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Rethink school to create an innovation ecosystem

By Julie Randles
June 25, 2018
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All educators want to create experiences that allow students to use their strengths, do work that makes an impact and become their best selves. You could even say these ideas are the universal teacher vision.

But as educator Katie Martin discovered, it’s hard for teachers to create what they haven’t experienced. And with that revelation, it became Martin’s goal to get teachers to a place where they can create encounters for students that will help them become problem-solvers, creative thinkers and great communicators.

Make that happen, and students will be successful in an unknown future, she posits.

Martin, an education leader, teacher and author, says that the student-centered approach to learning requires an evolution in the role of the educator, a topic she'll delve into as keynote speaker at ISTE 2018 in Chicago.

Sure, we’ve acknowledged the idea of teachers moving from sage on the stage to guide on the side, but what does that look like and how can we conceptualize that role so it’s more than a trite saying?

“We kind of just push people through the motions instead of asking, ‘Who are you? What motivates you?’ instead of creating opportunities to know learners as individuals and help them find their own paths.” Martin says. “We need to do more early on to help them know what they value and care about.”

And that comes from creating what Martin calls an innovation ecosystem.

To get there, she encourages teachers to tap into the learners in their classrooms and think about what it means to be successful. “What are our goals of school, to check a box or to grow critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers? If the latter is the case, we have to rethink the classroom, the school and how we engage in the learning experience.”

Here are her steps to help educators do just that:

Become a co-designer of powerful learning. When teachers are co-designers with students, they’re focused on the learners in their classroom (including the adults), not curriculum off the shelf or implementing a particular program but on the passions, interests, goals and motivations of learners.

“When you do that, you’re thinking about the strengths of the learners in classroom so the content can be connected to the goals,” Martin explains.

Take on the role of community developer. Focus on building relationships with individual students, among students who are working together and with the larger community. This approach helps create a sense that school is a hub, a place where everyone can come together to do meaningful work.

“Instead of saying, ‘These are my rules, and everyone will follow them,’ we should be democratizing the learning environment, finding ways to learn together and supporting each other to learn in meaningful ways,” Martin says.

Be a partner in learning. Drop the notion that teachers have to know it all before they stand up and teach. When educators become learning partners, they are vulnerable, take risks and try out new things – alongside students.

“As you co-develop and connect, you go on a journey together. You say, ‘I don’t have all the answers,’ and you ask questions of people outside of education. You raise questions and problems you don’t have the solutions to and you trust learners to find the answers,” Martin says.

And the big lesson from partnering: As an educator, don’t limit students by what you know or don’t know. Instead, ask “What can you teach me?”

Connect learners to things that are interesting to them and impactful in the world. When we’re stuck thinking of schools as siloed or as happening within four walls, we lose track of connecting learners to resources and information that can fuel their passions and unleash their genius.

Instead, the evolving role of educators should include helping learners understand their passions and find the resources to build on them – beyond a textbook or the school building.

“Connect them to things they like and things they haven’t entirely thought through so they have the motivation to activate them and do something about what they’re learning,” Martin says. “There’s been a lot of talk about being a guide on the side, but sometimes you have to jump in and teach with direct instruction. And sometimes you have to broaden horizons, push boundaries or help learners create context.”

In her book, Learner-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius, Martin further unpacks her ideas about the evolving role of educators with a goal of ensuring that the exciting visions we have for learners don’t get bogged down in expectations and mandates.

“Sometimes, what we say and what we do are not what kids need to be successful in a changing world,” Martin says.


Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtech.

Don’t miss Katie's Tuesday morning keynote at ISTE 2018. Immediately after her keynote, head to ISTE Central where Katie will sign copies of her book, Learner-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius