Innovation in Education: Learning to take Leaps

Simon Brian

Head, St Leonards School, St Andrews

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We keep telling our pupils that their lives will be characterised by the challenges of dealing with things that they’ve never seen before and I’m guilty of not pushing innovation in our School to make the very most of this educational wonder-opportunity. Teachers should be unafraid of embodying creative, innovative and original thought and action in their practices; and our young people should be urged to do the same as they make their way through life.

Such support for innovative development demands leadership that empowers others: I know that as a school leader I need to provide my staff with both time and trust to do this, though the best action is plenty of encouragement and praise at the point of inception rather than when the outcome is known and secure; I want my staff to be positively oriented towards taking risks and to embody the IB learner profile of ‘risk-taker’, where they can be comfortable (uncomfortable!) with the tension of creatively exploring new opportunities, being determined despite uncertainties, and, occasionally, having to wing it.

St Leonards’ ‘Pastries with Pedagogy’ breakfast sessions for staff were a new development this term; the catchy title appealed instantly. The aim is that through a short and focused collaborative learning and teaching session, staff feel empowered to keep thinking originally and purposefully about a specific area of their own practice, and to share and discuss innovative practice with one another.

Giving my staff the time do such things is essential – but with only 15-20 minutes to neck a coffee and wolf down a fudge donut (a genuinely golf-unrelated St Andrews perk) I’m guilty of trying to cram this in around the edges, thinking that professional learning and innovation can be squeezed into those short, slightly disjointed periods of time that remain once long-winded reports (that don’t help most children) and formal lesson observations (that don’t help most teachers) have been dutifully drafted.

But it’s a good start, and we’re moving in the right direction. Staff sense the possibilities and benefits of of their own professional learning, and they share their experiences collaboratively; they feel that little bit more empowered to think originally and they can see that a culture of risk-taking is taking shape.

One learning point for me has been about time. All our staff already do good things in the very busy and limited time they have available during the school week, and the next step for me as a Head is to take away some of those good things that they are doing, and replace them with much better things; these better things should all be tightly focused on directly progressing the learning of our young people, and reflect the innovation we value.

The second learning point for me is about trust. This should actually be easier today than ever: I’ve certainly not forgotten that at the start of the COVID pandemic teachers were thrust online and trusted to innovate with immediate effect, and they responded exceptionally. The trust that our teachers need comes from leaders who know that they themselves don’t have all the answers, and who actually welcome this position. In trying out new things, in being creative, in taking the risks to innovate, teachers need to know that they are trusted in their professional roles, and that any vulnerabilities, any critical pieces of feedback will be seen ultimately as positive steps in their development.

I know we all love to get it right, and when we innovate in schools with a safe predictable outcome it’s better than not doing so at all; but it’s the genuine risk-taking that excites and brings joy. Developing this culture in our School is a big next step for me as a Head because I wish for us to exemplify the attributes that we know our young people will need in the future for the unknown challenges ahead. And I mustn’t forget the bottom line with risk-taking and innovation: we know it’s great when things go according to plan, but we learn so much more when they don’t.


5 October 2022