HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Beware the Aisle of Abandoned Innovations
I followed the principal as she showed me around the school where I, just out of grad school, was doing the day’s professional development session. As we walked through the Teacher Resources section of the school library, a set of bookshelves caught my eye. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, that…,” the principal replied sheepishly.
It turns out that “that” was what I’ve come to call the Aisle of Abandoned Innovations, each dusty curriculum guide (some still shrink-wrapped) representing a dashed hope of creating lasting change, or at least of meaningfully addressing a pressing concern, in the school. While many of these ancient artifacts were about subject matter (a new approach to teaching languages or social studies), others (gasp!) had to do with the sort of thing I’d come to talk about, initiatives in the social and emotional realm (such as bullying prevention, mental health promotion, positive psychology, mindfulness, diversity and inclusion, values, community building, etc.).
A note about terminology: I’m using the term innovation broadly. If an initiative that requires a shift in practice or focus that is new to your school, it is an innovation regardless of whether it is hot off the presses and uses on all the current jargon, or whether it was rescued from someone else’s Aisle of Abandoned Innovations.
I’ve since discovered a similarly dusty, sad-looking space in many schools I’ve visited. To some extent, this is the result of a natural process. There are many reasons to innovate. Things change. Curricula go out of date, social changes occur, staffs turn over. New practices develop to address emerging challenges, and we want to “stay current.” We and our staff want to learn and grow. And if we do a bunch of PD sessions or introduce some new initiatives and a few new ideas stick, dayenu, right?
This reasoning can lead to taking the Aisle of Abandoned Innovations for granted, as an inevitability. Of course we need a place to keep putting new materials from the last innovation; there will always be a next innovation, on a completely different topic, with more materials. However, it is often the case that Jewish day schools are challenged not by too few innovative new initiatives, but by too many. Rapidly Cycling Innovation Syndrome (RCIS) is at epidemic levels. Each back-to-school season and PD day brings some new exciting idea and practice. Every student assembly or series of discussions introduces some new theme. Each workshop, retreat, “special issue” of a publication and conference has its own topic.
There are downsides of RCIS that are seldom acknowledged, though we have all seen the signs. These challenges relate to two sets of learners: students and staff. Both groups receive mixed messages about the importance of each new innovation. Last year’s priority focus is mothballed when this year’s is rolled out. Perhaps you’ve seen staff members appear skeptical about a PD session—and express that skepticism with rolling eyes and inattention? This is understandable if their expectation is that this is just one among many initiatives that sound great, but are destined for banishment to the Aisle of Abandoned Innovations. Perhaps students “don’t take seriously” the time they are asked to spend with the new initiative, or they take it seriously but soon forget it even happened? They’ve gotten the message too: This is not part of what really matters in the school.
Further, RCIS favors activities that are limited in their scope and are therefore likely to be limited in their impact. Wellness Week. A Day of Diversity. A Moment of Middot. Mindfulness in first semester, sixth grade, Mondays from 9 to 9:15. Perhaps these are provided by outside experts who put on a high-quality program, with little to no followup. Or they involve activities delivered by teachers on a time-limited basis.
These sort of innovations are based on an inoculation approach to learning. Though often unstated, the assumption is that limited exposure to a new idea or practice will create ongoing impact that will see learners through indefinitely. This oversimplifies the complexity of what we ask of both our staff and students. For our staff, it ignores what Robert Evans calls the “human side” of change, the process of changing what might be long-standing patterns of behavior in the face of an immense set of already-existing responsibilities. For students, it assumes that their experience with a short-term intervention will provide them the wherewithal to enact new values and behaviors throughout the complexity of their lives. For all, it gives the false impression that we’ve “solved” a complex issue and can move on.
The treatment and prevention of RCIS
Innovations often take the form of good intentions to stay current and to address new issues that have arisen or taken on increased importance. It is possible to achieve these intentions while avoiding RCIS by providing linkages among ongoing and new initiatives and by accounting for the need for innovators to learn and grow.
Link new initiatives to existing priorities
As a first step to developing linkages among initiatives, it is worth conducting an inventory of existing initiatives. What’s in place in what grades for what duration? Where are the gaps? If solid efforts are already in place, it is worth supporting and augmenting these, not introducing an innovative “disruptor.”
Linkages can happen on two levels. First, a set of values or virtues can be helpful in organizing and linking efforts. Which values or virtues are best for this? This is a question that needs to be explored in each setting; there is no abstract answer. Jewish tradition provides middot and sensibilities; values also can be found in character education and positive psychology. Pick a handful of core values, not a laundry list. The goal is to provide a framework that will be in the forefront of the minds of everyone in your school community. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is that you and your community engage with them on an ongoing basis and use them to help shape the initiatives you take on. Where are our strengths in terms of our work with kavod? Where are we falling short? Where do we need to be better at treating people as created betzelem Elohim? New innovations should be taken on in support of ongoing, articulated value-priorities, not as ends onto themselves.
The second linkage concerns enactment of these values on the ground. There should be recurring efforts to prompt for and reinforce desired outcomes over time and to practice and apply them to new situations. Doing that requires integration of initiatives over time and across settings (Jewish and general studies, guidance, behavioral policies, etc.) in a school. Creating linkages might require adapting any new initiative to fit your site’s existing strengths and needs, to build on what students have experienced, to reinforce existing language.
What competencies should form this foundation? The five categories developed by the Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (casel.org) are quite useful: self-awareness; social awareness; self-management; relationship skills; and responsible decision-making. These are empirically linked with many positive developmental outcomes, and they are conceptually linked with any and all of the values that might drive your efforts.
Consider the needs of staff for growing expertise
If you are engaging members of your school community in an innovation, you are likely asking them to change routines, juggle priorities and move out of whatever comfort zone of balance they have achieved within the creative, controlled chaos that sometimes characterizes a classroom or school. They need room and support to grow. Teachers can find the new expectations that accompany innovation to be exhilarating. They also can find them to be disempowering and cause for self-doubt, as they are called to implement practices that may seem foreign to them, and to do so while continuing the work they’ve been doing. At the very least, they should know that their efforts to learn to implement a new initiative won’t have a short shelf life; they should be able to trust that their investment will continue to be valued.
Your staff also need ongoing support to enact a new program or curriculum within the concrete context of their classroom and learners. They should have a say in how the program develops, and have opportunities to share ideas with one another and to troubleshoot with their peers. Support from outside is important as well. Networking with other schools can provide ideas and inspiration. Ongoing relationships with expert consultants and PD providers are often needed. While it is tempting to think that the job of these experts can be “taken on internally,” the responsibility for tasks such as continuing training, program adaptation and troubleshooting, integration with other initiatives and more are often handed to an already-busy staff member.
All of this takes time and resources and, because no one has unlimited supplies of both, decisions need to be made. If time and effort are to be expended on new initiative X, what is the impact on a teacher’s already-packed schedule? Does our push to innovate result from an assessment of a long-term commitment, or is it a symptom of Rapidly Cycling Innovation Syndrome?
Take a Learning Community Approach to Innovation
Innovation does not result from good ideas alone. A cutting-edge, well-researched, fun and catchy initiative, with all sorts of bells and whistles that speaks to the need of the moment, is completely worthless if it is not implemented, or implemented without giving a chance for ongoing learning on the part of both students and teachers. Students need to develop their competency in the area targeted by a new initiative. Teachers need to develop skills in implementing it. Both will need to be treated with patience, and both face paths that are nonlinear. Both groups need to know that the goals they are working toward and the efforts they are making to achieve these are valued, and will continue to be valued, by others in the community.
In this way, a school’s investment to stay current and address emerging issues takes place in the context of ongoing learning and growth. Rather than continuing to populate the Aisle of Abandoned Innovations, the school can develop an Archipelago of Integrated Efforts, with staff empowered to build bridges and students able to find ongoing support for their journeys over the course of time.
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As Jewish day school leaders seeking to nurture and implement successful educational innovation, much can be learned......
The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.
Want your own hard copy of the issue? Print one out at Blurb.com.