Innovations in Learning - Steve Barkley

Innovations in Learning

I recently retweeted a blog by Wil Richardson that received many retweets of my retweet. Here is the statement from his blog that I tweeted:

innovation in schools today is far too focused on improving teaching, not amplifying learning.

 Richardson’s blog, titled Stop Innovating in Schools. Please., identifies the need to shift the agency for learning to the learner. “As author Seymour Sarason says, the overarching purpose of school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world when they leave us.” When I was working with a Texas school district recently, we were exploring how to define a “high level of learning.” We centered on the thought that if students left a course with more questions that they wanted to explore than what was covered in the course, we were on the way to high/deep learning.

march 20

Richardson identifies that: “As learners ourselves, we know that real learning that sticks with us over time occurs when it’s built on passion, when it has an authentic purpose and audience, when it’s relevant to our lives in the moment and beyond, when it’s not constrained by time, and more.” You can view Richardson’s exploration of how “what we believe about how students learn” and “how we design what happens in schools” doesn’t match here.

I found another interesting presentation addressing learning about thinking on a TEDx video of Paul Rulkens, Why the Majority is Always Wrong. His opening story about Albert Einstein illustrates the thinking/learning opportunities we need to provide for students. Supposedly in 1942, Einstein, while teaching at Oxford University, gave an exam to senior physic students that was identical to an exam he had given them a year earlier. When questioned by a graduate assistant as to why he would do that, Einstein responded that while the questions were the same, the answers were different.

Rulkens illustrates the critical connection of the answers changing to our world today. He states that what got you to this point won’t get you to the next one. “If you want to get different results than what you are getting you need to do different things.” He goes on to explore that working within the norms tends to lock people into current practices which locks them into similar results. Do you seek different outcomes for your school’s learners? Are the current norms for teaching and learning limiting the changes necessary to gain a dynamically different outcome? Does your school need innovations in learning to get the results you seek?


I believe we need to examine teachers’ thinking outside the norms to gain the changes/innovations needed for increased learning. Often I find PLCs working more within the norms than pushing the existing boundaries. I have shared with principals that one way to know that PLCs are effective is that they continually create problems for school leaders… they push the norms and perceived boundaries.

Here are two recent experiences of possibilities that emerge when teams step around the perceived norms:

A leadership team was examining the need to schedule needed professional development sessions to support staff with several new instructional programs that the district had adopted. If they used the existing scheduled time in the teachers’ day for the PD, it would take the time away from PLCs. The conversation was weighing the choice between the two. I suggested exploring another direction. What did they find if they divided the total number of students by the total number of staff who could be responsible for a group of students? They had a12 students to one staff ratio. That meant that if half the staff worked with 24 students, half the staff could be free for a professional development session. Switch staff and in a morning the whole staff could have had 90 minutes in PD and students could have quality learning experiences. At this point numerous options emerged for what to accomplish during the block of time with learners. One idea was for teachers to take students from two grade levels and work in peer teams K-3, 1-4, 2-5. Another idea was for two teachers to develop a three-hour plan and then split who did the first vs second half. I believe additional staff learning and relationships would emerge from either of these plans.

A grade level team of four has been partnering as two teams sharing instructional responsibilities. One member of the team teaching reading to both classes and the other doing math. Then each taught her own class for writing, social studies, and science. Next year there will be three sections at the grade level instead of four.  The teachers concluded they wouldn’t be able to specialize next year. I suggested that rather than splitting job assignments, they consider becoming a team with all three teachers responsible for the learning of 80 students in all contents. Then in ongoing team planning they would decide how to best meet student needs with teachers’ strengths and interest. In a brief amount of time we generated five different possibilities for flexible schedules. Countless options are possible. Teacher enthusiasm grew as they saw empowerment in problem-solving.

How do you use your leadership to have staff and students challenge norms to enhance learning?

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