01/02/2013 12:06 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Innovation in Education: Teachers as Learners

In mid-summer of 2012, I was invited to bring my methodology on innovation to a group of gifted teachers meeting in a classroom at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri. The program, underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, was sponsored by an entity known as CoLab. To my delight, I discovered that CoLab was way ahead of the curve, with a long history of bringing innovative teaching and learning styles into classrooms across America. I believe this story is worth sharing in light of the current controversy about how to improve the American educational system.

Below is an interview with Dr. Ralph Cordova, a CoLab teacher-leader who hosted 40 St. Louis teachers this past summer.

Donius: Does the program bring innovative techniques into classrooms?
Cordova: CoLab's "gigs," like the Advanced Summer Institute for the Arts (ASIA) or the 3RDspace Summers Institutes, are experiences unlike any previously encountered by teachers. They engage the teachers as learners by harnessing their collective wisdom developed by thousands of hours of practice in their respective classrooms. A culture of risk-taking, collaboration and creativity is quickly fostered, where participants bring nagging problems from their local sites to "workshop" together during the institute.

Teachers learn how to study each other's local challenges and then develop design-centric approaches that lead to prototyping solutions to those problems, which they then test at small scales of resolution. Teachers learn to embrace failure, and that's the point. When we test what we think might solve a problem, it's best to prototype it on a small scale to see what works and what needs to be refined. This process is much more cost-effective than, say, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a text book series or software without ever carefully considering the unique human-centered needs of people within an organization.

Donius: What does CoLab do?
Cordova: CoLab draws on the National Writing Project's (NWP) successful model along with practices from the field of art and design, centered particularly around creativity and innovation. CoLab supports educators to see themselves as collaborative and creatively confident innovators, who over time transform their classrooms from places where knowledge is consumed to ones where knowledge is co-constructed through collaborations between teachers and their students, between schools and their larger communities.

Donius: What is the most innovative process that's come out of your work?
Cordova: I'd say taking hundreds of thousands of hours of our collective work and seeing the bigger patterns has taught us a few big things about how we learn from failure and innovate in order to grow. We call our process ResponsiveDesign, one that places the learner in the role of the innovator.

Normally teachers do not see themselves as prototypers or innovators. However, anyone knows that in order to get really good at something, we all HAD to have failed numerous times, then gotten back on that saddle, and attended more closely to where we failed in order to get better. This surfaces our first point: we must have a growth or dynamic habit of mind, one that embraces the insights gained from failure.

Our second point is that problem solving is a non-linear process, and thus we need to learn the diverse ways that people come to arrive at innovative solutions. For us, this is why ResponsiveDesign is human-centered wisdom. And we call it wisdom because, as a species, humans are the current manifestation of millions of years of evolution, of earlier prototypes, and we happen to be (questionably) successful as learners because we've innovated our way to this point. We got this far from failing, evolving from the failures to later successes. Whether viewed from a broader historical process or a narrower one focused on the here and now, we innovate and grow through a non-linear process of exploring, envisioning and enacting.

Our third point is that these three actions of exploring, envisioning and enacting should be what every kid in our schools can creatively and confidently "master." Unlike the learners in schools of the past, 21st-century learners will not be successful based on how many facts and pieces they have memorized. The successful learner will be able to study a problem in depth (explore), rapidly prototype radical solutions (envision), and test those approaches (enact) for failure and refining.

Donius: When and how did this all begin?
Cordova: Jim Gray, a former high school English teacher and subsequent faculty member at UC-Berkeley, founded the National Writing Project in 1974. He and fellow teachers taught each other their "best practices" in a way that honored teacher knowledge and expertise.

The Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (CoLab) arose in 2004 from NWP in an innovative collaboration between the South Coast Writing Project's teacher-leaders Dr. Ralph A. Cordova (University of Missouri-St. Louis), Dr. Beth Yeager (University of California-Santa Barbara), and Dr. Kristina Kumpulainen (University of Helsinki, Finland). Together they brought ethnographic approaches to a view of classrooms as cultures where students could make the shift from "studying math, writing or science," to seeing themselves as becoming mathematicians, writers and scientists. This classrooms-as-cultures perspective also resulted in viewing in-school and out-of-school settings as "cultural landscapes for learning." Today the CoLab is an interdisciplinary community of educators from schools, universities and museums.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has funded the NWP's Digital-Is initiative; Digital-Is supported the CoLab's 2012 3RDspace Summer Leadership Institute on Creaativity & Innovation in St. Louis in July, 2012.

Donius: How is this program working?
Cordova: Since the firs NWP site was created in 1974, we have experienced great success, as shown in the numbers. Every state in the union, including Puerto Rico, has an NWP site, putting a high-quality teacher of writing literacy in all content areas within the reach of every student. With over 190 sites, NWP's expertise builds teacher-leadership capability in three big ways: The invitational Summer Institutes, Continuity Programs, and Professional Development for Schools.

1. The Invitations Summer Institute: In a partnership between universities and school districts, led by university and school-based faculty, each summer teachers convene to teach each other their "best practices," to learn the latest theoretical understanding of learning and literacy development, and to become teacher-leaders in their local schools.
2. Continuity Programs: Each NWP site develops and supports teachers beyond the summer institute, with programs developed at the local site to address particular needs.
3. Professional Development for Schools: NWP sites nurture teacher expertise and leadership; these teachers in turn provide professional development to their local schools and districts, while remaining globally connected to the support of the larger NWP network.

Donius: if only one thing, what would you change in the education system to make it better?
Cordova: Whisper in every teacher's ear: "Is what you are doing and how you're doing it the reason why you got into teaching? What do you really want to learn to do? And what do you need to get there?