This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit one of the most innovative schools in the world, in one of the most unlikely of places.
The school’s name is Moonshot Academy. Not surprisingly, their vision is enormous.
They want to be a place that redefines how we teach and learn. At Moonshot Academy, they believe school should be a place where adults and students co- construct learning together.
As such, students take an active role.
They lead community meetings. They devise novel ways to improve classes. They solve authentic, local problems. They have a say in what courses they take, and even create their own. They are joyous, wondrous and approach learning with ‘what if’ rather than ‘what now?’:
What if I could build my own guitar out of scrap parts? What if I could create a photo calendar that captures biodiversity in the region? What if I created an art exhibition that demonstrated my changing emotions?
Moonshot Academy understands that to build a culture of innovation, the only constant should be change.
And they are changing daily.
In the course of the day I spent with them, they re-defined their learning space three times. First, for my workshop with teachers. Second, for their exhibition of student work. And third, for their short TEDex style speeches on the future of learning.
You would think a place like this was made up of savants: Super- human educators with years of teaching experience. Oddly enough, most had only taught for a few years. For some, it was their first year.
So what was their secret? What made Moonshot’s innovation stick? I believe there are five keys:
1. Develop a ‘Yes’ ‘And’ Mentality
If you have ever witnessed or participated in improv comedy, it revolves around this idea. Skits begin with a concept from one of the participants and then build with each members’ input. In this way, innovation is the sum of its parts, not a lone outlier.
Moonshot clearly operates according to this principle. Its walls are filled with post- its, mind maps and ongoing brainstorms. Every member of the community may contribute. Learning is built on the go. The big overarching question for the year is ‘What will life be like in 2049?’ An incomplete structure stands in the middle of the space to reflect this ongoing inquiry. By the end of the year it will represent the answer to that question.
It’s a perfect illustration of the ‘yes, and’ approach to innovation.
2. Measure What Matters
According to ‘Talent Culture,’ a leading incubator for new ideas, innovation can be measured in the same way we measure student aptitude. The difference is that rather than measuring outputs, measuring level of innovation involves tracking inputs and impacts. For example, how much time do you provide staff to innovate? How much time of the day is dedicated to ‘discovery?’
Moonshot Academy is working with an organization called ‘Mastery Transcript’ to design and implement a transcript that reflects these novel outcomes. Scores in each area are supported by a portfolio of student work that include projects, reflections and responses to open- ended tasks.
How do you measure student learning? Does your reporting method align with your hoped outcomes for student learning?
3. Shared Ownership/ Leadership— Everyone is a Leader
Forbes magazine insists that the strongest leaders of innovation know they can’t- and shouldn’t do it all. They empower their employees to act autonomously to think independently and find new ways to solve problems. This empowers employees and breeds a culture of innovation.
At Moonshot Academy, this was ever present. Teachers, or as they like to say- ‘guardians’ and students are given tools to solve their own problems. They meet in a circle each morning to address community problems and devise solutions. When one student decided to add artwork to the walls without her peers’ permission, it was not the teachers but the community who administered the response. Rather than punish her, they collectively chose a space for her to doodle. Equally, when one student noticed the design lab ‘guardian’ was having trouble training students in use of the equipment, she created a tool matrix that empowered students to train each other.
How do you empower your community to act independently?
4. Structuring ‘unstructured time’ for accidental discovery
The most innovative companies in the world understand that much of innovation happens off the clock. Innovation happens on the daily bike ride to school/ work, or on the back of a napkin. When 3m introduced unstructured time, an employee invented the ’post it’ note; similarly, when Google introduced its infamous ’20 time,’ employees created Gmail and Google Earth.
When I asked to see a schedule at Moonshot Academy, they informed me that they would be hard to find. It’s because their schedules are changing every week depending on the learning experience, availability of mentors, or interests of the students. It is no surprise that providing this unstructured time has allowed for the greatest innovations. Students have created catapults that calculate trajectories with miniature computers placed inside their frame; created programs that use facial recognition to map mood swings and temperaments; built apps that help students increase their English vocabulary with simple games.
Is there free time in your schedule for ‘accidental discovery?’ Do you allow time for students to explore their passions?
5. Embrace Failure
Innovating regularly and often means taking risks. Thomas Edison once famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Moonshot Academy not only embraces failure; they celebrate it.
During the student exhibition, one of the first students I spoke with excitedly shared with me the new air soft gun he built. When he was finished, I asked him to demonstrate how it worked. He responded confidently with, “It doesn’t work.” He explained that he had 3-d printed some parts incorrectly, and that he needed to work on the springs. I grinned. This confidence was not something that he was born into; it was developed through being part of a culture that embraced failure. He went on to explain that before Moonshot Academy, he was stressed, unable to focus, and suffered from low self- esteem. He begrudged that he never had time to explore or discover things for himself.
How do you foster risk taking in your classroom/ school? Do you embrace failure? How do your learners know they are supported?
Next Steps for Moonshot Academy
Before I left at the end of the day, one of Moonshot’s leaders pulled me aside and asked me a poignant question: “How can we improve?” I was completely taken aback. Here I was ready to hail Moonshot Academy as the most innovative school I have ever seen, and one of their most effective practitioners was asking how they can improve.
I have no doubt in my mind that Moonshot Academy will reach its ambitious vision to be one of the most innovative schools in the world.
And while you may not have the freedom to become a Moonshot Academy, you do havea room/ school full of constituents ready to be inspired. What’s your Moonshot Idea? Involve your community to envision it together. Develop a ‘yes, and’ mentality, structure unstructured time to develop it, and embrace failure along the way.
Don’t forget to share your progress with me. I want to tell the world about it.
1. Kramer, Shelly. “Six Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Innovation.” TalentCulture, 12 Sept. 2017, talentculture.com/six-ways-leaders-can-build-a-culture-of-innovation/.
2. Kelly, Ric. “Creating a Culture of Innovation Starts With the Leader.” Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur, 11 June 2017, www.entrepreneur.com/article/280870.