding what does work. There’s no way to create a culture of innovation without a healthy dose of risk taking. If we want innovative teaching that enables educators to adapt and evolve to the needs of their students and an ever changing world, they must be encouraged to try out new ideas – for better or for worse.

Providing structure to the innovation process does not need to be difficult. One such tool that revolutionized the startup scene was The Business Model Canvas.Instead of forcing individuals with new ideas to write up pages and pages of a business plan to prove if their idea had value, the business model canvas made it easier for people to brainstorm the key elements of a business thus springboarding the rise of the startup revolution.

The Educator Canvas is our attempt at creating a similar tool to the Business Model Canvas where educators could ask themselves the key questions they needed to think through to turn ideas into action. In the same way the Canvas helped new businesses take flight, we hope it can help new ideas in education take flight (especially the teacher-powered ones!)

Example: The Educator Canvas:

An example of the Canvas in Action:

Meant to be used in tangent with the professional learning spaces and revamped meeting times mentioned above. Tools such as this would ensure we went beyond talking to doing and would provide a simple way to design new projects so we could test out ideas to see if they worked.

Help people uncover opportunities to innovate: Startup Principles Can Help You Rethink Classroom Operations.

The opportunities are endless when it comes to innovating, but when getting started it can feel intimidating. Encourage educators to start small and show them where to look. As they get more comfortable solving challenges and this mindset becomes internalized they’ll naturally evolve to take on bigger challenges.

Empower teachers to try something new

Part of the reason it’s hard to spark innovation is because it’s so easy for others to take problems personally. If something doesn’t work one might internalize it as a personal failing instead of realizing it’s just a sign we need to tweak something we’re doing. Too often we don’t ‘operationalize’ our classrooms into the processes and routines that they are. We think of teaching as one big bundle instead of realizing the many routines and processes we create to make things run smoothly. It’s powerful when you realize how much goes into running a classroom and that YOU have the power to adapt what is or isn’t working. Operationalizing your classroom gives you an opportunity to break down how you run your classroom so you can better evaluate what is and isn’t working and do something about it. It also makes the innovation process feel less personal and more practical. Not all ideas are going to work (especially the first go round). The faster we learn to see problems as possibilities – and not failures – the faster we can learn to grow and innovate.

See Example: The Lemonade Stand – What if we operationalized the classroom? A peak at what this looks in the business world and how it might apply a similar concept to our classrooms.

Finally, don’t forget the soft side of innovation

It’s not enough to have a good idea and implement it. We need to know how to work with others to make our ideas truly soar. Emotional intelligence (EQ) and leadership capacity are often emphasized in the startup space, but interestingly enough there’s little development of teachers’ soft skills. Considering education is an industry built on relationships, it would only make sense that we learn how to better work with others. Transformational leadership is often practiced by those in the startup space. We took strategies from that space and applied it to the education space so teachers could develop their own EQ and leadership capacity.

Not only is this necessary to help educators best implement their ideas it truly helps engender a culture of innovation. We build better relationships, we’re confident in our ideas, and we’re able to implement those ideas effectively. In addition, it’s good for each individual’s well-being. Innovation can be tiring and we need to equip everyone to take care of themselves. Being a good leader, making time for yourself and your creativity, are all a part of staying fresh and having the momentum needed to keep going. Innovation is never a one and done process. We need to take care of each other and our mental health to keep the culture alive.

For more ideas and strategies check out The Startup Teacher Playbook.

Innovative Teaching Guest Author Bio:

Michelle is an educational consultant striving to improve how we treat, train, and value our teachers. After 10 years of experience working with young people, she founded the Educators’ Lab, which supports teacher-driven solutions to educational challenges. Michelle earned a master’s in international relations from Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. She has taught social studies in Switzerland and the U.S. and has presented at numerous events, including SXSWedu and TEDxLausanne. Michelle is a part of the Global Shaper Community of the World Economic Forum. She has worked with organizations like PBS Education, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, Ashoka, and the Center for Curriculum Redesign. She is the co-author of The Startup Teacher Playbook and occasionally blogs for Edutopia.

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Twitter: @educatorslab


Thanks for reading this article on innovative teaching. Let us know in the comments if you have any of your own innovative teaching tips or questions you’d like to share. We hope that this pedagogy or teaching strategy and innovative teaching methods will help you to be a more innovative educator who can design a learning experience for more student learning and higher student engagement.