For the past week, I have really been reflecting on what it means to have an Innovators Mindset in the classroom. I am about one week removed from attending our state’s Technology in Education conference (ASTE), and listening to the best keynote address I’ve ever heard, courtesy of George Couros (@gcouros). George’s words, much like his book The Innovators Mindset, are full of inspiration and motivation. As an educator who wants to be non-traditional and continually think outside the box, I found myself asking what it meant to be innovative, and if I was innovative in my classroom. By definition, to be innovative is to introduce new ideas that are original and creative in thinking. I also think that any idea you can use to first engage students, and then empower them to higher thinking, is an innovative idea. I am admittedly just scratching the surface of what it means, and how, to be innovative. There is still so much for me to learn and put into practice; however, there are some things I have been trying to incorporate with my students to help them unlock their own innovators mindset. The one thing George Couros said that has stayed with me is, “the next big game-changer in education is not innovative technology, it is innovative educators”.
I am convinced one of the most innovative things you can do is build relationships and connect with kids. If being innovative means to introduce new and original ideas, then having positive relationships with your students are a pre-cursor to this. I believe that your classroom environment is first a product of your relationships with students, and second a product of the things you do and opportunities you give students. These two elements form a dynamic classroom, and go hand-in-hand, but do not undervalue the importance of first building relationships. Students are innovative by nature, and often times are creating and doing awesome things outside of school, whether through video, social media, video games, or other outlets. Positive relationships combined with classroom innovation result in genuine curiosity, genuine expectation, and genuine freedom to explore. This dynamic alone will curb a great deal of “fears” about digital citizenship and discipline, simply because of the environment you have created. The most innovative technology in the classroom will ultimately have little staying power with students without a teacher who has built relationships and shown students they want to give them freedom to create, explore, and innovate. Students continually receive feedback, just as teachers do, and I believe they respond more positively when the feedback is “I trust you and want to help unlock your creativity and passion”.
Recent project where students were to document their understanding of the structure of an atom. They were given the choice to use any device or means they wanted. When given choices to be innovative, students can do amazing things.
One of the biggest “buzz-phrases” in education right now is “meet students where they are”. This is true in many ways, including both meeting kids where they are academically and also where they are in the real world. Teachers can’t focus on empowering students without first engaging them. Over time, I have discovered the power behind student engagement, and how it is intertwined with relationships, classroom environment, and empowering students. Lately, the questions I have been asking myself have moved from “how can I bring innovation to my content” – to – “how can I bring content to various, innovative techniques?” Often times, in order to answer that question, I have to take risks in my classroom.
Risk-taking in the classroom is not something that should be feared, but rather something that should be embraced. I have taken quite a few risks over the last few months, whether it was a new activity, or a new digital tool we were going to try. I have learned how important it is to be honest and upfront with your students. I have often told them, “we are going to try this, because I think it could be really awesome… and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else that could be really awesome.” Because I have built strong relationships, I am comfortable having those conversations with my students. It enforces to them that I want them to have an awesome experience in my classroom and that it is important to me they WANT to be there. Here are some possible classroom risks that you can take, and some of which I have done the past few months:
There are so many more ways to innovate and take risks in the classroom than what I have just mentioned. You are likely thinking of new stuff everyday, and wondering “will that work with my kids, because it could be awesome”. I would encourage you to take that risk. Creating a culture of risk taking in your classroom can often times be the key to unlocking students creativity and innovative mindsets. Go into this understanding that not every risk you take is going to pay off. There will be times when something seems like a good idea, and it completely falls flat. The awesome thing about creating a culture of risk-taking is that your students will eventually begin throwing out ideas and new things to try. Although that idea may frighten some, that’s exactly when you know students are engaged, taking charge of their learning, and pursuing their passions. An innovative mindset is always asking, “is there a better way?”
I dedicated my first blog post to the importance of becoming a “connected” educator. I will keep beating this drum as long as I can, mainly due to the difference it has made in my own life. Becoming a connected educator five months ago completely changed my paradigm and professional trajectory. Of all the benefits being connected has had for me, one of the most important has been the push to be innovative. We are truly affected by the environment we are in and who we surround ourselves with. Social media outlets, such as Twitter, have allowed me to surround myself with other educators who have an innovative mindset. Sure, there are tons of ideas, activities, and plans you can “steal” from each other when you are connected. However, the bigger thing for me is the growth mindset and motivation that is just a “push of a button” away. Every time I participate in a Twitter #edchat or read a blog post from a member of my #PLN (Professional Learning Network), I come away motivated and eager to continue to learn and grow. I have found I take this mindset into my classroom, and it is often the inspiration for many of the risks I take. I love reading about new ideas, techniques, practices, and risks that people are taking with their students. While I often times see something I like and try with my kids, I ALWAYS, walk away thinking about what I can do differently and how I can be more innovative in my classroom. We live in a time when we literally have the entire world at our fingertips, and continued growth and innovation demands we take advantage of that.
Joe Robison is a Middle School Science Teacher in Valdez, Alaska. He is passionate about connecting with kids, building relationships, and innovating in his classroom. He enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife, Wylie, and their four small children. You can follow Joe on Twitter @joerobison907.