Building a culture of innovation within public schools.

The following is an excerpt from my dissertation, which I will defend next week. It was a great experience, and really opened my eyes to what great schools are doing to be relevant to students in the information age.

(All sections Copyright ©2013 Anthony VonBank)


            This case study dissertation examines the implementation of digital technology in a mid-sized public school district in southern Minnesota. The methodology involved unstructured interviews and close observation of several teachers, administrators and related staff in the junior-senior high building. These observations were presented in informative vignettes that help to tell the story of the culture of innovation in this school, as well as highlight some of the implementation strategies that aid this school and district in meeting its goal to meet all learners in a 21st century society.  The study identifies common barriers such as staff resistance, funding, and technology equity among students, as well as identifying some positive strategies that have met these challenges in an effective way. The resulting information paints the picture of a district that uses digital technology to build an innovative culture.

From Discussion and Conclusions

Building this culture of innovation around the integration of digital technology and other 21st century skills allows this district to stay nimble and responsive, not simply to the whims of governmental entities, but to the needs of the students themselves. In a sense, the culture in this school is a challenge: how can we do what they say we should in the way we believe to be the most appropriate and effective? This challenge is met successfully by a large group of faculty and the administration team.

Public schools wishing to build a similar culture of innovation based on 21st century skills and digital integration must build a shared vision of success based on the following directives:

  1. Refocus administration entities around collaboration and research, not control. School leaders need to be the most knowledgeable in the district on the state of education and the 21st century reform philosophy. They also need to see their role as inspiration, not management alone. The key to building this kind of culture is not about linear hierarchy, but collaboration.
  2. Empower faculty. The strength of the culture of innovation is in the faculty. When faculty are accustomed to the idea that experimentation is good, that collaboration is important, that piloting new technologies or strategies is expected, it opens up the culture to allow for authentic action research and development of best practices.
  3. Focus on development as a process not a goal. Faculty need to understand that effective teaching will change frequently to keep the pace of a changing society. The technology that is being used will certainly change or be replaced. Work toward the goal of educators seeing learning as an ever-changing landscape, rather than a skill to master is crucial. This culture values how we learn just as much, perhaps more, than what we have learned. It helps students to see that the information itself may become obsolete, but the learning process will always be paramount to success. When students understand the process of learning, the tools that can be utilized, and leverage information instead of just memorizing it, knowledge becomes a transformative experience.
  4. Embrace digital technology, not just the digital tool. The school in this case endeavored to keep the focus on understanding the potential for digital tools and strategies, without becoming enamored with one singular device or platform. For instance, while the district is investing heavily in Apple iPads as a 1:1 initiative, the superintendent was quick to point out that these devices are what they are using now. He makes clear that the device does not limit their scope or vision, and that they are ready for this initiative to evolve into a completely different use of digital technology in the future.
  5. Address governmental standards as challenges to innovate, not to remain grounded. The standards expected of schools can be reconciled in the 21st century because at the very essence of the standards-based structure remains a vision for what is best for students. While these philosophies may have specific incongruities, there exists ways to remain faithful to the standards required and the evolution desired. The implementation of digital technology can be leveraged in order to meet goals in ways that still value the process of learning in the 21st century


(All sections Copyright ©2013 Anthony VonBank)




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