Early in my teaching career, I attended a staff development where a speaker pointed out that the most innovative thing that has occurred in schools in the last fifty years was the use of block scheduling. The speaker shared this in jest to point that our schools are often slow to innovate and change. As a science major, I was exposed to the idea that when organisms experience disruption in their environments, they must respond according to this disruption or risk extinction. LeChatelier's Principle states that when a system in equilibrium experiences a change or stress that the system responds in a way to establish a new equilibrium. Both of these statements connect to scientific processes that result in a new way of being for both the organism and system. If we consider schools today to be either or both an organism or system, then we must realize that innovation is one of the best ways for both the organism and system to adapt and change. However, as initially stated, if block scheduling is one of the most innovative things that have occurred in schools in the last fifty years, then we are way overdue for a major disruption. The status quo for many schools continues to result in students disconnecting from education, the loss of creativity, and the proliferation of apathy.
During the holiday break, I had some time to think about what exactly innovation looks like. As I reflect on this, I firmly believe that much of what we are doing with the relaunch of North Rowan High School is truly some of the most innovative work that has occurred in Rowan-Salisbury Schools in the past twenty years. When researching about innovative schools, I ran across a blog post from AJ Juliani where Juliani describes the five habits of highly innovative schools. He mentions that highly innovative schools are not afraid. With our restart here at North Rowan High School, we have definitely embraced new ways of doing school that are more beneficial to students. With the creation of Design / Challenge Based Learning, we took a huge gamble to break away from the status quo and create a totally new learning experience that can truly benefit all students. Our visionary principal, Meredith Williams, did not let “traditional ways” of thinking about education deter the creation of this new experience. We still worked within confines of our schedule and space but we kept our minds and ideas totally open and did not discard any ideas without careful diligence and discernment. Too often in education, schools let fear paralyze their ability to create powerful and engaging learning experiences for students. It also stifles innovation. I am so elated that we have not let fear stop us from making the necessary changes and do what is best for our students.
Juliani also discusses that innovative schools make mistakes. That is very true in our case. We are still learning about best practices in our new way of serving students. I feel like I have made more mistakes in these first six months of being a Design / Challenged Based Learning instructor than I ever made as a beginning teacher. But our principal has stressed and encouraged us to own our mistakes and to learn from them. It is refreshing to have a leader who reminds that we are human and we will make mistakes. Further it is empowering to know that we, as teachers, are not expected to always be perfect. Instead, we show the true spirit of progress by making mistakes and learning from them. One thing that I like about our design course is that I can model this for students. I am no longer the “holder and dispenser of knowledge;” instead, I am a co-learner along with my students. In this way, I can model for them what it is like to be wrong and mistakes. Many of our students do not often this in their real life. It also allows me the opportunity to show students a positive model in which we own our mistakes by first acknowledging them and using that experience to learn. Life is really messy and it definitely cannot be scripted. For many our students, I think that it is important for them to be see and learn from adults who provide positive experiences of making mistakes and growing from them.
Innovation can be an overused term for schools these days though. I think that we must really look the driving force for the changes that create innovation. In the case of North Rowan High School, lower student performance coupled with some major curriculum roadblocks drove the school to really think differently about what our students really needed. This would be the challenge that our equilibrium mentioned earlier in the post experienced. We responded by ideating many possible solutions to establish a new way of being. It was this process of thinking hard and extensively that allowed North Rowan High School to truly innovate and create some different and of better value for our students. As we stress the importance of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, student agency, and creativity, our students have started to realize that they all have values. Their ideas matter. Their previous experiences matter. Their ability to work with others matter.
As North Rowan High School begins an uncertain future to our district’s potential school consolidation, it is important that we call consider the amazing change that has occurred at North Rowan High School in just a short period of time. If left intact, I am confident that the use of Design and Challenge Based Learning at North Rowan will continue to disrupt a status quo that never really served many students well. Rather, we will create a new experience where all students are successful and valued. It is my hope that the best innovation ever to occur in Rowan-Salisbury Schools will be allowed to continue to evolve and flourish.
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The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.