Teaching at the Frontier: Innovation at Dwight School

Teaching at the Frontier: Innovation at Dwight School

Teaching at the Frontier: Innovation at Dwight School 1280 960 Larry Liu


A brief history of innovation (in education)

How we as a society define “good” education has always been changing based on what society most needed at the time. When we needed skilled craftsmen, apprentices worked with masters to learn skills like blacksmithing and carpentry. When a newly founded America needed literate citizens for its democracy, education focused on reading, writing, and grammar. Presently, we are in the midst of yet another change in society and a resulting change in education is also upon us. What we need today are creatives and innovators, and the current way we teach is not optimized to produce this kind of student.

Dwight School

Dwight is a remarkable school with its main campus in New York City and a network of global campuses in other major cities around the world: Shanghai, London, Seoul, Dubai, and a campus in the cloud called Dwight Global. Their school-wide motto, “Igniting the spark of genius in every child,” is a commitment to helping each student discover and apply their passion. A few years ago, Dwight introduced an after-school program called Spark Tank, an incubator to teach entrepreneur and innovation skills, supporting students as they design, build, and scale their ideas before pitching them before a panel of judges.

At the end of the day, Spark Tank is one of many things going on at Dwight, and like any multifaceted organization, it was challenging for the ideas and methods learned there to translate to other areas. Dwight leadership wanted innovation to permeate the school more comprehensively and needed to foster culture change where it mattered most: within classrooms and with each teacher.

This is where The Spike Lab comes in. We were tasked with the challenge of accelerating this culture change by creating and piloting a training program that would give teachers the tools and mindset to innovate and push the frontier of education. We wanted to combine the best practices from the startup world with the best practices from the education world, and see if we could foster a new kind of entrepreneurial teacher who tackles problems in the same way that the most innovative companies would. And so, the Frontier Teacher Workshop Series was born, and in true startup fashion, we quickly built version 1 and launched it with the first cohort of frontier teachers.

Designing the Frontier

Our own experience as entrepreneurs told us that the best way to learn innovation is to just roll up your sleeves and do it. Lessons and slides are great, but we wanted the teachers to become intuitive innovators, and for that there’s no substitute for first-hand experience.

Phase 1: Innovation Entrepreneurship
  • Design Thinking Crash Course
  • Lean Methodology Crash Course
  • Modeling & Assumptions
  • Prototyping
  • Pitching

We adapted some of the most common and effective startup methods and frameworks to create Phase 1 of the workshop series. Teachers launched their own “startups” as they tried to tackle challenges in education.Their goal was to create a solution that had traction with actual users — in this case, students and other teachers. The frontier teachers learned to apply concepts like “user-centered design,” “iteration,” and “small bets” as they experienced the highs and lows of designing and launching something. Coming out of Phase 1, our hope was that they would not only be able to teach these entrepreneurial frameworks to their students, but also be more innovative in their own teaching practice.

For this pilot, the frontier teachers reimagined assessments as the central design challenge that their “startups” tackled. Some teachers created solutions for students to better understand the IB rubrics. Others created solutions to help students reflect and self-assess after a project or assignment.

Phase 2: Frontier Methods
  • Play-based Learning
  • Personalized Learning
  • Online Learning
  • TED Talks

In Phase 2, we explored some of the latest and greatest methods in education today. We brought in experts in these methods (i.e., the Executive Director of the Institute of Play and the Head of School of the Alt School) to take the frontier teachers through mini-crash courses on each. From here, the teachers planned out small implementations of their favorite methods as a way to “level up” something about student learning or engagement in their classrooms. The skills and experience gained in Phase 1 became essential for navigating the implementation in a systematic and sustainable way.


Of course, no pilot would be complete without a means to assess its impact and efficacy. Here is some of what came out of the workshop.

Innovation Abilities

At the heart of everything, we wanted teachers to think about the underlying skills that are common in innovative people, and we framed the entire workshop series as a way for them to grow these abilities in themselves and their students. We focused on:

  • Brainstorming
  • Prototyping / Making
  • Empathy
  • Intentionality
  • Managing Ambiguity
  • Action-oriented
  • Prioritizing
  • Goal-setting
  • Task Management
  • Public Speaking
  • Networking
  • Feedback

We recognize that there are many such lists of “essential skills” for innovation or entrepreneurship. This list is pulled from our own years of experience as educators and startup founders.

Emergent Learning

Another key outcome we are interested in tracking is the learning that isn’t directly tied to the content of the pilot, but emerges as teachers digest and process their experiences. For example, one of this cohort’s frontier teachers has changed the way she scaffolds the creative process for her art students because of her own experience with the challenge of being creative under tight time constraints. Another teacher has implemented more design thinking principles into his lessons so students are better able to think from multiple perspectives.

To track this emergent learning as it manifests over time, we plan on following this and future cohorts of frontier teachers over the course of a year after they complete the workshop series.


New ideas need space; a chance to breathe and grow. One of the things we kept hearing again and again from the frontier teachers is how often they used the workshop as an excuse to try things. We found this incredibly interesting because school, like any organization, has its own established ways of doing things, and innovation is inherently disruptive. What the Frontier Workshop did for many of its first cohort teachers was to carve out a space for them to innovate, collaborate, and dialogue about their practice.

Culture is king. One of the keys to the success of this pilot has been the incredible teachers who participated. What we began to notice right from the start was that a rich and supportive culture formed with this cohort. There was a shared understanding that the work they were doing was hard, but that they were in it together. This was enhanced by a common language that quickly evolved as we introduced them to new terms and ideas. “Iterate” and “assumptions” became common-place terms, and the frontier teachers constantly reminded each other to think smaller and leaner. Additionally, this first cohort had the unique experience of having Dwight’s Chancellor and the Head of the Upper School joining the workshop as participants, which created a tremendous sense of being a part of something bigger. These teachers knew that they had the backing of the entire school and that gave them the essential ingredient to explore, try, and fail without fear.

Design for serendipitous collisions. This first time around, we didn’t even consider the composition of the cohort or how it would impact the outcomes of the pilot. Of course, we were pleased by the number of teachers who signed up, as well as the spread of subjects and grade levels. But what we hadn’t realized was that these teachers often barely knew each other and had very little interactions outside of the Frontier program. We began to realize how valuable this time was for them to cross-pollinate ideas and even just get to know each other. Coming out of this experience, these teachers will have many more colleagues who they can collaborate with and learn from. Moving forward, we will definitely design for more intentional collisions to happen between the participating teachers of future cohorts.

The Future of Frontier

With the pilot wrapping up in a few weeks, we’re excited for the future of this program. The biggest success is seen through the excitement from our first cohort of frontier teachers. Many are implementing changes in their classrooms and are looking for opportunities to continue to support the program. In the future, we hope to be able to track not only the growth of teachers’ innovation abilities, but also the number of innovations launched by frontier teachers over the course of years after they participated.

We’re already onto the second iteration with two one-week “boot camp” style workshops planned for June and August. We hope this will make the program more accessible to teachers who aren’t able to make a sustained commitment over so many months, but are able to do something more intensive for a shorter period of time.

Based on our learnings from version 1 of this program, the central design challenge will be focused around the “spark of genius” concept that is so core to Dwight’s philosophy. We’re hoping that this program will create a framework that any school can use to systematically tackle any large and complex challenge.