“When educators design new ways to help students unlock their potential, they are laying the foundation for tomorrow’s breakthroughs. I want to help their good ideas travel faster.” – Suzie Boss, USA

Suzie Boss, a veteran journalist, author and education consultant, is on an important mission: to shine a light on the work of outstanding teachers, sharing their ideas with a broader audience.I’ve spent the past 15 years showcasing the work of teachers and educational leaders who often don’t realize they are doing anything exceptional,” Boss says. “When educators design new ways to help students unlock their potential, they are laying the foundation for tomorrow’s breakthroughs.  I want to help their good ideas travel faster.”

Boss, who has a regular blog on Edutopia, is also on the faculty of the Buck Institute for Education. Her work focuses on the benefits of project-based learning (PBL), supported by a book , a popular blog “Reinventing Project-Based Leaning” and regular Twitter chats. Based on her experience and observation, Boss is convinced that PBL is the key to developing 21st century skills. “Once teachers make the shift to PBL, then students get to spend more of their time developing the skills they will need for the future,” Boss notes.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Boss about her work and her new book, Bringing Innovation to School. Here, she shares her views on education reform and what true innovation in the classroom looks like.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I hope I’ve helped to jumpstart productive conversations—among colleagues, between parents, across disciplines. Sometimes readers will tell me that they’ve used a book or blog of mine to plan a project, introduce a new technology tool, or tackle action research in their school. That’s a good sign. If we hope to see fresh ideas take hold in education, they have to gain traction at the grassroots, in the classroom.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

My most recent book, Bringing Innovation to School, addresses how we can make room, within our existing system, to encourage more teachers to innovate. That’s how we’ll prepare students to become the innovators we need for the future.  The teachers and districts I showcase face challenges galore—from accountability systems that don’t encourage innovation, to budget shortfalls, to lack of access to technology, to parental pressures to keep school “the way they remember it.” Despite the challenges, there are educators who are reimagining school. They’re asking: Where and when should learning happen? What does a classroom look like when you remove the traditional walls? How can we help students tackle real-world problems, in their own communities or around the world? Educators who are just starting to consider these questions can learn from those who are the advance scouts for innovation.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology has allowed me to connect with educators, students, and collaborators from around the world. I use Skype for interviews, Twitter for a weekly #pblchat, collaborative documents for creating content with others, and interactive spaces for hosting webinars. I keep track of resources using social bookmarking tools and get a window into distant classrooms via webcams. I have facilitated online professional development sessions that would not have been possible without technology. And then, of course, there’s the instant publishing that the web allows.  Best of all, the same tools that I use in my professional life are available to students and teachers everywhere.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

For the past decade, our accountability system has hamstrung what happens in U.S. classrooms. The current standardized tests emphasize memorization over deeper thinking and rote skills over problem solving or innovation. I visit schools where students tell me they only have access to technology to practice for tests. It’s hard to make the case for
technology-rich, project-based learning when there’s such pressure to produce good test scores.

What is your country doing right to support education?

Free public education remains one of most powerful ideas in the world. I spent a month last year working with teachers in India, where only 15 percent of the population reaches high school. Some months back, I interviewed a brave educator named Sakena Yacoobi from Afghanistan. She has risked her life to make sure girls learn to read. In the US, we have a public educational system that much of the world envies. Let’s make the most of it.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Change won’t happen without teachers, but teachers currently have a limited voice in education reform. Policymakers and educational entrepreneurs need to know: What resources or structural changes do teachers need to do their best work? What’s holding back innovation? What new strategies for teaching and learning are being developed in classroom incubators? How can we make sure these good ideas spread?

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Innovation is both powerful and teachable. As I argue in Bringing Innovation to School, we need to start by redefining what we mean by innovation. Students (and teachers) need
to know about role-models who are working across all sectors, in all corners of the world. The innovators who become household names often develop commercial products, but many others harness their creativity to solve social and environmental problems. We can learn from their examples and give students opportunities to start applying innovation strategies today. That’s our best opportunity to produce a new generation of innovators.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Don’t lose the optimism that brought you into this profession.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Personalized learning offers opportunities for students to take more control over their education and find out what they’re good at, what they care about, and how they learn best. When I interview adult innovators, they often tell me about an early school experience in which they solved a problem, took the lead, or created something “real.” All students deserve opportunities that will let them discover their potential. That’s why I’m an advocate of project-based learning, which allows students to pursue questions that interest them.

Efforts to standardize learning (such as heavily scripted teaching) inhibit teacher innovation and keep students from pursuing the questions that matter to them.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Curiosity. You can take it anywhere. It never wears out.  It’s energizing. You never know where it might take you—but you’ll never get anywhere without it.

About Suzie Boss
Follow her on Twitter : @suzieboss

Suzie Boss writes about the power of teaching and learning to improve lives and transform communities. Co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, she contributes regularly to Edutopia, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and other publications, and is on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education, which works with educators around the world to improve teaching and learning.  Boss has helped to develop programs that teach teens and adults how to improve their own communities with innovative, sustainable solutions.

  • Birthplace: Glendale, California, USA
  • Current residence: Portland, Oregon, USA
  • Education: B.A. in Communications, Stanford University
  • Website I check every day: www.edutopia.org
  • Person who inspires me most: So many inspiring stories to choose from! If I had to pick just one, it might be Sakena Yacoobi, a courageous educator who has taken great risks to bring education to girls and women in her home country of Afghanistan through the Afghan Institute of Learning.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Visiting Europe with my grandparents when I was 10. Gave me an inkling of how much there is to explore in this big world.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Philadelphia, to keynote at Powerful Learning Practice Live conference in September, and then on to Monterrey, Mexico, later this year to talk about project-based learning with educators from across the country.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Yesterday, on the phone with one of my two adult sons. He’s a funny guy.
  • Favorite book: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • Favorite music: I’m all over the map. My brother is an accomplished jazz musician, so he’s given me a window into that world. My Pandora station is eclectic—from Motown to Mozart.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” –Henry James
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