An Alternative Way to Innovate

A Prior Idea + Collaboration = Innovation 

Innovation has recently been a key buzzword in education. Some schools and administrators use it as a synonym for the advancement of technology and some schools often attach the word innovation with robotics, 1-1 laptops or Ipads for students, VR simulation or other engagements. However, I believe innovation can be an adaptation of a prior idea or an already established learning engagement. 

And the truth is, teachers do this all the time. I have never met a teacher who does not innovate on a daily basis. Teachers are, by their common core, fantastic innovators. They are flexible, adaptable and move quickly to keep up with the latest new education development. 

However, is there a risk factor when we innovate?

In Brene Brown’s new Netflix show ‘The Call to Courage’, she quotes ‘If you are not willing to fail you are not willing to innovate’. In education, innovation occurs regularly and educators are always willing to risk, revamp and reflect on their teaching. However, if we broaden the terms of innovation to an adaptation its true meaning can allow for students’ learning to flourish.  

In the 2018-2019 academic year the Grade 4 teachers at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong brainstormed and adapted a current unit’s summative assessment for ‘How We Organise Ourselves’. Inspired by a talk at CDNIS by Moi Litchfield (@moiferet), an innovative educator who currently teaches in Bangkok, shared her journey of risk taking regarding a similar unit and how she adapted her class’ summative to make it more authentic, engaging and student driven. Moi’s class, along with the Grade 4 students at CDNIS were exploring ways people and organisations prepare and respond to natural disasters. During her talk Moi shared her experience with the staff at CDNIS where she created a simulation of a natural disaster in her classroom and watched first hand as her students re-enacted ways to respond. Students not only shared knowledge and information they learned throughout the unit, they acted and responded to a situation and were able to put into practice the new knowledge they learned. The teachers in Grade 4 were truly inspired by Moi’s example and used her experiences to innovate and adapt an upcoming summative. 

Twitter post.png

(Twitter post from Moi’s presentation.)

What did we do in Grade 4 at CDNIS? 

Well, first of all we co-planned. A lot. We wanted to do something similar to Moi’s reproduction of a natural disaster with all 5 classes in Grade 4. That meant 125 students.

We met numerous times as the homeroom teachers, in addition we spent a morning planning with the librarian, PYP coordinator and a few specialists. Then, we invited members of the community who we thought would be involved and met with them. Our energy and enthusiasm was contagious. We were trying something new that we thought was meaningful and purposeful and we were willing to take the risk. 

So, what happened?

The whole grade 4 cohort met at 7:45 in the morning for a brief meeting. The principal came in and gave the announcement that there had been an earthquake off the coast of Alaska the night before and there was a possible typhoon warning expected for later that afternoon in Hong Kong. She presented the situation as a possible opportunity for the Grade 4 students to show their knowledge and learning and to help the school prepare. 

The students went back to their classes and debriefed on the new knowledge. Some students were excited, some students were scared, and some students were utter disbelief. They then brainstormed different committees they would form throughout the day to focus on the assignment. All the students came back to the library and divided themselves up into these committees which included the sleeping committee, the food committee, health and well-ness committee (with a focus on ways to help others if they became scared or anxious), communications and so forth. They were then given strict orders not to share this news with other grade levels, or siblings as to not scare others until we had a clear plan. The students in Grade 4 were given the rest of the day to meet, gather the appropriate information, interview experts (the communications officer, the head of the cafeteria, etc.) and then were told a specific time that we would once again meet to share the information they gathered. Although all specialists classes were cancelled for the day, the teachers were well versed in the situation and came in to guide the students’ on their own committee’s inquiry. 

Organisational chart.png(Original planning document for the day.)

So, what happened? A lot. Here are some of  the highlights:

  1. The act of critical thinking

As digital citizenship becomes more and more integrated into upper elementary along with the need to question the source of information, there was a lot of critical questioning. When I showed my students the newspaper report (that the teachers created) on the smart board, one student asked why it was on a Google Doc, and another asked why it had been edited a few minutes prior to. At another time when we were walking back to the library, a student looked out the window and pointed at the boats in the harbour and asked why they were still anchored if there was a tsunami warning. These examples were similar across the grade with numerous students. We were observing first hand the way they questioned the information we gave them and the sources we provided. 

SCMP post.png

(Teacher inspired and created news report.)

  1. Authentic collaboration through agency 

Students chose the types of committees needed and which ones they would like to join. All the teachers reflected on how each group observed students’ voice their personal knowledge and opinions, listened respectfully to others and adapted their original ideas to come up with a group plan. They were given the opportunity to work with different Grade 4 members that weren’t necessarily in their class. 

  1. The people involved

In total there were 125 students and approximately 30 adults involved in the day in some sort of format. The adults ranged from the homeroom teachers, the specialists, counsellors,  administration, front office staff, bus managers and cafeteria staff. In a school of 1800 students, the students in Grade 4 were given the chance to meet and interact with people that are part of their community that they may not have been able to before. Every adult we asked to be involved in the day immediately said yes; they were invested in our idea and the authentic learning that took place.

  1. The originality of the summative assessment

At the end of the school year, many teachers asked their students in Grade 4 what the highlights were, and many of the students spoke about this day. It was a different type of summative; we asked the students to show us what they had learned. They were given the opportunity to show their learning from over the course of the unit in a real and authentic way. The teachers clearly observed the students engaged, involved and knowledgeable.

So, what about the risks? There were many also. Here is what the teachers observed: 

  • A few students became scared, overwhelmed and anxious

It is a teacher’s worst nightmare to cause emotional (or physical) harm to a student. We spend our lives protecting the students and creating an ideal world within our class. However, this situation caused some grief amongst some of the students. A handful of students became emotional immediately after hearing the news of a possible tsunami and started crying. Often times, anxiety spreads and although it started with one girl, it moved quickly to her friends. We had notified our counsellor of this possibility, in addition to one of our teachers on our team who had counselling training. They dealt with the situation with empathy and told the students that it was a learning plan and that there was no risk at all. For those students, the teachers shared the plan for the day. This was a huge risk though as we (the teachers) questioned at different times if the scenario was too mature for the age group. 

  • Parent feedback

Parents play a very important role in education and the belief of being on the same team rooting for their child is always vital in the relationship. Parents often influence choices and actions at school as they are ultimately seen as the customers. After the day, a parent offered her feedback regarding the Grade 4 team making light of the enormity and seriousness of a tsunami and brought up the 2004 Indian earthquake tsunami as an example of its power and destructive capabilities. In addition, she brought up the idea that 9 and 10 year old students (the age of Grade 4 students) should never be put in a position where they believe they are responsible for a whole school emergency plan. Both are very important points that gave the teachers hours of reflective discussion.

So in conclusion, the Grade 4 teachers never came to a consensus on what we all thought of the day. There were differing views on some aspects of the day. Some teachers believed that the risk did not outweigh the learning, while others did. What it did do was give us a chance to take the risk and reflect upon what we would do differently. 

However, the main result was the collaboration of a new idea from a past idea that created an alternative way to innovate. The day was not only a highlight of the year for the students, but for me personally it was a highlight of my twelve years of teaching. The students’ learning was evident, however, I greatly enjoyed the collaboration, planning, excitement and learning that took place amongst the teachers. The experience showed that a prior idea and collaboration are key elements to innovation. And that innovation is a broad term that has many examples. 

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