A Practice for Innovating at the Bleeding Edge

Topics: Future of Learning

In some ways, international schools have relative flexibility and autonomy to innovate toward the future of learning. Yet they also face high expectations from parents and governing boards to deliver the traditional outcome of preparing students for college and, often, to adhere to established curricula.

Fostering innovation amid this tension, then, represents both a significant opportunity and a significant challenge.

To help international school educators develop their practice around innovation, Jason Swanson, KnowledgeWorks’ Director of Strategic Foresight, developed a session for the Association for the Advancement of International Education’s (AAIE’s) annual conference called “Innovation @ the Bleeding Edge.” The session coached participants on scanning for signals– or early indicators – of change across a wide net of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) developments, assessing a signals’ impact and directionality, and exploring how a school might use a signal of change to inspire innovation. After identifying several signals of interest, participants selected the intentional use of time for further examination.

We explored people’s developing sense of needing to take back our time and attention from our devices and other distractions and to allow children the space to stare at the clouds passing by, to be bored, to play – and from that space, to create something they could not otherwise have found. As we did so, we toggled among future possibilities, potential pushback, and present-day strategies. It was hard to occupy just one time horizon or one perspective. But as we explored, we coalesced around a vision for opening twenty percent of a school’s time to student-directed learning and exploration. To make space for both students and teachers to go off script and see what might be found backstage.

That sounded pretty exciting to me, but the big question, as always, was how to get to that vision from today’s reality, in this case, a the reality of forty-five-minute block scheduling. To help participants explore possible ways forward, we used storyboarding as a technique for backcasting, or designing backward from a desired future. Using an approach to storyboarding adapted from The Open University’s Creativity, Innovation, and Change Technique Library (2000), we asked participants to draw their ideal future state, to draw current reality, and then to draw four steps for moving from today’s reality toward the future vision. Here’s what it looked like:

Using an approach to storyboarding , conference attendees asked participants to draw their ideal future state, to draw current reality, and then to draw four steps for moving from today’s reality toward the future vision.

The choice of the Eiffel Tower to represent the ideal future was inspired by France’s thirty-five hour work week. The progression of steps included identifying areas where time might be wasted or underused today, beginning to use a small amount of that time in more student-directed ways, telling stories about that experience, and then gradually spreading student-directed learning (while supporting staff) until twenty percent of school time had been reclaimed for intentional, self-directed use. This trajectory acknowledged that international schools would still need to deliver on their value propositions of preparing students for college and providing consistent education for internationally mobile students but aimed also to prepare them to navigate an ambiguous future.

This example reflects how working with signals of change can help educators examine their potential impacts, explore related innovations, and ideate about how to pursue them. Such tools can help schools develop capacity around innovation, enabling them to monitor developments of particular note to their context and approach and to examine how they might use notable developments to inform future aspirations and identify strategies for bringing those aspirations to life.

We are fond of saying that we call all be leaders in shaping the future of learning. Such techniques can help people develop the capacity to realize that potential.