Countries Gather to Talk Education Innovation

Earlier this month, deep in the Canadian Rockies, delegations from 19 countries and a mixture of research institutions, foundations, and professional education organizations attended the International Conference on Innovative Learning Environments in Banff, Alberta.

For three days, participants met to discuss inspiring new forms of learning environments and strategies for scaling up those considered most successful.

As a teacher, I was excited to lend voice to a policy dialogue that intimately addresses what’s going on in my classroom. Participants highlighted exemplars of innovation in extraordinary circumstances. I also appreciated prominent policymakers noting the danger of continually showcasing the “shiny examples,” given the resource challenges many educators face.

Several significant concerns also were discussed during the conference. In a climate of cutbacks and acute testing scrutiny, policymakers are concerned that school improvement agendas are perceived safer than innovation agendas. It’s simply a tough time to take risks.

As a teacher on the ground, the conference raised for me two questions: How do we highlight, tap into, and scale up the innovations that are already going on? I have seen many very low-income schools successfully innovate to meet their needs in an economically taxing climate.

Further, how do we decrease judgment around new practices so that more school leaders are willing to take the risks necessary to support the innovative ideas?

In the end, delegates walked away understanding that innovation is not just about technology products, but could and should also be about process. It’s not about more resources. It’s about designing systems that are more efficient so that we foster stronger learning environments, period.

Claire Jellinek is a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education

There is no question that innovation is a critical focus of President Obama’s education agenda. In his State of the Union, where he said that education is “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the President invokes the word “innovation” nine times. In his recent American Jobs Act proposal, he alludes to modernizing 35,000 schools, and installing science labs and high-speed Internet in classrooms all across the country. The Investment in Innovation Fund (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods are powerful examples of initiatives that reward innovation in learning.

I believe that this truly is our “Sputnik moment.” Education has captured a front seat in national and international dialogue. I hope we seize this opportunity to welcome ideas around meaningful change.

Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.


  1. I agree to everything that you guys said. I just think that in order for the children to have the best. We must have the best standards and tools in order to teach the best.

  2. The best teachers are not allowed to teach using their own methods. Instead, they are forced to conform to Federal and State standards, district policies and rules, local politics, university workshops, Praxis testing, corporate influence in schools and educational stereotypes.

    Real teachers do not always arrive in the classroom or they are not permitted to teach once they get there.

    The skill of substitutes is ignored unless they play the game, conform and accept their limited fate.

  3. “I have seen many very low-income schools successfully innovate to meet their needs in an economically taxing climate” (Jellinek, 2011).

    Your words remind me of my time with Preparatory School for Global Leadership (PSGL). Our school served an at-risk learning community where over 90% of students received free/reduced lunch (Title I status) and were significantly delayed in their academic and social skills. The school’s mission was to empower youth to own their academic achievement and to pursue a life of production, prosperity, and promotional growth. In order to achieve this outcome, innovative processes were designed in the areas of project-based learning, service learning, and empowerment-based assessments and accountability.

    These innovations changed lives but they also required training. Teachers had to learn how to interact with students differently. For example, sending students to the “principal’s office” when they were disruptive was not a practice at the school. Each teacher received professional development on how to effectively redirect the behavior by keeping the child in the class all while maintaining a climate for learning.

    Your post resonated with me because you are right, innovation already exists in America’s public education system. However, I think we would see more innovation if we found ways to financially and politically support them. I negotiated to close PSGL in 2009 not because we were failing but because we did not have the money to maintain our innovative approach to teaching and learning. While traditional schooling may not always be the most effective, it is aligned to current funding formulas. It would have been a violation to the mission of empowerment to fall back into traditional modes of doing school just to stay financially afloat.

    With this being said, instructional innovation calls for innovation with funding and governance. Once we embrace this reality, we will see the success of innovation right here in our own back yard!

    Thank you for your post!

    Angela Dye
    “Empowerment Starts Here: Seven Principles for Empowering Urban Youth”

  4. You hit the nail right on the head in this line: “innovation is not just about technology products, but could and should also be about process.” The future of education depends on empowering students to engage in a cycle of planning, doing, and reflecting on their work in all content areas and in life. This process transcends any content areas in school, and is the key to innovation in all sectors of our economy.

    The Jobs Act, i3, and Promise Neighborhoods are all examples of ways we can equip school and educational institutions with the resources needed to foster this sort of innovation. The Secretary’s Blueprint for Reform also outlines a policy and paradigm shift away from the punitive pass or fail accountability system created under No Child Left Behind that has stifled innovation by setting static targets and narrowing the options on how to reach them. It moves us toward an accountability system that values and rewards growth, and leaves more room for most schools to pursue innovative approaches to achieve that growth however best meets the needs of students, families, and communities. To read more about the Blueprint, click here:

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