Ymasumac Marañón Davis is an educational consultant, intuitive life coach and author. This blog is the third in a series around access. All thoughts are her own. 

I am often invited to visit schools that have received awards because of high ratings in their use of educational technology and as innovative learning centers. This always excites me, a place where creative learning takes place for kids? Yes, sign me up! And from an initial glance they are definitely different learning environments. New flexible furniture, colorful walls and decor, excited adults – awesome!  It is apparent, that there is an effort to change the learning environment; whether or not it’s actually happening at the core level of values and belief systems remains to be seen. What eventually unfolds is something we are accustomed to: some children are eager to share their projects with you, while the majority sit back and quietly share when prompted. What is most striking, is the projects are all vastly similar, if not starkly the same. Where then is the innovation and more importantly, what was the professional development like?

Innovation is a big buzzword right now in education. We need our kids to innovate – we want them to be creative thinkers – they need to think outside the box. The question then becomes, how do we do this?

In an effort to be innovative, schools often latch on to big ideas, like “maker spaces” (classrooms with Legos and art materials whose intention is to allow students to be creative and innovative in their thinking). Many schools are looking towards creating robotics or Lego clubs. All of these intentions are laudable. Unfortunately, these efforts alone do not impact learning for everyone. To do this, we must consider our learning environment.

Bringing in new furniture or programs without shifting the learning culture results in reverting to familiar classroom arrangements and teaching new programs with traditional, teacher driven pedagogy.

When exploring questions around access in education, we have to consider the learning culture of the classroom and school. Although many of the aforementioned efforts may intend to impact the learning culture, they often generate excitement among a small minority of teachers and students. How then, do we impact all students to truly think in creative and innovative ways?

Our starting point most likely is misplaced. Rather than look at students, we need to start with adults. Students are born ready for change and innovation, innately curious about the world around them. By middle school, this inherent drive to learn is minimized so drastically, it is troubling. That this happens in adolescence, when students’ brains once again have become as active as when they were toddlers undergoing an incredible transformative process, tells us that the learning culture surrounding them, rather than any innate characteristics, is what impedes innovative learning. We adults need to be willing to reflect on whether our learning culture truly allows all students to learn.

The good news is that there are adults who are very willing to take these risks and try something new, fail miserably, reflect, and try again! Every campus has at least one of these teachers who is, ready to create change and try new things. It is these teachers who create magic in our classrooms and from whom we can learn to do the same. How can we scale what they have mastered? First, start with the willing and then have them coach peer to peer. These risk-taking teachers are often more than willing to share. They have not just latched onto the tools but also the learning culture that is required to go with the new tools and programs.

Being willing to reimagine our learning culture requires us to examine the skills we hope our students achieve, and to assess, whether the characteristics and qualities of the environments support these skills. If we desire to cultivate the skill of curiosity in our students, then we need to ask ourselves what corresponding change in the learning culture is required. A quality that complements curiosity is risk-taking. However, many react to the prospect of risk-taking with fear: What if our students fail? What if our school doesn’t do well in state testing? These fears often stifle the risk-taking that enables innovation.

My son a freshman in college, recently described to me the frustration he sees from his college teachers, who want their students to speak up and take risks in the classroom through problem-solving. He said none of his peers ever volunteered or spoke up, even though his teacher encouraged them to try, even if it results in mistakes. “Why?”, I asked. His response: “Because they’re afraid to fail.”

“Where does this come from?” I asked.

“It starts in middle school and solidifies in high school. If we make mistakes it affects our grades, and if our grades aren’t good, we know it’ll affect our college prospects or even passing a class. So we don’t like making mistakes, because it means we aren’t doing well and the consequences are too severe.”

In one swift response to the question, “Why don’t students take risks?”

My son summarized our educational system’s culture that ties student performance to their grades, which are tied to school ratings, college entrance, prestige, etc.

I realize this asks us to reexamine our entire system, including our grading practices. Many schools are doing just this. Hampshire College in Massachusetts has dropped standardized testing as a requirement for admission. According to the school’s president Jonathan Nash, in an article published by The Independent, “Our applicants collectively were more motivated, mature, disciplined and consistent in their high school years than past applicants.”

Although many of us cannot make sweeping decisions like this, we can begin by examining the very area where students will spend a good part of their day – our classrooms.

How will students feel when they walk in? Will they, for that brief period, feel encouraged to stretch their limits and take risks? Will they know this is a space where they can tackle tough questions? Learning asks all of us to be present – not just our intellect, but our full selves, which includes our emotions and spirit. What will drive students through problem-solving, if not the inner spirit to know, the gnashing of emotions to pull through the unknowns of questioning?

So when it comes to teacher buy-in and scaling up, start small. Good learning practices can catch like wildfire.

Professional development should not just consist of learning new programs and using new tools and furniture. It should also be a space where educators have an opportunity for deep reflection on their own learning practices. Asking big questions. Educators need time to wrestle with these questions, and then the freedom to begin cultivating a new culture in their classrooms. To do this once is not enough. Professional development is more effective if it models coaching. Ultimately, good professional development should open up more questions and offer an opportunity to continue honing in on these questions throughout the year.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what drives us, what keeps us moving through? And then, with an honest lens, open up to the risks that enable innovation – creating magic in the classroom.

Want to hear more from Ymasumac? Read more on her blog, then follow her on Twitter, and visit her website, Limitless Learning Lab.


Ymasumac Marañón Davis

Educational Consultant