What does it mean to innovate? Does it mean to have the latest and greatest technology classroom around? While some may think this is the case, I think the technology only plays a supportive role and can look quite different from classroom to classroom. We need to put the technology side for now and think about what’s most important before we even bring it into the conversation.

We all know technology is as important than ever in education. Ironically, technology is the first cut in school budgets. I get it. Accountability. Test scores. Data. Student Achievement. It’s easy to cut technology because it’s very hard to measure the success of technology in teaching and learning. Personally, I think think this is a very unfair comparison to make. Measuring the impact of technology is a very subjective process. Schools are measured/ranked by students’ test scores, yet in many cases the classroom environment is still a traditional one. However, I think we can do both and still make the impact we need to innovate a traditional classroom into a modern one without compromising what’s at stake.

Ken Robinson said it best, “Our education system is designed to prepare our students to become college professors.” In reality, that’s only a very small population of our students. Test scores and the “Age of Data” have suffocated classroom learning making creativity and innovation unimportant. Ken is right. Are we really “still” preparing our students to grow up to be college professors?

We need to modernize our vision when it comes to preparing our students for a future different than the one we grew up in. We need to hold our standards high and make technology a priority in how students learn and how teachers create the environments their students learn in. Simply put, technology opens up more learning possibilities and enable students to grow intellectually at much more rapid rates. It’s simply not an option anymore. It’s a right we should all have. It should be a high priority in all schools.

Here are my 8 steps on innovating a school.

Step 1: Begin by building a foundation of key decision makers
Building the right team to make the right decisions is the first step. Beginning with your strategic vision, build the plan from gorund up. Who are those stakeholders that will be directly impacted? The team should include curriculum administrators, teachers with strong curriculum backgrounds, instructional technology teachers, students, and even parents. There, I said it. If you’re going to ask students to go home and expect them to bring these ideas into the household, you’ll need support from the parents. Too often, parents are left out of decisions and a major disconnect happens on the homefront.

Craft a 3-4 year plan. Yes. This may sound aggressive, but things will look much different in 5. Write a mission statement. Clearly define and articulate your goals. Be sure to articulate the position of all stakeholders in this initiative. How will each stakeholder be accountable?

Step 2. Innovate your curriculum goals
It’s decision time. Start with your curriculum goals. Decide as a team where you want to go and how you get there. Don’t change the curriculum, change the curriculum process. Think about Project Based or Challenge Based Learning. These are frameworks teachers can use to plan units of study. The process includes framing essential questions and big ideas. These can easily connect to the curriculum you already have, yet pave a warning path for students to make more meaning out of what they are learning. The change happens within the learning activities and assessments. This is where technology plays a key role in the whole process.

Innovation is an easily tossed around concept. Many schools are creating teacher innovation positions, yet they don’t seem to grasp what innovative learning means. Innovation should exist within the process of how teachers teach an how students learn. This is the only way to crate a modern classroom where learning is relevant and students have a higher success rate. The key to great innovation is within the process of making change. Technology will play a key role on this change.

We need more innovative thinkers in schools. I once read an online article from a technology director’s perspective that said, “Stay clear of Innovators!” Hmm. Well, I also read a quote that said, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance less!” – General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U. S. Army. Innovators will bring the much needed change you’ll need. You HAVE to change. You decide which path you want. I think I know mine.

Step 3: Decide on the technology
It only took 3 steps prior to this, but this is where you will have an impact on your budget. Once you have your curriculum goals set, you can now begin to plan the technology you’ll ned to help you meet your goals. Devices have become much cheaper these days, and there is a ton of FREE tools out there.

Start with Google. Google is Free and if you aren’t a Google district, I only ask, “Why not?” The tools in google open the doors for productivity and collaboration. It allows students to work 24/7 anytime anywhere. The Google Web store has a ton of free apps and tools students and teachers can use that will transcend productivity and even open dprs for creativity.

Think about devices for students. Chromebooks and iPads are more affordable than ever and keep kid connected to the entire process. Sure, there is more leg work involved regarding responsible use, but that’s another conversation and if done right, will be least of your worries.

Focus on creative tools. iPads provide the best tools to foster creativity. Most apps are free and students can personalize their device to best suit their needs. Video creation, screencasting, and creating digital books are far superior than the traditional pencil and paper approach. Not only do they meet more learning styles, but they provide more choice for project creation. The ePubs alone are an excellent method for developing literacy.

1:1 initiatives have been the trend over the past 10 years, but is it all the hype? It certainly makes it easier in the whole process for things like consistency, grading, access etc, but why not consider mixing it up and planning extra hard for the devices that you’ll essentially needs to make things work in your curriculum goals. Remember, this is all about the curriculum goals, not the technology.

Alternatives to consider: Loaner programs, Grants, Community Donations, or Technology fees to help offset the costs.

Be creative too. Think about having the students help raise money for these fees. Bake sales, car washes, school fairs, etc. If every student could generate on average of $100, you just cut ONE THIRD of your expenses.

Lastly, most kids already have a device of some sort. Embrace that!

Then again, can you ever recall a time when you had a bake sale to offset the costs of a new textbook program that cost over $1 million? Hmm.

Step 4: Stop with the pilots.
Just do it. Pilots are meant for trying out new textbooks programs or new software implementations. We’re talking about new learning environments. Pilots give the impression, “We’re not sure about what we are doing, and if it fails we will be responsible and discontinue this idea!”

Instead, go with it. Trust your instincts. Use words like, “Phase one, Phase two”. This give your district the impression you know what you’re doing and you trust in the decisions. Leverage your early adopters and risk takers. Let them create the magic in the first year and leverage them to provide the professional learning in year two for everyone else. (More on Professional Learning in a bit…)

Step 5: Recognize the secret ingredient – trust.
The secret sauce is trust. Trust the process. Trust your teachers. Trust your leaders making these decisions. Allow room for failure. The only way to grow an initiative is through failure and recognize that you will experience bumps along the journey. Make it better in year two and year three. Trust that it will!

Step 6: Implement Professional Learning
Using the word professional learning instead of professional development sends the message of support and ongoing learning. Remember, you are all in this to learn. You are essentially building the plane in the air using diligence and critical thinking to make adjustments. Surround your teachers with all the support they need. It’s Ok to bring in outsiders to help you with your plan, BUT NEVER overlook the talent you already have on staff.

Try implementing edcamp styles of training where your own staff can create and choose their sessions to attend. You will not only build leaders, but it also brings the professional learning down to the level of every person where they don’t feel overwhelmed or out of reach with the possibilities. This also gives teachers a sense of community where they feel they can connect more easily with each other for questions and help.

Build online learning communities. All you need is a few high flier teachers to help launch a community. It’s a great way for teachers to support and learn from each other. The cost is free and is a no-brainer. Online communities such as: Twitter, Schoology, Edmodo, Google Groups are a great start!

Combine professional learning days with another school district. There, I said it. It never made sense to me why school districts tend to keep professional learning within their own building all the time. Districts are now opening their doors on a Saturday for FREE to outsiders to come and learn with them. What an excellent idea!

Other ideas: Attend a state conference. Participate in local Intermediate workshops. Attend free webinars.

Step 7: Become a marketing machine
Sounds “out-of-bounds” doesn’t it? Technically speaking, no. Marketing is not often a word we use in the education system, but it is vital to the support and growth of your initiative. Marketing includes community outreach, transparency, and continual trust building.

Marketing is also another word for publishing student work. Why else would you create such an initiative? By publishing student work, you are letting the students know, we trust you, and what you are learning is relevant. Marketing doesn’t start and stop with students, it’s also important for the teachers as well. The teachers are an important part of this whole process and they should feel trusted and supported. Showcase their classroom projects. Highlight them in board meetings. Provide PR for the great things that develop from this initiative.

Step 8: Create more leadership positions that are innovative
Technology integrators are key pieces because they help the teachers on the front lines overcome the fears of sing technology. However, modern classrooms are beyond the point of integration. We are beyond the days of learning how to send email attachments and creating a blog. Start looking for innovators who can transcend the professional learning so teachers can make deeper connections. Integrators will provide the how-tos. Innovators will provide the hows and whys.

Measure the growth through surveys. While this data will be subjective, your initiative will only be successful by the passion of the teachers and the students. They will give honest feedback. Make adjustments and keep pushing high standards. Expect excellence.

Make it a priority for administrators to partake in the process. Administrators should attend professional learning opportunities along side their teachers. They should facilitate twitter chats and lead professional learning. They should learn and utilize the tools they expect their teachers to be using in their daily routines. Just as we would expect teachers to be a model for the students, administrators are no exception to the rule. Leadership is vital and it’s highly contagious.