11 Ideas for Fostering an Innovative Culture

vg/4665338572/”>cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by MSVG

Working with a group of administrators in Coquitlam, BC, I talked about some of the things that we have done in Parkland School Division to push our thinking ahead in the way that we are trying to improve teaching and learning.  Although the list below is not meant to be sequential, they are meant to help others focus on how they can create an innovative culture as opposed to simply having “pockets”.  Although we have a lot of work to do within our own school division, we have taken some huge steps in the last few years.

The development of a clear and powerful vision is crucial to developing a creative culture.  Yet many act as though simply the development of a vision is enough, when in fact, it is how you make that vision come to life, and model what you expect to see from you students and embody the notion of a learning organization.  Scott McLeod asks some important questions regarding the learning that we model as adult:

What would our kids gain from us if, as educators and parents, we did a better job of showing that we too are learners? What would schools be like if the adults in the building purposefully and explicitly lived and shared the process of being a learner? What would education be like if we adults intentionally created opportunities to be co-learners with the children that we serve?

As we continue to focus on our school division as a learning organization, we believe in the importance that we are all learners, and that adults need to focus on being creative and innovative, alongside our students.

With all that being said, here are eleven things that I have noticed have been crucial in the development of our learning environment:

1.  Embrace an Open Culture –  Remember the movie “Pay it Forward“?  The main character goes on a mission to change the world by doing good things for three people, hoping that they will pass it on.  Eventually it gets around the world and at the time, the whole notion was amazing.  In the world that we live in now (the movie was released in 2000), that rapid spread is not that crazy.

Heard of “Gangnam Style“?  Me too.  In the world that we live in, ideas can spread rapidly through networks, but they have to first be visible.Using software such as “SharePoint” does not necessarily help this notion (or I haven’t yet seen examples of a viral idea being shared through “SharePoint”), but if we go to networks that are open and participatory such as YouTube and Twitter, great ideas have the opportunity to spread.  If these great ideas spread, we are more likely to create a positive culture in schools than if we kept them to ourselves.

Chris Andersen discusses this notion in his Ted Talk:

“Crowd Accelerated Innovation – a self-feuling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print. But to tap into its power, organizations will need to embrace radical openness.”

As organizations move forward, we would be crazy not to embrace this openness if we want the best ideas to become viral.

2. Learning is the Focus – Too often when we have “edtech” positions, many educators believe that it is time to put away their math lesson and focus on using technology. This is not going to push learning ahead.  As a school division, we explicitly focus on creating positions that focus on learning first, so that innovation can come from all classes, not simply technology courses.  The focus on learning for many educators helps them to see the relevant use of technology in their classrooms and how it can transform the classroom experience.

3. Digital Leadership – Students live in a tough time, and sometimes I believe that they are held to a much higher standard than we were as kids.  When they screw up, it is more public than ever.  With tough conversations and questions that arise from events we see in media, how do we continue to work with our students to help them in our time?Many schools are quick to ban social media from their schools when they feel uncomfortable, but is that truly preparing kids for the world that they live in?

Dan Haesler uses a great analogy and compares how we prepare students to drive as compared to the lack of training in their use of social media:

“Driving lessons would NEVER take place in an actual car.

In fact cars would be banned in the majority of driving schools. So students would be able to take notes, draw pictures or even present a PowerPoint on how to drive, but they would only be able to put these lessons into practice once they were out of sight of an adult.

It’s time for politicians, teachers and parents to stop burying their heads in the sand when it comes to social media.

The fact is, social media isn’t technology in the lives of our kids, but an essential aspect of their world. Social media isn’t ‘new’ anymore.”

Yes schools need to prepare students for their use of social media, but I think that we have to look at how we can push kids to do some great things with this opportunity afforded to them.  Instead of looking simply at how quickly things can go negative with kids and social media, could we not think they can move in a positive direction just as fast?  We have to start pushing kids to use technology to not only be, but to make a difference.

4.  Narrowing the Focus – Technology tools and software are inundating schools, and far too often, we focus on using EVERYTHING as opposed to using a few tools in a powerful and transformative way.

I often refer to the work of Bernajean Porter and her notion of moving from a literate, to adaptive, to transformative use of technology in our schools.  If we simply just keep trying everything and giving up on it soon after, we will continue to stay at the literate stage while maybe moving to adaptive use of technology (at most).  Yet if we narrow the tools we use, we are more likely to move to a transformative use of technology in schools, while also building capacity amongst our staff.

Although I suggest using only a few tools with the majority of staff, to build consistency and help to focus on learning, I still encourage administrators to push their innovators to be innovative and lead the way.  To be transformative culture, there should be some commonalities in how we move forward.

5.  Leadership Development– In any initiative, creating systems is more important than one charismatic leader.  For those structures to take place, leadership needs to be developed in different areas.  Currently, we are working with all of our schools to have a “hybrid” teacher on site; one that focuses on learning first, yet has the technology skills to effectively teach others how to use the tools available to really look at learning different.  As a group, they all come together, share, and will learn from one another, but they will also teach others in their own buildings.  Too many times, we place too much emphasis on the knowledge of one, which causes issues of time for one person to carry out an entire initiative, or even worse, the initiative falls apart when that individual leaves.  It is essential that we develop leadership in all areas of school so that systems can be created.

“Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” Tom Peters

6. The Balance Between Pressure and Support– Too many times an initiative can fail because there is not the support that is needed to ensure that the community is successful.  If you want something to work, you have to be willing to put the resources into the initiative.  On the other hand, if there is ample support, yet no pressure to move ahead, many will consider the learning unimportant.  There has to be a balance, while also understanding that people are at different points.  As long as they move forward, learning is happening, and your initiative is more likely to be successful.

One of the things that I have done in the past to encourage the use of blogging for the classroom was provide time during professional development days to write a post at the beginning of the day.  With ample notice, teachers had the option to write a post on their own time and actually come in later to work on that day, but those that needed support with the technology could come in and have others help them, setting up a little bloggers’ cafe.  Everyone was expected to partake though.  How do you create that balance?

7.  Learning Leads the Way – Information Technology services are so essential to the creation and fostering of an innovative culture, but to be honest, they should not be leading the way.  Educators should be leading the way; I.T. should be creating the conditions to ensure that they are successful.  We have to focus on creating a partnership with our IT services in all schools and tap into their valued expertise, but we cannot have anymore tails wagging the dog.

8. Disrupt Your RoutineFrank Barrett tells a great storyof how airline executives are stumped on how to create a more comfortable airline experience on their planes until a top ranking official decides to replace the beds in their hotel rooms with airline seats.  After that experience, they quickly come up with some great ideas.If you think of all the talk of how the classroom needs to change, why are we not restructuring we meet together as a staff or administrative team?

This year we made a conscience effort to not use any paper in our admin team meetings, yet to honour different learning styles, we encourage principals to print off any paper that they wanted for meetings.  It is a little change, but it is something that can be mirrored in the classroom.  Your team meetings should be about learning, so why not put ourselves in the situation or environments that we want to see our students taking part in?  Start looking at the way we meet with one another as a way to model the learning that can be happening in schools.  No more talking about hats!

9. Parents as Partners – Parents are a huge untapped resource and with the way technology is used now, it is much easier to connect parents to the learning in the classroom.  That connection to learning is more likely to lead to student success.  My good friend Patrick Larkin, in his role as Assistant Superintendent, make a strong effort to not only engage with parents through social media, but he also runs workshops to help them improve their own learning in technology that we are using at the school level.

Using technology to connect with parents is a no-brainer.  Imagine the difference in conversations that can be had at home.  Instead of a parent asking their child, “What did you learn today?”, with the child responding with the standard, “Nothing.”, the correspondence can change significantly.  A parent should now be able to say, “I read in your classroom blog that you learned about ________, can you tell me more about what that looked like?”  Totally different conversation that will more likely lead to a totally different answer.

If we can connect to parents, why wouldn’t we?

“Improving the effectiveness of the home as a learning environment is a key to promoting longterm school success.”  (Druian & Butler,. 2001)

10. Focus on strengths – Too often, we identify with what is wrong with our schools, as opposed to focusing on what is right.  With probably every initiative that is happening in your school, there are probably some experts that are there on site, yet we bring in the outside facilitators far too often.  We need to tap into these people and help them teach others, while also recognizing the strengths of others in different areas, and give them the opportunities to accelerate our learning as well.  As we have those leaders in different areas, they gain confidence and pick up skills in areas that they felt less proficient in.  Start looking at professional development plans and leadership initiatives that tap into people’s strengthsinstead of focusing simply on the weaknesses of individuals.

“It takes far less energy to move from  first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.”  Peter Drucker

11.  Leadership Determines Management – With all of these things that I have discussed, as leaders, we have to figure out how to make these things happen.  I will be honest, that I often hear how things won’t work, or “we are not allowed” in certain areas of the school.  What I believe is important, is that you figure out what is crucial and you find a way to make it happen.  Do not simply allow a “rule” or “policy” to be the end of a great idea.  Figure out how to work within your system to foster innovation and creativity.  I am not saying to be subversive, but ask hard questions and lead people to continuously ask the question, “What is best for kids?”

If you can continue to focus on that last statement, and you really want to make it happen, you will find a way.

As I look back on the work that we have done, we still have a long way to go, but we are making significant strides in our division.  But with all of the areas that I listed above, I am still wondering, what did I miss?


  1. Thank you for putting all these wonderful ideas into one post. As my system works to create a vision for technology integration and student learning at the elementary school level, I will consult and share this post.

    Last night as part of the Global Education Conference, I listened to Bobbi Kurshan speak about innovation. It was a thought provoking talk from a perspective outside of the school system Here’s the link:

    Also the Boston Globe had an interesting article about decision making and the Presidency this Sunday. While not directly related to schools, the article connected to our efforts to make good decisions for student learning, decisions that include innovation. http://bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/11/11/the-advice-wrangler-chief/qWQnkc4MgQjY21VQD8m2kN/story.html

    Thanks again for always pushing and challenging the boundaries of my work and thought.

    November 13, 2012
  2. […] Favorite quote: The development of a clear and powerful vision is crucial to developing a creative culture. Yet many act as though simply the development of a vision is enough, when in fact, it is how you make that vision come to life, and model what you expect to see from you students and embody the notion of a learning organization. @courosa @juandoming  […]

    November 15, 2012
  3. Mark Bates said:

    Just wanted to say your article is great. I found the link on a tweet and it was very serenditious given the conditions in our province. Would you mind if I created an infographic based on this article? Credit would be provided.

    November 16, 2012
  4. Melissa said:

    Great ideas … I especially liked this one “As a school division, we explicitly focus on creating positions that focus on learning first, so that innovation can come from all classes, not simply technology courses”
    I work in instructional technology but I tell people I am waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay on the instructional side! I think Problem-Based Learning has really helped show some of our teachers ways innovation can come in many places.

    November 17, 2012

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