(Cross-posted on the Google for Work Blog.)



Editor's note: Continuing our EdTech leadership series, today’s guest author is Ryan Bretag, Chief Innovation Officer at Glenbrook High School District 225, in Illinois. Since age six Ryan has “thought big” about education, questioning why we do what we do and how we can do better. After spending 15 years in schools, his current role focuses on innovation, whole-child education and technology initiatives. Ryan is also completing his doctoral work on spaces people inhabit for learning. To learn more check out the full interview with Ryan or view these recorded sessions on innovation at work from Atmosphere Live.




It’s probably shocking to hear this, especially now that I’m an educator, but when I was a student I really disliked school. I had a hard time because there was not a lot of freedom — there were so many constraints. But one day something memorable happened. My teacher asked us to write a story about a place of interest in the United States. I drew an underwater school of the future. My teacher gave me a zero and said I had not addressed the assignment, but she also gave me 100 points of extra credit for creativity. It was the first time that I was really rewarded for being creative. That teacher lit a fire in me.

When I became a teacher, I realized that technology was one of the best levers I had to give power to students. During my second year teaching, my director of technology came to me and said, ‘There’s this thing that people talk about where every kid has a computer — what do you think you could do with that?’ I responded, ‘Oh, I hate technology; I couldn’t do that.’ She said, ‘Just think about it.’ I spent a weekend thinking and came back to school Monday with about 50 pages of sketches and diagrams of things that I could do and shared with students to get their ideas. Next thing I knew, my class was one-to-one with a device for every student. I was hooked. Technology fundamentally changed everything about how I taught and more importantly how students learn — it created student choice and empowerment. It opened doors that I had never even seen before.

Now as the Chief Innovation Officer at Glenbrook I am trying to help the whole district improve learning for students by supporting learners, teachers and students alike, with technology and innovation. In my role I focus constantly on creating two things in our district: more ownership and agility. We want teachers and students to have more ownership to bring their own creativity and passion to their work. And we want them all to have more agility — to be able to move quickly with new ideas.

One thing we did to create more ownership and agility for our teachers was to audit of all our common practices. We asked ourselves, ‘do these practices create more ownership and agility or less?’ We then scaled practices that did and adjusted those that did not. This was one of the reasons we switched to Google Apps for Education. We saw that our old email and writing system didn’t provide enough ownership to students and teachers, but Google Apps did.

After a few years, I am happy to report that we’re seeing teachers take ownership of the IT tools. For example, when Classroom was introduced to Google Apps for Education, I simply sent an email announcing this to 500 faculty members. I included a few links to get started — that was it. A few weeks later, we had more than 200 people already using it. Five years ago, if I had sent that email people would have asked for training first, or been more apprehensive of a new tool.

We’ve also put curriculum in place to support autonomy and agility for students. One of the things that we’ve borrowed from Google is the notion of 20% time. It fascinated me that employees could spend 20% of their time learning whatever they wanted. We now do this across our schools. We run a program called Spartans Connect. It’s a one-day conference during which students run workshops about their passions. For example 250 kids attended one student’s workshop on Harry Potter — they dressed up and played Quidditch while also exploring the thematic components from mythology and religion. The student leader had hundreds of kids in the room, and she had them sitting on the edge of their seats.
At Spartans Connect, students got hands-on experience with the human body
My advice to other educators trying to create more ownership among teachers and students is to question what you are doing, the “why”, and encourage people to experiment with new ways to solve problems. When your teachers are empowered, they empower their students too. I think successful schools “embrace the crazy.” Be OK with some ideas being a little bit out there and be comfortable with some failure along the way.