Innovation Matters

by Regie Routman, 2020 Conference Speaker

When one thinks of innovation, what comes to mind? Imagination, ingenuity, courage, careful study and reflection, questioning the evidence, a new way of doing things, a willingness to fail, ground-breaking thinking, the thrill of discovery. All of these. In education, specifically, innovation must go beyond inventive actions and increased student achievement to include students’ growing self-reliance, confidence, competence, and optimism for what’s possible in their learning lives—in and out of school. Perhaps, most importantly, innovation must be connected to equity. Is the innovation creating greater opportunity for all our students?

Responsible innovation requires us to be responsible educators who view ongoing, high level professional learning as a necessity. As such, we carefully read, study, reflect, and collaborate with colleagues. We take a leadership role in our schools to speak out and ensure that careful study and reflection underpin all innovative decisions and actions. Based on deep knowledge and application of credible research and principled practices—as well as knowing our students well—we teachers and administrators then create, often with student input, actions and lessons and projects that engage students’ hearts and minds as well as the prescribed curriculum and standards. Teachers are not just “making up” cute projects that keep students busy. Through trial and error and deep knowledge and experience, we work to figure out ways to ensure expert teaching and assessing—which includes responsible innovation– focus on students’ strengths, interests, and passions before tackling students’ needs.

My first major innovation came about more than 30 years ago when I was working as a “pull-out” reading specialist in a high poverty school where 90% of the students were African-American and where the majority of first graders were failing to learn to read with commercial “basal” texts, skills-in-isolation lessons, and worksheets. Feeling distraught and frustrated, due mostly to educators’ low expectations and lack of urgency to do better for students, I took a leap of faith and submitted to the superintendent of schools a thoughtful, research-based proposal. That “First Grade Book Flood” detailed a radical departure at that time—teaching reading and writing through the best of children’s literature and daily journal writing in a classroom where a rich, relevant, and accessible library formed the centerpiece. No commercial reading texts, no worksheets, no scripted teaching. Lots of reading aloud of great fiction and nonfiction literature, shared reading, shared writing, book talk, celebrating students’ stories, and publishing children’s writing. As co-teacher for each morning in a first grade classroom, we deliberately and systematically embedded systematic and explicit phonics and skills work, throughout the day, primarily using the familiar real-world texts we and our students were creating, writing, reading, and singing–together and on their own. As is true today, the pressure to raise test scores on required standardized tests remained unrelenting.

The overwhelming success of that literacy and learning story, which resulted in myriad, positive outcomes—including high test scores in reading–is detailed in my first book, Transitions: From Literature to Literacy (Heinemann 1988.) I have now written about twelve books for educators, and all include innovative practices that I developed based on knowing and respecting students, their backgrounds, and their cultures as well as avidly reading and reflecting on current research and “best practices.” Just as I do today, we connected curriculum requirements and standards to real-world learning, always with the ongoing intent of bringing more meaning, relevance, and joy into teaching and learning. And, as has always been true, high test scores became a by-product of engaging, excellent, and equitable teaching and learning in a healthy, trusting school culture.

My heartbreak today is that decades later, for a whole host of reasons, we are still dealing with “reading wars”, educational inequities, segregated schools, scripted programs, too much testing and test prep, over-identification of and labeling of students for intervention, overwhelmed teachers suffering from learned helplessness—all amidst random acts of professional development for exhausted teachers. We must shift our priorities from focusing on quick results on superficial content to favor deeper learning on significant topics, which have real-world application. There are no shortcuts here. Excellent, embedded professional learning, what I call Professional LITERACY Communities, are a schoolwide necessity. Although the political landscape has always been perilous when it comes to learning to read, if we are knowledgeable and courageous we can individually and collectively take action–now. If we are a part of changing even just one student’s life in a positive and lasting way, that is a success of which we can be proud.

Screen Shot 2020-01-12 at 6.30.39 PM
Courtesy of Kristopher Roller at Unsplash

Innovation is what all expert teachers do each time we are responsive to students’ strengths, interests, and needs– before, during, and after instruction and assessment. Innovation results when we thoughtfully adjust, create, and modify our instruction so students learn more. Innovation is not about “buying new stuff,” having everyone “on the same page”, or finding quick and required ways to “measure” achievement. Innovative teaching is also not about mastering skills or passing tests or following a program with fidelity. Innovation in schools is about creating, re-creating, and sustaining a thriving culture that promotes deep thinking on important topics and makes learning more engaging, assessable, meaningful, and equitable for all students. Responsible innovation introduces better ideas, processes, and products that ensure every student finds a way into learning that respects and upholds their dignity, strengths, and intelligence.

Consider using the following questions to self-reflect and speak out, as necessary, before adopting any new innovation, including technology:

  • Will the innovation substantively enrich, improve, and/or accelerate efficiency, effectiveness, and excellence in teaching and learning?
  • Does the innovation promote equitable access to all learners?
  • Who benefits from the innovation? Who might be hurt or disadvantaged by it?
  • Does the innovation lead learners to become more competent, self-reliant, reflective learners?
  • Does the innovation meaningfully enrich students’ lives and increase joy in teaching and learning?
  • Do the benefits of the innovation outweigh any problematic issues or outcomes?
  • What are you and your colleagues doing to make responsible innovation an integral part of teaching, learning, and assessing?

The innovations described in Transitions and in my subsequent books and resources flourished in classrooms—and continue to succeed today– because they are grounded in a deep knowledge of literacy and learning, a respect for the dignity and potential of all learners, and because we create a safe and intellectual culture that allows for “productive failure” for full-out efforts. You can do this too! In spite of mandates, restrictions, and too many requirements and tests, it is still possible to find innovative ways to put students first, to maintain some sanity, and put common sense and joy back into teaching and learning.

For much more information—and practical application–on innovations, attend Regie’s 2020 CCIRA session: “INNOVATION MATTERS: How Bold Thinking Saved My Teaching, My Students, and My Life—and how that can be true for you too.”

Regie Routman works side by side with teachers, administrators, and students in underperforming schools and districts to raise expectations, accelerate reading and writing achievement, and bring joy and authenticity into teaching and learning. She is the author, most recently, of Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for AllLearners (Stenhouse, 2018) For full information on Regie’s many books and resources and to contact her go to and @regieroutman on Twitter and Facebook.

Author: CCIRAblog

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