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Leveraging R&D to Spark Innovation in Your School District

Leveraging R&D to Spark Innovation in Your School District

Strategic Planning  |  School Leadership

At the core of innovation in companies leading the way in developing solutions for the future is a Research and Development team, more commonly known as R&D. This is where insight and inspiration are translated into creative and impactful solutions. In short, R&D is the process by which an organization obtains new knowledge to develop applicable solutions to present or future challenges. Companies leverage R&D for the following primary goals:

  • Track market - Explore the future to reduce uncertainty and build competencies to respond to emerging needs. 
  • Service market - Improve processes and products or develop new solutions.
  • Shape market - Identify and implement ways to solve problems with a new, innovative, and more impactful approach.
  • Maintain market - Reduce costs and solve process problems with current projects.

While educators are undoubtedly committed to continuous improvement to meet the needs of their students, the education field remains one of the few sectors where a dedicated R&D team is uncommon. We experience aspects of R&D in schools in some ways but rarely at scale. For example, when Education Elements works with districts to implement personalized learning, we emphasize the value of both teachers and students understanding and tracking student learning data and leveraging their insights to develop appropriate solutions. Essentially, this approach to data-driven instruction is a microcosm of an R&D approach. You may have a similar example of an R&D approach in your school.


Why Education Elements decided to start an R&D team

When COVID-19 began to impact districts across the country, we at Education Elements knew this would be a crucial moment for us to demonstrate our value as thought leaders in education, but more importantly as educators who care deeply about the communities we work with. We saw the need to stay abreast of the inevitable shifts in education so that we would be well-equipped to support our district partners through these uniquely challenging times. Spurred by this challenge, we formed a team dedicated to researching trends, best practices, and innovative solutions. This team’s work helped inform many important COVID-19 response strategies such as reopening planning, equitable engagement, distance learning solutions, and SEL during periods of crisis. Through this work, it was clear that a dedicated R&D team would prove immensely valuable in our efforts to be innovative, forward-thinking, and responsive to district needs. With this insight, we have built a structure for R&D that we believe will allow us to stay ahead of the curve with identifying trends in education while deepening our understanding of current needs that necessitate creative solutions.


How R&D can help your school district

If we revisit the primary goals of R&D outlined above with a focus on education, we might consider the following opportunities to support change in districts through R&D:

  • Track trends - Stay abreast of both K-12 and community trends to reduce uncertainty around stakeholder needs and build district capacity to serve students more effectively.
  • Serve community - Improve district processes or instructional approaches; develop new materials and test products to better meet student and staff needs.
  • Shape learning - Identify and implement ways to serve the needs of learners and educators with a new, innovative, and more impactful approach.
  • Maintain operations - Ensure that your district and building leadership are equipped to respond to emerging staff and community needs; analyze current operations and org charts to identify opportunities for improvement.

The above examples are just a glimpse into the ways R&D can help a district better serve their students. As we explored R&D in education, we were fortunate enough to connect with one of our district partners, Mason City Schools, to learn more. Superintendent Johnathan Cooper and Innovative Programs Administrator Christine McCormick were able to lend us some valuable perspectives into their district’s R&D work, and we’ll be sharing more about their experience throughout this blog post.


Why R&D? Why now?

Now more than ever, districts need to be ready to meet the evolving needs of their communities. As educators we are driven by the need to help every student succeed; we are in a moment in history where those needs are rapidly shifting. We are seeing the impact of inequitable access to technology, changing designs of both virtual and in-person classroom environments, increasing challenges in supporting the emotional and physical well-being of students and educators, and countless other changes that face education - both new and amplified by current circumstances. Just as Education Elements recognized the opportunity to innovate the processes and services that we provide, districts have the opportunity to leverage this moment to embrace what the future holds, even before it arrives.

In this period of complexity and uncertainty, we responded quickly because we had to. We were placed in a situation that nobody asked for nor predicted and had to make the most of it. While it certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing, schools have managed to completely redesign some of the core characteristics of the learning experience with little time to prepare. Spurred by this need for action, districts have been primed to learn, iterate, and respond rapidly to changing needs. In the short term, there is an opportunity to improve on the current approach to serving students during the Covid-19 pandemic. You may start with a retrospective to better understand what is or isn’t working and use this to kick off the work of your R&D team (don’t worry; we’ll tell you how to get started later in this blog post). In the long term, there is an opportunity to completely redesign systems to better meet the needs of students and educators. We all eagerly await the return to normalcy when students are back in their classrooms collaborating with one other, teachers right at their side, with the ability to roam the halls of our schools connecting in our shared learning experiences. But that doesn’t mean that ‘normal’ has to be business as usual in schools. What are some innovations we see happening now that might enhance the teaching and learning experiences when the masks come off and the floor markings are peeled away? What are some student needs that have really come to light given recent challenges? How can district leaders be prepared to innovate and adapt to future trends? These are all questions that an R&D team will help you answer.


What can R&D look like? 

At Education Elements, we created a research and development team that spun off from our Learning Organization circle with the purpose to better understand the ever-changing education landscape, and more importantly, use that information to support our district partners. To facilitate that learning, we put together a process, which you can see in the diagram below.



Initiate →

Review →

Research →

Outcome →

Next Steps ↺


Learning Org




Learning Org

Learning Org


LO to submit request form*

R&D to conduct ongoing insights and share at tbd intervals

Reviews request, determines research strategy/approach

Within 48 hours, responds to person who submitted

Determines roles for research task (e.g. Lead Researcher, Synthesizer) 

Gather insights and produce report per request

Product report according to specifications

Learning Org reviews report and determines how information will be used

Reports outcome to R&D (e.g. We reviewed report and determined no current changes are needed; We will be sharing this with xyz)

Information shared to relevant parties (e.g. GCC, service lines, other circles, marketing, sales)

Decision made on next steps (e.g. build prototype, consumer research, further insights needed, market scan)


Supports clarity and efficiency in our process

Ensures R&D is continuously investigating trends

Collaborative time to clarify roles based on capacity and expertise

Information presented in timely manner with key insights highlighted to inform outcome

Ensures we stay abreast of how info is being used and what we can do to maximize usefulness of outputs.

Learning org has insight across circles and is best equipped to determine use of information

Learning Org will communicate next steps by initiating a subsequent request form

While many of the terms and processes are unique to the organizational structure at Education Elements, you may want to think through a parallel structure to guide your process. How is an R&D project initiated? What is your research process? How do you determine the way information/results will be utilized? And who are the key team members who will take ownership of each of these steps? Defining a clear R&D process will help ensure clarity, transparency, accountability, and efficiency - all necessary in driving impactful change in any system.

For every research question that the R&D group pursues, we have been intentional around connecting that question back to a primary goal of research and development: track, service, shape, or maintain the market. We also want to be very action-oriented when it comes to deciding what steps to take once the research is done. After all, it’s a research AND development group. Our purpose is not just to seek information, but think about how that information can be applied to our existing work and help us grow as an organization.

Turning back to Mason City Schools, their R&D efforts stemmed from a desire from their superintendent to push innovation forward in their district, and that started with hiring a Chief Innovation Officer who was responsible for overseeing R&D efforts in the district and aligning work around academic innovation and technology. From there, the district created additional new roles for teachers on special assignment to serve as Learning Experience Designers who were responsible for supporting teachers in their efforts to leverage innovative practices in their classrooms. 


How do I start?

Interested in revving up the R&D engine in your district? Here are four tips for getting started: 

Establish a north star

It’s important to define the work before you define the people. Be really clear about why you’re taking the plunge to be more intentional about R&D in your district and make sure it ties back to your mission, vision, and strategic priorities. In Mason City, their north star took the form of three “big rocks” (culture, inclusive excellence, and personalized learning). Having a clear objective for what your research and development efforts are geared toward is also essential in maintaining transparency and effective communication with stakeholders. Everyone in your community should be able to understand what you’re doing and why it’s important. 

Mobilize your innovators

The diffusion of innovation theory describes how new ideas and initiatives are embraced by certain groups of people in a given environment, ranging from innovators to laggards. Innovators and early adopters are willing and eager to try new things. You don’t have to invest time, resources, or energy to get them on board to try a new idea — in fact, they might have already been thinking about what’s next before you have! Those who are ahead of the curve can serve as ambassadors and evangelists to get others bought in. The team in Mason City identified some of their innovators by hosting a “Think Club” — an event that empowered people to bring their lofty goals and big ideas to a common space and fuel a conversation around the possibilities of the future. 

Place small bets

Mason City Schools didn’t try to shift culture or instruction district-wide from the onset. Instead, they leveraged their Learning Experience Designers to identify, support, and scale effective practices at the classroom level through a micro-grant program called Innovation Catalyst in partnership with the Mason Schools Foundation. Each month a mini-grant invitation is sent out, inviting teachers to propose their ideas on an innovative topic – for example, Innovative Spaces, Makerspace, Personalized Learning, STEM, Genius Hour, and Global Awareness. The Mason Schools Foundation awards up to $2,500 in grants each month. While the dollar amount invested is relatively small in this example, the program has the potential to initiate scalable change in a lean and efficient manner.

Enlist others

Build and nurture rich networks of like-minded, forward-thinking leaders who can support you in your R&D efforts as thought partners. Remember that while it might feel as if you are, you are never leading alone! Also, look to industries outside of education for inspiration. The healthcare and manufacturing sectors, for example, can teach us a lot about effective R&D practices. 

We hope these ideas will inspire you to harness the power of a research and development team to fuel your district’s journey to the future — and it doesn’t have to take much time, money, or energy to get started! Have you already launched an R&D team in your district? Do you have ideas for how R&D might transform the way your district innovates? We'd love to hear about it; we invite you to share your comments below!

Leverage the "Moonshot Mindset" to Fuel Innovation in Your District; Webinar on October 12 at 8am PT/11am ET

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