With the Every Student Succeeds Act’s new requirements for new, more holistic, and deeper accountability for achievement, states and districts have a prime opportunity to make bold changes in their approach to teaching and learning. The law also requires wide and deep engagement with stakeholders to gather input on developing state plans to meet the law’s requirements. There is no better time to embrace new thinking on how to develop educational innovation.
District and school leaders looking to launch personalized learning should strongly consider using ‘participatory innovation’ as a core part of their efforts.
Education innovation is a hot topic; with or without descriptors like ‘disruptive' or ‘incremental,’ everyone is trying to figure out how to bring more innovation to classrooms to better engage students and produce stronger academic outcomes.
In many places, innovation in districts and schools has grown sporadically and arbitrarily, resulting in a scattered hodgepodge of innovative practices, with pockets of teachers trying various new software applications, content types, methods, and models, like blended personalized learning. Such innovation is not replicable or scalable, leading to disconnected efforts, uneven results, and frustration.
Participatory innovation is the less well-known antecedent to participatory design. What’s the difference? Whereas design can be thought of as involving the ‘how’ aspects of a new model, innovation addresses the ‘what’ aspects. Too often, we get caught up in how we are going to do something, but in organizations like districts and schools, we could benefit from a participatory process to figure out what we should we be doing in the first place. This distinction matters as there is much talk about what personalized learning is; most of the discussion centers on the design, or the how, of personalized learning. We must take a step back and figure out what it means, especially to the users implementing it, which is where participatory innovation can play a pivotal role.
Participatory innovation can help leaders launch innovative efforts at scale and avoid the scattershot approach that doesn’t yield sustainable or comprehensive change or results. It can provide a systemic process to involve users in purpose-driven innovation that is contextual, applicable, broad-based, and more easily embraced.
Borrowed from congruent ideas in social sector reform and business research and development, participatory innovation attempts to scaffold ‘ordinary’ people in their ability to contribute to innovation, rather than just relying on a small number of ‘experts’ with strong opinions. A participatory innovation project takes peoples’ practices and needs as a starting point to generate new behaviors and tactics.
Then, participatory innovation actively involves users in the innovation process. One approach to using participatory innovation in the educational context identifies the user as the teacher, as it is the teacher that can be thought of as using a particular innovation and are of greatest importance to academic success in all but the most experimental schools and classrooms where teachers are not central to the educational experience. This concept extends to content knowledge AND to pedagogical approach. Given that personalized learning requires different roles and attributes of teachers, teachers are properly identified as the “user” of a model and therefore the focus of participatory innovation.
As an example, Superintendent Ken Eastwood of the Middletown, NY school district has used — and continues to use — participatory innovation to involve teachers in developing and layering Middletown’s successful approach, where personalized blended learning fits within a larger transformational strategy.
Superintendent Eastwood and Middletown are including participants in innovation by using a phased, opt-in approach to introducing deep personalized learning through blended learning; managing the adaptive digital content curation and adoption process; moving from a wired to a fully wireless infrastructure and the related change in the technology and devices used; and perhaps the most fraught example, transitioning teacher-generated content to a different platform over the course of a summer.
Participatory innovation is more inclusive and contextually relevant than other strategies that may be top-down or externally driven.
It is best explained by Amy Creeden, Principal of Maple Hill Elementary and Middletown’s Race to the Top grant leader, “We were strategic about our thinking — we brought teachers into all phases of the design and implementation process. Teachers were on the initial readiness assessment team, they had true voice in the content curation process, and tremendous autonomy to create “their” model, provided that it met our framework. It was because of our strategy that they were highly engaged throughout the entire process.”
Participatory innovation brings together different and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Leaders have to accept that processes of innovation are messy, full of different intentions and conflict, where all participants do their best to maintain some level of control. However, it is likely that innovation emerges exactly when people are challenging each other in specific, diverse, and real-world ways. Organizing such a process must enable users — teachers — to participate in the ongoing formal and informal innovation development and to keep the conversation going, and going beyond the often ‘safe’ patterns.
Starting with participatory innovation and focusing on the ‘what’ of launching, scaling, implementing, and sustaining innovation may well prove to be the critical component to developing more successful innovative practices like personalized learning.