7 Essentials that Foster a Culture of Learning and Innovation

I have had the opportunity to engage with leaders in the monthly Vista Unified School District’s Personalized Learning Challenge Steering Committee. Guided by the district’s Blueprint for Excellence and Innovation, there are 8 schools embarking on a personalized learning challenge and true to form, each school is personalizing and creating a model that meets the needs of their community, learners and culture. 

The district, led by Superintendent Devin Vodicka, aspires to create the model of personalized learning.  To do this, they have involved diverse stakeholders at every turn to ensure they are inclusive and thoughtful as they forge the path from standardization to personalization in education. One of the key elements is the monthly meetings facilitated by Matt Doyle that provides a space to collaborate with students, community members and partners from diverse sectors to understand the needs and how to create the environment to ensure powerful opportunities for students in Vista.

Many districts are beginning to challenge traditional paradigms in schools, and although I don’t believe there is any magic formula, there are certain conditions that foster innovation. As George Couros describes in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, leaders that create a culture of learning and innovation empower educators and students to do amazing things. As I heard each of the principals share their excitement about their school’s journey, I noticed several components that contributed to the culture of learning and innovation.

  1. Shared Vision– Rather than creating a vision and sharing it with all stakeholders, Vista is embarking on this journey to create a shared understanding of the vision and they work through various models and explore what it means to personalize learning. As they have begun to explore new ideas, diverse stakeholders have taken ownership in the development process. Together- leaders, teachers, families and the community are pushing boundaries and supporting each other to design learning experiences that meet the needs of their unique population.
  2. Co-creation– Having a shared vision, doesn’t mean that there is one way to achieve it. As one of the principals began to share she said she felt guilty for not having the plan for what personalized learning looked like at her school to start the year but quickly realized the power in co-creating this plan with her staff. It’s sometimes a struggle to work through and as one teacher told me, some days it seems as if there is nothing that is worth replicating but I always learn from our challenges. Through collaboration, reflection and multiple iterations, there are lessons learned that inform next steps in powerful ways.
  3. Risk-taking– One by one, each of the leaders shared how they were challenging the status quo- whether it was through creative scheduling, allocating resources, use of space, or what they were using (or not using) for curriculum. As the committee listened and even cheered each other on and nobody got “in trouble”, I noticed more sharing and more confidence in their efforts. Students and parents alike spoke up to question ideas too. A community has been established to explore new ideas and support one another along the way. They support one another but will also challenge to take their ideas further and continue to innovate to improve student outcomes.
  4. Learning Environment–  Throughout this journey, the conversations have focused less on the space or the device but more are about the mindset and how we push boundaries to make a difference for learners. The learning environment is a critical piece and must be attended to as the environment you’re in shapes your behavior according to Gibson’s Affordance Theory.  This iLab video that was shared at the first meeting is a great example of the influence of the environment.  Innovative spaces can be inspiring but to make an impact in how we learn in new and different ways, attending to how we use these spaces and interact with one another in essential. 
  5. Connect and Share- Innovation requires time and commitment and it is important to share the success along the way. Each of the leaders are intently focused on the people they serve and in their quest to personalize learning, they attend to relationships with families, community members, colleagues and students. They come together as leaders on a monthly basis to share and learn from and with each other. At the site level, principals like Ben Gaines takes time to meet with teachers and gives them a choice of meeting in his office or a walking meeting (which most choose the latter).  While, Eric Chagala started a book club to drive learning and connect teachers across campus. Using the hashtag #wave, they constantly share highlights and promote the great work throughout the district.  These are just a few of the many examples of how leaders are investing in people and their ideas to create something new and better for everyone.
  6. Reciprocal Accountability– After each team shares, the group reflects on the big ideas and lessons learned to inform next steps.  The teams are accountable to one another to try new things and learn about what works and what doesn’t. All stakeholders collectively determine what to stop doing and start doing to move towards the vision in order to create powerful learning for all.
  7. Build on Strengths– Last but not least is the focus on strengths throughout the district (thanks to the work of Ed Hidalgo and his @Thinkabit_Lab team ).  This focus permeates all work and is a pillar of the personalized learning journey. By building on the strengths of educators and students, learning and innovation flourishes. Many students have shared how they were motivated by their personalized learning journey.  Two 4th grade students captured the sentiment of many when they described how they took a survey and were able to choose a class that aligned with their strengths and interests. As a result one student took a coding class and another student was able to be part of the school’s new crew and work on broadcast journalism.

Dr. Vodicka shared that rigid procedures, although well intentioned to keep things simple, often limit creativity. The challenge he sets for the group is to keep things simple to scale but not be so prescriptive that others are limited in their ability to make decisions at the school level to personalize for their learners.  Creating a culture where learning and innovation are encouraged and supported are critical to creating schools that meet the needs of our students today and in their future.

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