In a culture that demands change and innovation, how can the individual teacher effect change that’s both meaningful and achievable? Through Innovative Educators, author Gretchen Morgan shows teachers how to adapt existing practices and how to invent new ones that foster the proactive mindset needed to face an uncertain future.
Informed by her experience as a classroom teacher, school leader, and Director of Innovation for the Colorado DOE, Morgan invites teachers to reclaim their identity as creative, progressive thinkers. In today’s blog, from Innovative Educators, Morgan writes about her experience as a principal and how it led her to better support innovation.
Redefining the Relationship Between Fidelity and Innovation
In many ways writing this book allows me to revisit a failure from my time as a principal. I was trying to guide the school by taking a clear, shared approach to instruction because my colleagues and I believed that consistency in the learning environment was good for students (I still believe this). At the same time, I wanted our school to continue to innovate. Without a process to support innovation, however, ideas came in fits and starts and weren’t explored in an organized way. It was left to me to become a kind of dictator who decided whether we should or shouldn’t do something different. This experience taught me two things:
1. I don’t want to be a dictator. I don’t like the wardrobe, the required demeanor, or the idea that one person should be the decider.
2. Without some process inviting people to innovate we would always have a destructive dynamic between rogue actors and rule followers on our staff.
We were struggling with the commonly held false dichotomy that fidelity and innovation don’t mix. I offer the counter idea that mixing innovation and fidelity is required if schools are to serve students effectively over time. Organized and intentional innovation is essential in determining what everyone should start or stop implementing with fidelity in a school that evolves in response to changes in society.
Currently, we use the idea of fidelity to measure the degree to which we are implementing something as it was originally intended, to be able to determine whether it works in a new setting. For example, when a new reading program is adopted, there are often people paid to travel from room to room around the district observing to see whether this new approach is being implemented with fidelity. In this case, we are supposed to have fidelity to rote and inflexible implementation of a program or tool.
This vision of fidelity is in direct conflict with innovation. It assumes that innovation does and should happen outside the school and be brought inside the school to be implemented. This kind of fidelity of implementation is intended to ensure consistency for students and contain the risk of having bad teachers. I would argue that this approach is actually not very good at limiting the negative impact of bad teachers, but it is very good at limiting the positive impact of good teachers.
So instead, I am suggesting that we need to think of innovation as the responsibility of teachers. We need teachers to be proactive problem solvers, continually analyzing the effectiveness of current strategies and innovating to meet the rapidly changing task of
educating our children in the twenty-first century. However, we also need to organize the practice of innovating so it isn’t just something that individual teachers do for their individual learning and for the benefit of the thirty students in their classroom. We need to organize our efforts so that we can collectively, and based on sound practices, determine what should be implemented with fidelity across part or all of the school in service of all students getting access to our collective best practice.
To help equip educators for this conversation, let’s examine where the idea of American public education started and what it has become.