Four questions to ask yourself about classroom innovation

2nd July 2017 at 16:01
Innovation is crucial to improving practice, but teachers must approach new ideas with a pinch of salt, says one head of English

I earned my magpie badge pretty early in my career. Like many new teachers, I was attracted to every shiny teaching idea I happened upon (which, in my pre-Twitter days, was less often than now) and was all too eager to try them in my classroom. My attraction to these sparkly innovations was positively reinforced by the praise I received from those observing my lessons and, at the time, there was an unquenchable thirst for the new.

It may not be surprising, then, that I was predisposed to falling down the rabbit hole of using Brain Gym in my lessons. Not only was it shiny and innovative but I was easily seduced by the idea because it sounded, well, sciencey. Partway through my lessons, like the Green Goddess but with less lycra, I’d get my students up out of their seats to follow my lead with a variety of exercises that included such things as drawing sideways figures of eight in the air with our fingers. I was essentially distracting my students from their learning.

There’s always a risk to bringing something new into the classroom – it might fail and be a complete waste of time. However, there’s also a risk with just sticking with what we know: stagnation. The best thing we can do is be critical about innovations and evaluate the impact of what we’re doing in the classroom.

I’d recommend asking these four questions when you come across a shiny new idea:

1. How sound is the evidence?

If I’d had my critical wits about me at the time, I would have asked questions about where the research for the effectiveness of Brain Gym had come from and discovered that the vast majority of studies in support of the activity were published in Brain Gym International’s own journal…

2. Will it work in my context?

Education is a complex business; there are no silver bullets. We can’t assume that a successful innovation in one school will easily translate to our school or our classroom or, indeed, a specific class – there are too many variables. Context is king and therefore we need to use what we know about our own context to assess whether something will likely work for us.

3. Has it worked?

Once we’ve implemented something new in the classroom, we need to evaluate whether or not it has worked. Too often we try something without really reflecting on what the impact has been. This leaves us open to ditching effective innovations that we’re a bit bored of and replacing them with something new which might not be as effective.

4. What next?

If an innovation has had an impact on students’ learning then not only should we stick with it but we should be asking how generalizable it is. Would it work with other year groups? Teachers? Subjects? If so, share it!

If something you’ve trialled for a period of time has had no impact, or a negative impact, then however much you’ve invested in it and however much you like it you need to have the confidence to ditch it and find something new.

Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund's Girls' School in Salisbury. She tweets from @TLPMsF 

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