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“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”.

This well known Steve Jobs quote is hung above my desk as a constant reminder to keep thinking differently. As educators, we should tell our students this every day.

Innovation is a hot topic in the UAE in recent years and is only getting bigger as Dubai gears up for the EXPO 2020. After two successful innovation weeks, February is set to become ‘Innovation Month’ in 2018. Believing that innovation is the future of human investment, the UAE Leadership emphasises its importance across all sectors through the UAE Vision 2021: “Innovation, research, science and technology will form the pillars of a knowledge-based, highly productive and competitive economy”. Simply put, the aim is for the UAE to be among the most innovative countries in the world.

What does all of this mean for schools? In May, Dr Abdulla Al Karam, Director-general of KHDA said that “in a world that is no longer standing still, schools need to keep up, and focus should be on innovation”. So, what does this look like and how can it be implemented?

Jumeirah English Speaking School, one of the most innovative schools in the UAE are leading the way with using virtual reality in their curriculum. Like many schools in the UAE, they are well equipped with smart devices, robotics and STEAM equipment. But, is this what makes them innovative? I would argue it is much more than that.

Yes, technology helps schools achieve outcomes that may not be otherwise possible, however it’s the ‘growth mindset’ with constant learning and improvement that truly drives change through schools. The JESS Innovation Summit held in October reflects the culture of continuous learning that they have built, with educators from Dubai coming together to share best practice and ideas. I was lucky enough to attend a virtual reality CPD session at JESS recently. After beginning in a lecture theatre, we soon ended up under the sea and even had time for a quick trip to Mars! Although the technology was impressive, the thing that struck me was the emphasis on how the students could apply it to their learning. Everything has to have a purpose.

The biggest killer of innovation in schools is a fear of getting it wrong. From teachers using a new app in a lesson for the first time or students attempting to code a robot in a STEAM lesson, mistakes must be celebrated and recognised as a by-product of learning. Albert Einstein summed up this point well when he said “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”.

The word ‘consistency’ is overused in schools. Of course each child should receive the same level of education and cover all of the relevant learning objectives. However, if our goal is innovation, we can’t afford to use the term ‘consistency’ to force teachers to work at exactly the same pace and teach lessons in exactly the same way. If we do, then we may as well replace teachers with robots, devoid of individual flair or their own ideas.

I count myself lucky to teach in a positive environment at SAFA British School with supportive management and parents who have built an environment for innovation to grow. This year, I have lead a group of teachers on an Innovation and Enterprise Team who created an action plan linked to all areas of the school. Through our conversations, we soon realised that to truly embed our chosen teaching methods and further integrate effective technology, our main focus had to be on CPD. Techniques like Flipped Learning, Talk for Writing, Singapore Maths and the Protégé Effect have to be methodically embedded into the schools curriculums, with enough training and support for staff to feel confident.

Just as the latest golf clubs aren’t going to help me get onto the Ryder Cup team, simply buying into innovative teaching methods isn’t going to improve teaching and learning on its own. Schools have to build a professional culture with the conditions necessary for those methods to flourish.

What is the most important element in building these conditions? Trust would be top of my list. Trust from the school’s management for teachers to take risks in lessons by attempting innovative lesson ideas, trust from teachers to management that they won’t be castigated if a lesson observation doesn’t go as planned, and trust from teachers to their students to drive their own learning.

For a school to be truly innovative it also has to look for ways to innovate not only in the classroom but also in other areas of the school. This includes the very mundane tasks of student registration, parent communication and even lesson observations. The leadership should also be innovative in the way they lead the school and should embrace the whole ethos of innovation in leadership and management.

If you want something you’ve never had, then you’ve got to do something you’ve never done. Failure is a part of innovation, maybe the most important part. To end with another Steve Jobs quote: “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity- not a threat”.

By: George Stokes