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Perspective | No dinosaurs allowed in the education courtyard

This is the first piece in a week-long series of perspectives on innovative practices in North Carolina public schools. Follow along with the rest of the series here.

Recently, I traveled to the Google Headquarters in Silicon Valley for the National Teacher of the Year Induction with the Council of Chief State School Officers. Sitting in the middle of the courtyard at Googleplex is Stan the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Stan sits uniquely out-of-place on this state-of-the-art facility that thrives on innovation, creativity, and hyper-modernism.

Our tour guide quickly mentioned that Stan was purchased by Google founders to serve as a stark reminder of what will happen if you are not willing to think divergently, take risks, and innovate. Stan lives at Google to remind employees that even though they are a world leader in the technology sector, if they are not willing to constantly adapt, embrace failure, and experiment with new ideas, they will end up like Stan: a relic of the past.

Stan stuck with me for the rest of my time at Google. In 2020, innovation is all the buzz in education. It shows up in school mission statements, school improvement plans, new district-level position titles, and across the edu-Twitter sphere. But, what is innovation and what does it mean to innovate with regards to education policy and practice? More importantly, what creates the breeding ground for true innovation in education and how do we develop an infrastructure across North Carolina to support it?

As I spent my week immersed in the culture of Silicon Valley, it struck me that the employees at Google do not innovate against the grain of their company. Rather, they innovate because the infrastructure at Google supports and expects innovation. Within the company’s culture, there is room to take calculated risks, fail, and try again.

Employees do not operate under compliance models. They are expected to create new products and generate new ideas that move the company’s mission forward. If their ideas and products are not successful, they are not deemed ineffective employees. Rather, they collaborate with each other, rethink, and move forward in their work.  

To advance innovation in the education ecosystem of North Carolina, educational policymakers and leaders must begin to place value in climates and cultures that promote taking risks, trying new ideas, and failing forward. Teachers and schools must not be going against the status quo when they try new things. The compliance model must yield and give way to a culture that supports doing what is right and what is best over what has always been done.

We must work to intentionally create an educational culture that supports innovation amongst our teachers, schools, and education leaders, just as Google does for their employees.

In my travels across the state as the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, I have seen brilliant examples of innovation in our public schools. In Caldwell County, I witnessed innovative STEM integration at the Caldwell Applied Sciences Academy when students were engaged in hands-on explorations of science and technology.

Schools in Durham County developed innovative school improvement programs such as a mentor program at Northern High School in Durham. In this program, upperclassmen and freshmen are paired into mentor-mentee relationships to help scaffold ninth graders into successful high school careers.

In Edgecombe County, innovation is alive and thriving. North Edgecombe High has embraced innovative school improvement through a cutting-edge approach to teaching and learning that capitalizes on the flexibilities offered through the restart school model. In order to combat the teacher shortage in Edgecombe County, the ECPS Scholar Teachers Program has raised money to award scholarships to high school seniors who agree to come back to teach in the district after graduation.

In my home district of Moore County Schools, district leadership has embraced an innovation in teaching and learning by using the integration of STEM across all disciplines and grade spans. My husband, Austin Morris, models innovation daily as he integrates STEM into his high school social studies curriculum at Pinecrest High School as a way to engage his students and build on their 21st century skills.

There is no doubt that innovation approaches to teaching and learning are happening, but they are happening in silos. Moreover, they are happening in environments where teachers, school leaders, and district personnel are choosing to go against the grain and culture of education reform to do things new and, hopefully, better.

From my experiences in schools across the state this year, I have come to identify that innovative teaching is hands-on and dynamic in relation to our ever-changing 21st century society. It allows multiple entry points into lessons, and it encourages creativity and flexibility in student thought. Innovative school improvement values results over compliance and allows flexibility to address individual needs. Innovative education leadership provides space for leaders to ideate, prototype, and assess systemic decisions. It allows for controlled failures to become the breeding grounds for creating stronger systems and design.

So how do we nudge North Carolina to develop a statewide educational infrastructure that is conducive to widespread innovation? The answer lies in part in reexamining how we assess students, teachers, and schools. We must build in measures that capture innovation and expect, encourage, and nurture these efforts throughout our schools.

So, I ask you: How do we keep Stan out of the proverbial courtyards of education? The answer lies in adopting an innovation mindset. We need classroom, school, district, and state leaders who are willing to dream big about how to do things differently for our 21st century students.

We must cultivate an education culture that embraces calculated risk taking and controlled failure in order to implement true, positive school change. We all need to understand that by envisioning true innovation and change for our schools, we are modeling for the next generation of learners how to enter the dynamic world of our 21st century.

Editor’s note: Editing support for this piece was provided by Dr. Robert Smith and Kayce Smith of UNC-Wilmington’s Watson School of Education.

Mariah Morris

Mariah Morris is the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She proudly teaches second grade at West Pine Elementary School in Moore County where she integrates STEM into her student-centered curriculum.