Innovation from Complexity: Addressing Student Engagement and Adapting to Change

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Innovation from Complexity: Addressing Student Engagement and Adapting to Change

A crisis is often a short disruption, which is followed by rapid response and recovery. The COVID-19 crisis, however, seems to be lingering, throwing educators into a situation of navigating shifting decisions, ambiguity and complexity. Dispositions such as agility, innovation and collaboration are touted as critical for successful navigation of this crisis, but what do they really mean for the educators on the ground?

This rapid inquiry attempts to capture a snapshot of one school through:

  • Identifying challenge trends for teachers in their new educational landscape,
  • Identifying opportunities for transformation in learning and teaching, ways of working and possibilities for scaling that transformation
  • Framing a possible way forward

The school examined in this case study is a high school which seeks to develop the next generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) innovators. Over the course of the last month, educators in the school have been reacting to changing mandates around the return to a new academic year during Covid-19, for staff and students.

Currently, they are working with a blended model of teaching and learning (see appendix 1). Students come to school in two grade levels at a time for face to face sessions, two days of the week. They are engaged in online synchronous lessons for another two days and they alternate between coming to school and home learning every second Tuesday.

The school is prioritizing face to face learning to include literacy, numeracy, practical laboratory sessions and innovation lessons. The rationale for this is to enable students to access resources they do not have available when they are learning online.

This inquiry occurred on a Thursday when the Grade 9 and 11 classes were in school. Two leaders, four teachers and two students engaged in informal discussions with the inquirer. This was arranged informally and sometimes randomly according to who was available to have a conversation. Each conversation started with an introduction about the purpose of the discussion, to inquire into what was happening at this moment in time and to capture thoughts and experiences of teachers working in this unique moment. Permission was sought to take notes to record key points.

The conversations were loosely based on three to four questions. These questions varied depending on the time available and where the conversation went. They were used as a way to nudge the conversation as needed and to try and cover similar areas of focus.

  1. What are the challenges you are facing? / What’s hard right now?
  2. What’s working or surprising you?
  3. How are you learning/ supporting yourself as a teacher?
  4. If you could change something what would it be?

After leaving the school, handwritten notes were transferred to a Google sheet. Each note was then coded for the main theme. Any secondary themes were also noted. This led to a few refinements as the repeated and similar themes began to emerge. The final broad themes included:

18 Adapting to change 4 Online Tools
12 Engagement 3 Teacher Learning
9 Innovation 2 Scheduling
6 Formative assessment 1 Resources
6 Planning

Figure 1: Number of instances for each broadly coded theme from stakeholder conversations

The results of coding the responses clearly show that the primary challenges facing these educators and students were adapting to change and engagement.

While researching how other educators globally were addressing these challenges, the codes were revisited, and the three-phased framework outlined below was applied. Each recorded statement was highlighted to show which phase was reflected in each comment. This was used as a framework for targeting which phase the school and its stakeholders were in and, therefore, what solutions would be most effective in that phase.

This was an important step because when navigating between the phases, Fullan et.al, acknowledge the importance of educators operating within zones of learning and growth. In the learning zone educators ‘start to consider multiple factors and the opportunity to reflect on the possibility to shift from surviving to navigating the new remote environment’ (p.6). While in the growth zone there is an opportunity to reflect on what is being learned and capture insights. This is when ‘systems recognize that they are no longer working on a temporary or stopgap solution.’ (p.9) Schools may move between these zones as circumstances change, but by being aware of when learning is happening and when growth can happen, education teams can leverage the work happening in each phase. Movement between these phases and zones requires a toolkit of skills and approaches that are both ‘reactive and proactive’.

What the educational thought leaders are saying:

Fullan, Quinn, Drummy and Gardiner (2020) in their paper on reimagining education and the future of learning, identify three phases of response that educational organizations are engaging in globally during this crisis.

Figure 2: Three phases of response. Fullam, Quinn, Drummy and Gardiner 2020.

This framework is echoed by Lenoff’s 3Ts framework of Triage, Transition, Transform (Lenhoff et al. 2019) and Simon Breakspear’s (2020) three phases of Crisis, Adaptation and Opportunity in his work on Building Back Better. The similarities in these frameworks are that they follow the same trajectory and recommendations in each phase, and they give a useful lens for understanding the types of challenges schools are facing throughout the evolving crisis. It also allows educators to frame decisions and work that can be done to move across and between the phases. Each of the researchers above point out that the phases are fluid and are not necessarily linear. The comments collected at this school site reflect this, even within the same stakeholder. The phases are generally described as

  1. Disruption phase - This phase highlights the importance of resilience and adaptability. The key areas of concern involve an immediate reaction response to ensure the continuation of learning along with a safe and connected environment for people. A constant re-prioritization and focus on practicalities occurs.
  2. Transition phase - This phase involves responding to the complexity of health and safety compliance, the wellbeing of all stakeholders and restarting learning after a break. This phase is characterized by the resourcefulness of educators who engage in ‘pivot planning’ and rapid cycles of testing and learning. There is a complexity in the combined requirement to respond to operational and learning needs. This phase requires new ways of working.
  3. Reimagining phase - This phase is characterized by reflection and action through capturing emerging practices, honoring innovative practices and taking advantage of the disruption to leverage transformational innovations in teaching and learning using agile ways of working together.

Application to case study school

The school is well placed for innovation as this represents the core of their philosophy and work. However, with the level of complexity the school is currently facing in their rapid responsiveness, a closer look at what is happening on the ground is warranted in order to think about how the educators might move collectively into the growth zone and the Reimagine phase.

If we imagine the phases and zones as a quasi-continuum, the range of comments collected from stakeholders highlights that they are in different places on the continuum. An analysis of the comments also suggests that it is difficult to pinpoint that an educator is sitting only within one phase or zone as their comments demonstrated fluidity across the phases as they discuss elements of their work.

Disruption phase - The comments collected suggest that there are a few people still grappling with the shift to remote learning. This is particularly the case in the area of resourcing and finding ways of doing practical science work without resources such as chemicals or without using pedagogical practices such as pair and group work. A leader mentioned that “last year it was a matter of just ‘make it to the end’, now we need to ‘make it work’... The volume of change is huge.” This is reflected in the ‘adapting to change’ theme being coded the highest number of times, This highlights that although there is an awareness that the school has moved from the disruption to transition phase, the constant change in decisions and mandates keeps the school moving in and out the disruption phase.

Transition phase - The majority of comments fell within the characteristics of the transition phase. This reflects the reality that school has just reopened, and educators are attempting to address structures, processes and decisions. Three out of four of the stakeholders’ comments can be summarized as “the challenge is how to make the face to face valuable, make it worth risking their health for. How do we balance rigor and making it worth coming to school for?” The comments also suggest that many of the educators are in the learning zone. There were many comments that educators were experimenting, thinking carefully and asking questions as they are learning more about what will work in the new era of schooling.

An area of concern that was raised by four out of six stakeholders, and was coded 12 times, was the challenge of building relationships and learning trust with students in the remote sessions. There were numerous comments about screens being left off and therefore teachers finding it difficult to engage with, build relationships and assess student understanding. This was acknowledged by a leader who said, “the focus needs to be on connecting and engaging with students and engaging with colleagues, explicitly asking students to turn on cameras - some teachers are not prioritizing this.”

Reimagining phase - A common theme that came through in the conversation was that educators were “experimenting and ‘doing’ with colleagues and we have support to do that”. Another educator said, “We have the freedom to try new things.” There is clearly an expectation from the leaders and teachers themselves to experiment and test new ways of doing things. A growth zone mindset was demonstrated by an educator who said ‘but we can't give up, we need to persevere and get creative… it’s not as restrictive as I first thought it would be - we can still use our old toolbox.” This suggests that many of the educators are in the learning zone. However, there was little mention of how these innovations were being captured and leveraged in a systematic or formal way in order to move into the growth zone and towards the reimagine phase.

Ultimately, the areas of challenge that were identified from the responses, adapting to change and engagement, need to be dealt with across all of the phases and with the understanding that teachers are in different places in their learning and growth zones. One set of solutions will not address this complexity.

Moving Forward:

The diverse range of responses show many stakeholders cannot be neatly mapped on the continuum of phases and zones. There is fluidity and bridging between the phases evident in the complexity of responses. Given this, how might the school support their educators in building their efficacy in teaching and learning in the new circumstances in order to enhance student outcomes? Fullan et.al (2020) argue that “Reimagining learning means rethinking what’s important to learn, how learning is fostered, where learning occurs and what outcomes are measured.” (p.19)

Two possible areas of focus come out of the data: adapting to change and innovation. A further area of concern for stakeholders was how to engage students in learning. Below are some possibilities for how these focus areas could be addressed and leveraged.

Adapting to change:

While there was diversity in the comments that were tagged ‘adapting to change’ and ‘innovation’, many of the comments included overlaps of experimenting with new ways of teaching and learning and thinking about how to address challenges as they arise. All stakeholders were in a constant state of response through testing and reflecting. The conversations identified challenges more specifically than solutions, and most teachers weren’t specific about what experimentation they were engaging in or how it was impacting student learning. It is clear that teachers are using their teaching craft in new ways; however, the range of comments at an individual level suggests this is happening haphazardly as a response in the juncture between the ‘disruption to transition’ phase of the crisis. Although some educators said they were working and learning from colleagues, this was not consistent and there was a sense that teachers were often working on their own to research and implement tools and ideas.

An opportunity exists for the school to move quickly to the reimagine phase of the response framework. One way to do so would be to formalize these pockets of experimentation as a team by engaging in intentional teaching sprints that document the interventions and experimentation and their impact on student learning. Breakspear (2019) says

‘The capacity to continuously learn-by-doing is crucial to becoming agile. Agile leaders typically seek to get better all the time by following the maxim: start small, learn fast and fail well. They start small because they respect the complexity of the challenges that they face in improving learning. By carving out small slices of the problem, and focusing on specific target outcomes, they make the work of educational improvement more open to disciplined, iterative improvement work.’

Fullan and Quinn (2016) argue that “It is the consistent, collective shaping and reshaping of ideas and solutions that forges deep coherence across the system.’ (p.47) Through being intentional in engaging in continuous improvement work, a culture of expectation can emerge where all educators are in the growth zone. A further intended outcome could be the creation of sustained innovative, collective efficacy across the faculty. Documenting this work would also allow the faculty to build a bank of resources, tools and teaching methodologies that could be scaled internally and even across a larger school system.

Figure 3: Simon Breakspear: Improvement Sprints


Engaging students through online learning was a large concern for almost all the stakeholders I spoke with. In all three framework models, there is an emphasis on safety and wellbeing being a precondition before any learning can occur. To support this happening, Fullan et.al. (2020) recommend focusing on creating connections and conversations, re-establishing norms to help students feel safe and inviting student and family voices. In this period of transition, as the community moves back into full time teaching and learning, establishing these norms under the new circumstances is being identified as a challenge. Educators are interpreting black screens as a sign of disengagement. However, Fullan et.al. (2020) argue that student engagement has ‘plummeted’ over the last 10 years, and that the ‘hybrid’ or blended model of schooling “is a way to enhance and accelerate learning by providing student centered approaches to meet diverse learners' needs.” They go on to say that those educators who had gone through the growth zone and were successfully engaging students had learned the following things:

  1. “Self-regulation and learning to learn were key determinants of student motivation, engagement and success.’ (p.9)
  2. “Students who found themselves with more choice and voice exceeded expectations finding ways to help themselves and collaborate with others.” (p.9)
  3. “Technology shifted from being a vehicle for delivery/ transmission to a mechanism for collaboration, social connectedness and culture building.”(p.9)
  4. For students with special learning needs, “the content chunking, the learning design [and] the support structures” needed to be in place. (p.12)
  5. "Relationships and engagement—the gatekeepers of learning—are emphasized in this learner-centered model. Voice, choice and agency are central to deep learning.” (p.17)
  6. “Engagement is a key determinant of learning and can be amplified through Virtual Real-Life experiences; museum and gallery tours, simulations and sandbox environments where students explore and create across time and space with experts and partners. Artificial Intelligence can offer translation, transcription, presentation, feedback and peer and self-assessment tools.” (p.18)

They go on to recommend that educators ask themselves the following questions in order to engage students in deep learning:

  1. “What knowledge, skills and attributes do our students need to thrive in this complex world?”
  2. “What kind of learning is needed for this current and future complexity?”
  3. “How do we ensure equity?”
  4. “How do we attend to well-being?”
  5. “What have we learned from remote learning?”
  6. “How can technology be best leveraged for learning in the future?” (p15)

Of course, this case study school is not alone in the challenges around engagement online. By using the learning and recommendations from the education thought leaders above, as a starting place, leveraging their willingness to ask questions, experiment and push boundaries, capturing and analyzing the student learning data, they would be well placed to add their own learning and provide recommendations to the wider educational community.

Thanks to all the staff and students who contributed to this inquiry.


Hargreaves, A. and O’Conner, M., 23 September 2017, Collaborative Professionalism, WISE Research Paper https://www.wise-qatar.org/2017-wise-research-collaborative-professionalism/ viewed 18 Septmber 2020.

Fullan, M., Quinn, J., Drummy, M., and Gardner, M., June 2020, Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning, https://edudownloads.azureedge.net/msdownloads/Microsoft-EducationReimagined-Paper.pdf, accessed 11 September 2020.

Fullan, M., and Quinn, J., 2015, Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems 1st Edition, Corwin Press and the Ontario Principals’ Council

Lenhoff, S. W., Lewis, J. M., Pogodzinski, B., & Jones, R. D. (2019). ‘Triage, transition, and transformation’: Advocacy discourse in urban school reform. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 27(32). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.27.4230

QAST website: https://www.qast.qa/ accessed 10 September 2020

Simon Breakspear, 2020, Build Back Better webinar https://simonbreakspear.com/bbbVIC/, accessed June 11, 2020.

Simon Breakspear, 2019, Embracing an Agile Mindset in Principal Connections Magazine, Ontario, Canada. https://simonbreakspear.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Principal-Connections-Magazine-Ontario-2016.pdf accessed 18 September 2020

Schoeffal, S. and Ho, R., 4 May 2020, School Leadership: Using evidence to manage change in a pandemic, Australian Council for Educational Research, Teacher Evidence+Insight + Action, https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/school-leadership-using-evidence-to-manage-change-in-a-pandemic, viewed 14 September 2020

Appendix 1: School Schedule 10 September 2020

Appendix 2: Coding Comments from Conversations


Joanna Moe

Assistant Director for Teaching and Learning
Education Development Institute