Saturday, February 12, 2011

Innovation in Education: The Missing Link

I predict that “innovation” will soon become the newest addition to the famous Lake Superior State U list of “Banished Words.”  So confident that I just submitted it on their website and I encourage you to as well.  I do not oppose the idea, indeed I embrace it, but I think we’ve exhausted the word's usefulness to our lexicon.

Despite my misgivings, I must use the word here to describe why in education, true innovation is so rare.  A recent TED Talk by TED Curator, Chris Anderson helped me gain a better appreciation for innovation and led me to think about why this sort of innovation is so elusive in the world of education.

Anderson coined the phrase “crowd accelerated innovation,” but in his talk he argues that innovation has always been a group process.  The difference today lies in the internet’s ability to ramp up the group process to a level never before achieved.  So for Anderson, innovation requires three elements—a crowd, light, and desire.  The crowd is a community of individuals with a shared interest or purpose.  Light refers to the need for each member of the community to be visible, to see what every other member is up to.  Finally, without desire, no motivation exists for creativity or moving forward rather than taking satisfaction in the status quo.

On the surface, all of these elements appear to be in place within the world of education.  We have no shortage of community, countless parents, teachers, administrators, and even business leaders are committed to elevating the level of education in the community and the nation.  A ready supply of desire exists few causes more noble than preparing young minds to reach their full potential in life.  I contend that light is the missing link in true innovation of our profession.

Light requires individual connection and the visibility of all members of the crowd.  We have a façade of light in the world of education, but we still lack the true connection and visibility required for effective innovation.  In Anderson’s talk he gives several examples of how internet video has sped innovation in several areas. 

One example refers to a Unicyclist.  Today, a unicyclist may watch his or her community of cyclists perform various tricks and stunts on YouTube.  Rather than passively watching, the cyclist may then take the ideas seen in the video, practice them, make them better, then share the innovation with the community where other cyclists may repeat the pattern, thus accelerating the rate of innovation among Unicyclists worldwide. 

A more sober example refers to scientific procedures caught on video which serve to make replication of such procedures easier and more accurate versus the traditional method of pouring through pages of text and making assumptions in order to confirm scientific findings.

In both cases, the practitioners of the discipline openly share their ideas and practices with the community.  This open sharing facilitates crowdsourcing as everyone in the community is now free to take these ideas, shape them into something new, and share the results back to the community.

So what’s stopping this from happening in education.  First is the drive toward standardization.  We have standardized tests from common standards leading to a common curriculum.  The myth that arises from this is that we can have standardized instruction.  With other types of innovation, the crowd is free to adopt what works, adapt it to their situation, and share successes or failures.  The more we expect standardized instruction from teachers, the less freedom they will enjoy to experiment with what works and what doesn't in their classrooms. 

We bemoan the effect of teaching silos, but when innovation is more top down than lateral, innovation is not really innovation.  It is a manager with an idea expecting his or her employees to make it work.  Teachers do have opportunities to avail themselves of each others expertise in order to benefit from crowd accelerated innovation, but it gets harder by the day.

Time has become a great issue.  Under the auspices of economy, teacher workloads have increased across the nation.  I suspect though that economy is the scapegoat for this action.  Political and educational leaders alike pay lip service to teachers with general statements about their hard work and ability, but their policies and agendas treat them more like assembly line workers than artists.  School districts must provide teachers with the space for reflection and innovation rather than working them non-stop while expecting others outside of the classroom to be the innovation minded.

Just in the last three days, I've been able to watch my fifth grade son engage with his classmates on "Edmodo."  At lunch I shared the story with a colleague.  By the end of the day he was showing me how he had begun to integrate it into one of his electives and the useful features that I hadn't even noticed while watching my son work.  While showing me this, I talked about some ways that I had been using my blog to supplement some of our class activities and he explained how certain features were more suited to the "wiki" spaces that he had set up for another project.  Later, over this weekend I showed my wife how to create a Prezi presentation for a grad school project.  I got the idea when another teacher sent several links to resources that she had used successfully in her US Government classes.

All of this took place with no more than one hour of interaction at the most.  I would love to take all of these resources-- the blog, edmodo, wikispaces, and prezi-- for the next month and really integrate them into instruction to find out what works, what doesn't, and what is worth pushing on to my colleagues as we collaboratively engage in the process of innovation.  As a teacher, I will take all of the isolated minutes that I can scrap to engage in the collaborative process of innovation.  I would ask from the public, politicians, and especially the educational leaders who directly make decisions to protect this space for classroom teachers, and facilitate innovation in education by allowing us to become a greater part of this process.


1 comment:

  1. Good post, though it looks like you just built on my ideas. :) Your analysis explains why so much "reform" is not always welcomed by the classroom teacher. Because we know new ideas are not always improvements and are simply more mandated change. It is tough to keep up and perhaps we could rename our "planning" period to something like "work" period. I suspect that this same principle holds true for kids, there is a balance between doing as much as you are able and doing things well in an innovative way. But the pendulum continues to swing towards maximizing output and efficiency.

    There are many such changes underway in education and change can be difficult. Given we(students and teachers) are the ones in the classroom we feel the effects of these changes first hand. My hope is that parents, teachers and decision makers will all be able to navigate these decisions with the best interest of the students and instruction in mind. Our kids, teachers and schools deserve our best not just more of the same.
    Very interesting video. The comments starting at 12:45 apply to your post. ..."a model for other schools" and then at 13:00 "The best teachers are reflective teachers". Hmmmmm