In What Ways Might We Empower The Voices Of All Learners To Create A Culture Of Innovation?

This post was written by Michael Buist and Tara Martin as part of The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC).

Do yourself a favor. Watch this video, at least the first 45 seconds.

Why are these events unsettling? Do the actions make you frustrated? Of course they do. How dare someone cut a delicious cake into such random pieces. It’s downright criminal to mix Skittles and M&Ms. Who folds paper like that?

Or are you intrigued? Are you wondering who made the rules these people are breaking?

If you are intrigued, then maybe you’re an innovator, a questioner, a skeptic. And that’s exactly what our students need. We are in the business of creating the most memorable experiences for all learners – students and teachers – in our schools; therefore, we need to empower all the stakeholders to speak out and voice their opinions (arguments?) for innovative practices.

While brainstorming the ways we might empower ALL learners to create a culture of innovation, Tara and I asked the following questions:

  • What might the most innovative school in the world LOOK like?
  • What might the most innovative school in the world SOUND like?
  • What might the most innovative school in the world FEEL like?

For the purpose of this blog, I will consider the questions above from the student standpoint. While Tara, Curriculum Facilitator, from Lawrence, Kansas, will emphasize answers from the teachers, faculty and staff viewpoint.

What Might the Most Innovative School in the World Look Like?

For students…

The most innovative school in the world could look like a science fiction novel” (paraphrasing Mai Lihn, Knox Gifted Academy 5th grader)

Just imagine the classroom of the future. Interactive computer screens. Virtual reality pods. Transporter rooms. Imagine the furniture. Hover chairs. Tables that transform based on specific needs at the touch of a button.

If we empower our students to speak up and give them a voice, we can create this learning environment. It might not look exactly like the classroom described above yet. But if we don’t put our number one customer at the heart of the design phase of schools and classrooms, then we’re destined to create static, uninteresting spaces that meet the needs of no one.

“People collaborating. People blueprinting. People building. People planning.” (Nate, Knox Gifted Academy 5th grader)

For a second be a fly on the wall of Nate’s most innovative classroom. Do his ideas seem too far-fetched? Not really. In fact, Nate knows that collaboration and planning are what teams of people do everyday. He also knows that developing these skills at an early age will empower him to build upon these and utilize them in the workforce of the future.

For teachers…(from Tara)

I asked my professional learning network on Twitter, “What might the most innovative school in the world look like?” Here’s what a few of them had to say:

As the educators above responded, I couldn’t help but think of an article I read from The Business Insider The 13 Most Innovative Schools in the World in 2015. At the onset, the article Chris Weller describes how the “look” of an innovative school can vary quite a bit.

“It can be a floating school in an impoverished region, like the one in Lagos, Nigeria. Or it can be a school that’s blind to gender, like Egalia, in Stockholm, Sweden.” Click here to see the full article.

As I read the above article, I didn’t see any students taking long, laborious tests, or practicing with worksheets, but rather learning by doing and quite possibly the will, do as Jared Speight mentioned above, record their journey in a digital portfolio. Wouldn’t that be a nice shift from standardized tests? While the innovative schools might take on many “looks” one common thread seem to be ever present, the teacher was NOT at the front of the room lecturing but rather engulfed in the learning process. I believe the most innovative school will, as George Couros says, “operate as if we should all be “learners,” as opposed to the students being the only learners.”  

What Might the Most Innovative School in the World Sound Like?

For students…

It sounds like a beautiful hum of ideas.” (Mai Lihn)

“Planning. Collaboration. Communication.” (Nate)

Since our students have a voice in this innovative classroom, we must honor their ideas and let conversations happen, let questions be answered, let answers be questioned. We must allow them to collaborate and to struggle with disagreements and experience successes. This hum of ideas enables students to own their learning and take responsibility for the directions the classroom is heading.

For teachers…(from Tara)

The sound of an innovative school from a teacher standpoint, would be collaborating, sharing their learning via social media, blogging, developing podcast reflections, vlogging, etc. All of these mentioned outlets for sound require the teacher to reflect. Therefore, among the hum of an innovative school is one of a teacher reflecting and sharing their learning. I’d imagine this hum would sound much like what Tracy Sockalosky described above–that of the #IMMOOC Twitter feed.  

What Might the Most Innovative School in the World Feel Like?

For students…

It feels like a surge of excitement, inspiration, and a well of good feelings.” (Mai Lihn)

“Better than worksheets, like my classmates and I could do anything. Energizing. Positive. Exciting. Creative” (Nate)

It’s 2017. Everything should feel better than a pile of worksheets. Nate recognizes the importance rote learning, regurgitating information limits his potential. Remove the worksheets and the classroom feels alive. So let’s dip into Mai Lihn’s well of good feelings and sprinkle innovation in our classrooms.

For teachers…(from Tara)

The culture of an innovative school is one that not only students but teachers, staff and the school community feel empowered to, as Justin stated above, “pursue their interest, goals, and dreams.” All stakeholders would feel a “spirit full of energy, enthusiasm, and imagination,” as Tracy mentioned. In fact, Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf say it like this in Lead Like a Pirate, “Culture first, culture last, culture always.” In an innovative school, the culture of learning and risk-taking will be ever present and felt by those who so much as step inside the building.

Our Vision

If we want to create a culture of innovation that empowers the voices of all learners, we must be willing to embrace the idea that there are no one-size fits all. In fact, “innovation” in and of itself means as George Couros defines, “something new and better.” If our culture promotes and empowers all learners, it will be ever changing its “look.” However, the principles stated when answering the questions above, will likely be visible no matter what the shape or contents of the building.

For what are we waiting? This innovative culture in education is not something to hope for in the future; it’s something to attain right here and NOW! It requires us to ACT! Are you ready?

In what ways will YOU empower the voices of all learners to create a culture of innovation?

Bet You’re Looking Forward to That

BARBERSHOP flickr photo by michelle.boesch shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The barbershop is and always will be a place where both customers and employees bare their souls. But sometimes it’s better to keep or mouths shut.

Taking a break from my #IMMOOC Buddy Blog with Tara Martin (@TaraMartinEDU) – stay tuned for that – I went to get a haircut. By the way, on Friday at 12:30pm in Queen Creek, AZ everyone is wanting a haircut. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. And while I waited, I played Pokemon Go and was excited to hear what new Gen2 Pokemon my students caught over Spring Break. It just one of the ways I connect with a handful of the 111 Knox Gifted Academy 5th graders.

After my name was called and I was summoned to the barber’s chair, the conversation went something like this:

Barber: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a teacher.”

Barber: “Are you on break?”

Me: “I’ve been on break for nearly two weeks. I go back on Monday.”

Barber: “Bet you’re looking forward to that.”

Me: “Actually I am.”

Barber: “That sounds like work. I can’t stand working. Don’t get me wrong. I love the paycheck, just not the job.”

What’s not to get wrong about this statement? Here’s my takeaway from this conversation. If I ever start thinking, feeling, believing that being a teacher is less than a passion, that it becomes a job, it is time for me to go to barber college.

By the way, Team Valor FTW!


Starting from Scratch #IMMOOC

Tight flickr photo by Qwedgeonline shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

If I were to create a school, I’d fill it with trust. Trust among faculty. Trust between teachers and parents. Trust between teachers and students. Trust among students. Trust between the school and the community.

I get it. Trust is earned, never given. So it would take time to fill. But I’d never stop trying. I’d encourage everyone to try something new. To trust the process. To trust that failing is part of learning. That trust takes time and hard work and causes egos to be bruised and feelings to get hurt.

As the school is being filled with trust, it would become a place where everyone could take (responsible) risks. It would become a place where individual strengths would become collective strengths. Where weaknesses would lead to learning, to discovery, to passions being uncovered. School would become a place where people couldn’t wait to be and where no one would ever want to leave.

“Trust each other again and again. When the trust level gets high enough, people transcend apparent limits, discovering new and awesome abilities of which they were previously unaware.” – David Armistead

What’s Wrong with Science Fairs?


It’s not that I have something against science fairs. What I have a problem with is how students in 2017 are expected to showcase their scientific, mathematical, and written knowledge.

I’ve been teaching in one district for 19 years now, and students are still using tri-fold display boards just like they did my first year as a 6th grade teacher. The format hasn’t changed much, yet how I students present other knowledge had changed immensely.

From now on, just say no to display boards and yes to the numerous other engaging ways to share our learning.

Our Learning Spaces

flickr photo by buistbunch shared under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

For the past week I’ve been stressing about the best way to showcase the unique learning spaces of our 5th grade team at Knox Gifted Academy. The space is unique (four open classrooms). The kids are unique. The work they do is unique. But why should I be the one to tell you about our learning spaces? Why shouldn’t I have a 5th grader take you on a tour?

Hope you enjoy Keegan’s 360 degree tour of our learning spaces.

I know our 5th graders would love to see your learning spaces. Send us a picture or two or some video. Link them in the comments.

100+ One Little Words

flickr photo by buistbunch shared under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

If you had to choose one word that would define and guide and shape an entire year, what word would you choose? Would it be a noun? A verb? Perhaps an adjective or an adverb? And could your word be considered multiple parts of speech?

Would your word define you at school? At work? At home? Would it guide you as a brother or sister, mother or father? Would it guide you as a friend or teammate?

Would your word change based on time of year, place, or situation?

So, what would your one little word be?

Today was the start of the second semester and, like the previous two years, my teammates and I challenged our fifth graders to select their one little word for 2017 using a variety of blog posts. But they did so much more than that. Using a Google Form, students identified which articles they read and inspired them, indicated what they found interesting about another’s writing, and shared why they chose their word. Next, with access to the survey data, students asked peers various questions about their words.

To follow up with the one little word activity, students are using Adobe Spark to create avatars for their Edmodo and G-Suite accounts. They are also constructing representations of their words, which will be in display at the end of the week.

Choosing a word, making an avatar, and a physical representation are simply tasks, activities to engage students on the first week back from school. What’s more remarkable are the depths these fifth graders went to in choosing their words. The reasons behind their words.

I chose the word become, because I want to become a leader, become a helpful person, become a part of the KGA 5th family. I want to become my best.

I chose foundation, because its the most important part of making or creating anything. Lets say a building, for example. If there was no foundation, there is no building. And since I am only a kid, a ten year old, I have many things to add to my craft, and it could be many things like building, knowledge, and many other things!

I chose the word cascade, because I think a TON about what I say or think before I say my thoughts. I basically filter my decisions, and end up not writing down ideas. Like if I think, “the science of studying how lettuce grows would be a cool experiment!” But then I think about how it would take a while, and we already have lettuce in my garden, and then how I would most likely become desperate, and eat the lettuce on my lunch. But with the experiment, I could have started a new evolution of farming! So my basic thought is don’t hold back, give it all you’ve got.

Deep, right? And there are so many more phenomenal words with phenomenal reasons by phenomenal fifth graders, 10 year olds! Check out the rest of their words and the reasons behind the words.

So what’s your word? And why did you choose it? I know 112 fifth graders who’d love to know.