May 9, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s May 2017 newsletter.)

As much as I have written about and advocated “innovative” approaches to teaching and learning, I’ve had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with the “I Word.” Too often we’ve observed schools incorporate the “Next Big Thing” into some small corner of their academic program and then hail themselves as “innovators.” I’ve been a strict constructionist on innovation: to me, true innovation involves something being done in a completely new and unique way—it can be an adaptation, maybe even an iteration, but it’s not just throwing on a new coat of paint.

The “I Word” that I have always preferred in educational discourse has been intentional. Having perhaps passed through and then for some years participated in a kind of education in which chapter sequences and section review questions defined curriculum, I have the born-again’s zeal for educational practice driven by thought-out purpose—complex learning goals, carefully designed learning experiences, assessments tuned to the goals. I even used my “I Word” in the title of my book about teaching.

In April I had the rare privilege of attending a couple of significant professional events and then having some actual unassigned time to reflect on them. The ICG’s Academic Leaders Retreat Pacific was an intense and moving personal experience, a combination of learning, bonding, and Monterey sunsets—opportunities to make new friends and stimulation to think about all kind of things in new ways. The ATLIS (Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools) National Conference in Los Angeles was a whole other sea of revelation: a young and burgeoning organization feeling its oats and a tidal race of educational cross-currents blending curriculum, pedagogy, school policy, edtech, and futurism.

Although I missed the final moments as I raced to make a cross-country train home, I did manage to catch the first half of Tim Fish’s closing keynote at ATLIS. Tim is an old friend and a friend of the ICG (and one of our earliest podcast guests), and as Chief Innovation Officer at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) his work is tightly bound to an “I Word.”

One of the better-received little jests at the ICG Retreat had been a comment from one participant that if she had to visit another school’s “maker space” she wanted to have in her hand a Maker’s Mark; too often schools get all excited about their “spaces” and the gadgetry with which they are stocked without being able to communicate the educational substance behind their investment. (Another friend has idly wondered when the first school will giddily announce a “1-to-1 Three-D Printer program.”)

Tim went right there, talking about all the hands-on learning spaces and programs he has been invited to see in his travels for NAIS. For Tim, however, it isn’t about the spaces, the gadgets, or even, strictly speaking, the programs. He realized that what he is really being invited to see is what he calls agency—what students can do when given inspiration, tools, resources, and the freedom to put these all together—what happens, in his words, “when the adults get out of the way.” The “innovative” things Tim sees are in fact a manifestation of a larger and more powerful innovative spirit, what happens when the intent behind a new culture of learning becomes the freeing of each student’s potential based on the needs of the kid and the culture, aims, values, and resources of the school. No longer is school about mere compliance with narrow expectations.

And gradually, as Amtrak’s Southwest Chief lumbered toward Chicago, a new notion of innovation took shape in my mind. When schools are being intentional—attentive to all the nuanced needs and interests of their students and thoughtful about and committed to the implications of their missions and values in the fullest sense—everything they do is going to be novel, an act of real creativity. Since being mindful of student needs and interests in the context of school mission and values is a shortcut description of what the ICG calls “independent curriculum” and enunciates in our Principles, then independent curriculum is, in fact, innovative by definition. To enact fully independent curriculum is to innovate.

Some of my best thinking seems to happen on trains, and on this journey Amtrak came through. As I reached a stark, simple new understanding of innovation in the context of intentionality and agency, what bubbled up in my head was what feels like an apt tagline for the ICG: Innovative by Definition. I know that taglines can sometimes be dangerous—oversimplified, misleading, euphonious but phony—but for me this one works as an authentic expression of an important truth.

If nothing else, “Innovative by Definition” clarifies for me the relationship between some important concepts and aligns the ICG’s values even more securely with the most exciting and inspiring things happening in schools right now. Our ICG Principles of Independent Curriculum certainly don’t demand maker spaces, but they do, I believe, put the focus on how intentional work by schools and educators can liberate students’ powers—agency—in new, more effective, and more original ways. That’s innovation, in my book.

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