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THE SPIRIT OF INNOVATION
Since the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning was founded three years ago, Ridgefield Academy has been talking about innovation. But what does innovation actually mean? Years before the Center, Upper School students already had a class called Innovation Lab, a technology-based offshoot of science class in which they were asked to apply, for example, their knowledge of circuits to create houses with lighting sources and natural materials. We had a physical Innovation Lab, a room that some students got to use when working on projects involving robotics kits and Raspberry Pi computers, small computers that could be programmed to do certain tasks. Is that what we meant by innovation, and if so, why did we need the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning?

A good friend and former colleague of mine recently shared: “Is innovation about technology? In a word, no. It's about connecting people to people, and people to ideas, in ways that generate value that didn't exist before.” Without hearing these words specifically, this is the definition of innovation that the Center has been working with. Yes, there is a lot of technological innovation happening at RA – a new technology program that combines digital arts with coding, robotics, and other more generalized technology, the 1:1 Chromebook program for Middle and Upper School students we launched this fall, and the increasing number of assessments in other subject areas that ask for a technology-based creation are proof of that. But there is plenty of evidence of a much broader spirit of innovation at play.

As a kick-off to the school year, I attended an event sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) called “The Future of Learning is NOW,” which was keynoted by the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Chief Innovation Officer, Tim Fish. He echoed the idea that innovation isn’t about technology or physical space and definitely not about random acts without purpose. Instead, “people innovating together should feel like a bunch of people getting together in a kitchen. The spirit is one of invention, trying new things, knowing that we’re going to fail” and then working through bumps along the way. He challenged the audience to think about what it would feel like if all our classrooms felt like kitchens.

Innovative schools across the world are working on “creating … culture[s] where students are working on problems that are worth solving and where autonomy and agency are valued,” or, put another way, “designing engaging, meaningful, and appropriate challenges and then getting out of the way.” So what does this look like at Ridgefield Academy? Though it’s happening throughout the school, I’ll focus on what three Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning Faculty Ambassadors have done in their classrooms. Upper School mathematics teacher Adele Dominicus sometimes gives her students math tests that she has already finished for them, though riddled with mistakes. Rather than solving blank equations, her students need to correct her test in order to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Middle and Upper School English teacher Patricia Carrington started her first class on Lord of the Flies by catching up with me in my office while her class was left “alone” with nothing but a set of directions on the board to guide their first 15 minutes with the material? (Note: everyone survived and there were no fires.) Third grade teacher Pam Clasby has been changing up hallmark third grade moments like the State Fair presentations by bringing in Lower School music teacher Deb Penn and adding a musical component to the event, and for three years, along with Samantha Heller (who will return to third grade after her maternity leave), has given her students the opportunity to experience Genius Hour, an hour a week during which students are free to explore topics that they are interested in and build projects showing what the learned. In the last several years, I have seen students make their own pencils, dig into aerodynamics, and create board games about adding to ten, Braille, Coco Chanel, and so much more. These non-traditional classroom experiences are becoming the norm, as teachers try to “get out of the way” – moving from the front of the room to the middle of learning that can be messy, challenging, and in need of guides and facilitators.

When we let students find their own way through the academic challenges we put in front of them, they understand not only what they are learning but also why they are learning what they are learning and how they learn best. Scott Coleman, a member of the Class of 2018, may have said it best in an assembly speech last year when he shared that as he became more comfortable at Ridgefield Academy after learning about intrinsic motivation from Mrs. Dominicus. “I become more intrinsically motivated because I began to have fun and love the subjects I was taking ... Don’t get the wrong message from what I’m saying. Please don’t go to your teacher and say, ‘Mrs. Carrington, I’m intrinsically motivated’ when she tells you that you have an F in English. Nor should you feel bad when you get excited after a good grade. Just try not to make getting a one hundred your reason to do well in something or do something at all. Care for the right reasons. While in our society, grades, degrees, and money have great value, they are hollow when the happiness and satisfaction one seeks does not come along with them.”

Scott set a high bar for the faculty of Ridgefield Academy, but if we continue to graduate students who know themselves and the importance of what and how they learn, we will know that we are doing the right thing, even if tomorrow’s right thing looks a little different from yesterday’s.