The Nexus of Innovation and Expanded Time

What does it mean to “be innovative” – and what is the connection between innovative approaches to education and more time? For starters (and perhaps it goes without saying), innovation cannot actually be mandated, any more than the state could mandate students to be kinder toward each other. Instead, the impulse to reflect deeply on how to improve teaching and learning and then to make large-scale changes needed to bring about a more robust learning environment must ultimately be embedded in the hearts and minds of educators. Innovation must, by its very nature, be self-generated.

So, when policymakers talk about trying to seed innovation, what they really are talking about is the converse: freeing individual schools from mandates that might stand in the way of letting educators put in place what they believe to be superior learning conditions for their students. Consider the following example. Let’s imagine that District A requires all its schools to use a particular literacy curriculum. Meanwhile, the faculty and leadership of School B have, after careful study and consideration, decided that they would much rather put in place a different resource that they’ve seen work in other schools outside their home district and which would be more appropriate for their particular school population. As School B is currently chartered, it would be prevented from doing so because it is legally bound to the requirements of District A. But, what if there was a procedure in place whereby School B could apply to the state for special authorization to override (or not be beholden to) the policies of District A in certain areas like curriculum? If so, then School B could, indeed, adopt its preferred literacy approach and, presumably, the students in School B would benefit from an education more tailored to their learning needs. In this scenario, the state has not imposed innovation on School B, but instead, put in place legal protections that allow the innovative spirit of its educators to flourish.  

As we wrote about in the latest Learning Time in America edition and, which our partner, Education Commission of the States, has recently reported on, a number of states have created a process whereby schools can take on this “innovation status” such that they can be empowered to make educational decisions that will better serve their students. Of course, in adopting new educational methods or re-configuring staffing or programming, educators are not trying to bypass high learning expectations; quite the contrary, they are taking fresh approaches to enable their students to better meet those high expectations.

Why is this growing emphasis on innovation in education important to NCTL? A couple of intertwined reasons, really. First, as we stressed in Learning Time in America, when educators imbued with the innovative spirit are granted the opportunity to break from the standard structures of schooling, many opt to expand learning time. They recognize that getting all their students to proficiency in ambitious learning targets — especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds—will simply take more time than the standard schedule allows. We’ve been making this case for years, of course, and more and more educators in more and more schools are coming to the same conclusion.

The second reality is, in some sense, the flip side of this argument. In schools that benefit from funding aimed at providing resources to expand the schedule for all students, the infusion of more time often fuels the fires of innovation. That is, with substantially more daily time, educators are typically prompted to think very differently about how they can best structure their educational program to meet their students’ learning needs. They are not simply adding “new stuff”; they are re-thinking everything they do. The innovative spirit that may have been dormant quickly springs to life.  Recently, we tried to capture this virtuous cycle of more time breeding more innovation in a brief video, with drawings by our Macedonian friend, Stefan.

The lesson for educators and policymakers everywhere is to continue to promote this intricate relationship between, on the one hand, expanding school time and, on the other, continually pursuing novel means to strengthen teaching and learning. Both dimensions need each other to make either the full promise of innovation policies or resources for expanding school time come to fruition.