A group of colleagues who recently returned from a conference on innovative learning practices assembled a thoughtful collection of reflections upon their return. Two powerful statements resonated with me:
“It reminded us that we must be open to new ideas, create the space for change and own any challenges/ mistakes we make as we learn how to integrate technology and drive education forward to meet the needs of our students.”
“I look forward to continuing the conversation and helping to create an energised community around innovation.”
Clearly, these colleagues are ready to embrace change, and energised to work with their peers to share their learning. I suspect many of us feel the same way after returning from successful professional learning experiences. However, so often, this potential is wasted. Even if a teacher applies their new knowledge to their personal practices, rarely does it translate to school-wide change. And yet, sometimes inspired teachers can have a significant impact on a school’s culture. How can schools leverage the spark and drive of new learning so that its impact can spread?
In the world of business, there has been much discussion of the entrepreneurial spiral, a process by which new ideas are initiated by a few individuals and eventually spread to the entire organisation. In the school context, an entrepreneurial spiral might begin when a principal, superintendent, technology director, etc. learns of a new concept, strategy, or technology, and then strives to get the remainder of the organisation onboard. As these new ideas gain traction, and the leader enjoys a degree of success, they may then have the confidence to keep pushing more innovative or entrepreneurial ideas forward (Shepherd et al., 2010). Entrepreneurial spirals may also start at the teacher, or grassroots level. However, if the leadership does not champion the innovation or provide the resources to continue it, then the initial effort often results in “islands of innovation” where some excellent teachers embrace new practices while others continue with the status quo (Albion, Tondeur, Forkosh-Baruch, & Peeraer, 2015).
The good news for schools is that innovative ideas can grow and evolve either from “top down” or from “bottom up” initiatives. The key to success of the spiral in either direction? Leadership structure and support. Finding ways to support innovative teachers is a key role for school leaders. As Edgar Schein remarked, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the [critical work] of leaders is their ability to work with culture.” Michael Fullan, a leading expert on the change process in schools, describes the leadership conditions that will enable the entrepreneurial spiral to thrive: “Leading in a culture of change means creating a culture (not just a structure) of change. It does not mean adopting one innovation after another. It does mean producing the capacity to seek, critically assess and selectively incorporate new ideas and practices – all the time“ (Fullan, 2001).
At our school, sending a cohort of colleagues to a conference is one way in which we provide professional support. But that is simply the beginning. The real work lies in continuing the conversation with this group, and providing them with opportunities to continue to share their learning with their colleagues. We will seek their feedback on additional new ideas, each step of the way, widening the spiral of influence as we go. Organisational innovation can come from anywhere, but it demands effective leadership in order for it to become truly effective.
Albion, P. R., Tondeur, J., Forkosh-Baruch, A., & Peeraer, J. (2015). Teachers’ professional development for ICT integration: Towards a reciprocal relationship between research and practice.Education and Information Technologies, 20(4), 655-673. doi: 10.1007/s10639-015-9401-9
Shepherd, D. A., Patzelt, H., & Haynie, J. M. (2010). Entrepreneurial spirals: Deviation-amplifying loops of an entrepreneurial mindset and organizational culture. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 34(1), 59-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2009.00313.x