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Friday, 3 April 2020

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The Hard Work of Innovation in Schools

By Ewan McIntosh


The Hard Work of  Innovation in Schools
When you look at key international schools in almost every European capital, you notice something new in the way leaders are approaching their next round of strategy.

We know, because we work with nearly all of them.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that independent schools are swiftly abandoning traditionally static long-term strategy planning. Instead, they’re adopting agile approaches to designing strategy so that they engage their whole community in changing how they think about what’s possible in school.

But this process of agile innovation isn’t all fun and games or black polo-necks and ironed jeans. The fact is, the important parts of innovation and strategy are the same kind of fun you get climbing a mountain?—?it’s hellish hard work, sometimes boring and tedious, and the reward of a view comes at a point where you’re only halfway through the journey. Yep?—?you’ve still got a long way to go, even when you think you’re at the top.

Curiosity is the fuel of innovation, inspiration is the fuel rod

So what does this mean for a school undertaking an innovation journey? We don’t know a single school leader who doesn’t want continually renewing, learning, and innovative staff. But we all know it’s hard to get inspired by the jargon-filled tabular contents of curriculum documents, the mercifully infrequent PowerPoint presentations with the latest “vision for 21st-century learning,” or the prescriptive dictatorship of a summative assessment rubric. It’s like climbing a particularly boring mountain and being denied the view at the top due to the cloud coverage of uncertainty, given that the curricular documentation, without any doubt, will already have changed.

The right of a school to get inspired, tap into its curiosity, turn on its creative mojo, and find a “white space” in which to think is constantly squeezed to the extremity of the school year: the summer holidays. Why? Maybe because there’s a regular pressure to problem solve rather than to make time for discovering the real challenges facing our schools.

Problem solving is the work of managers. Problem finding is what great leaders do with their teams. Having found a problem to which they don’t know the answer, a great leader can inspire anyone to join his crew on a quest to solve it.

Finding a genuine need for change generates a heartfelt need for longer-term strategic thinking that brings people together to test out solutions. But before you even get to problem-solving, the hard work of really understanding the problem is vital, yet often overlooked.

Laurie McLellan is a Scot directing one of the schools leading the charge on collaborative strategy in China. At Nanjing International School (NIS), he and his team wanted to create a strategy for the future but did not want to design a typically soulless five-year plan that would never be read—least of all by the students themselves. We helped NIS with our toolkit and skills to build a new strategy from scratch, challenging entrenched assumptions and identifying what the school’s big objective for the future might be. Since then, we’ve undertaken a process of problem finding, objective forming, and seeking key results that smaller teams in schools can work towards realizing. They often work in short, sharp, agile “sprints,” rather than nine-month school-year cycles.

Sometimes it’s the haystack you need to find, not the needle

One of the biggest challenges to a school is being prepared to ditch the problem you thought you were solving when you discover what the problem actually is.

Together, the NoTosh and NIS teams took time to research and understand the “headaches” of the learning community, including students, parents, and teachers. We dug deep into the issues they thought they were facing and discovered more fundamental challenges and more surprising opportunities than originally thought. When increasing students’ “voice and choice” came through repeatedly in their data, only then did we invest time with design teams of students, teachers, and parents to create ingenious ways of putting that voice at the center of school life.

“Before, a strategy was something you were just given, expected to memorize, but it wasn’t something that was living, breathing, and that you were part of,” explained Shemo Gani, a NIS kindergarten teacher who helped test out the strategy in its early days. “It certainly wasn’t something that became part of your culture. In this process I certainly felt more ownership of what came about—I think everybody felt that.”

In the school’s strategy document, you can read the brief strategy the school created with this collaborative process. But vitally, that collaborative spirit continues as you can discover the backstory and impact it had on leadership culture in their Board, Leadership Team and student body.

Design strategy together, then act together

When you start collaboratively to build strategic intent, the community then expects, rightly, to work collaboratively on making their great ideas happen. It doesn’t always work. In fact, there are many failures on which the successes build. Since creating the documentation and gaining some early wins, the school community has now engaged in really building a concrete idea of what student voice and choice looks like. In partnership with NoTosh and EIW architects, various learning teams at the school have reimagined and rebuilt learning environments for every student, with the first of these completed in Summer 2019. From a lightweight document and spark of an idea, this strategy has continued to shape the actions of staff, students, parents, and the wider community.

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of global firm NoTosh, a learning and design firm with offices across Europe, Australia, the U.S., and Canada.

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