I am convinced that the current and continued practices in American schools actually inhibit innovation. The reason boils down to two simple words. We’ll discuss them in a minute.
First, let’s get clear on what true innovation is. Innovation is the by-product of innovative actions or thinking, resulting in something new. At a minimum, an innovation represents a significant improvement to something that already exists, while, ideally, it will be something revolutionary and ground-breaking, something that forever alters how we approach a task or challenge. True innovations are the products of brazen risk taking and unbridled creativity. They are the engine that have, and do, move our society and the world forward.
Now, apply this descriptive definition to the traditional classroom and school house.
What is so “new” about the way we do school in America today, compared to what was done in the 20th, and even 19th, centuries? We still sort kids. We still employ a “one-size fits all” standardized industrial model. We still value the memorization of facts over the thoughtful consideration of concepts and measure the success of this expectation via standardized testing practices that we label “assessment.” We still employ rigid grading and reporting practices, even though we know they fall short of accurately representing what a student knows, understands and can do with what he or she has learned. This list could go on and on. But, these examples are sufficient to support my fundamental question. What has changed? Where are the innovations that have moved children closer to experiencing the education kids deserve within the context of our modern world?
Some would suggest that the application of instructional technology into classroom practices is an example of educational innovation. But, I don’t think so. While Google has replaced the need for encyclopedia shelf space, the application remains the same - the reliable location of facts. The way technology is managed is still teacher centered. We put tools in the hands of children that have the power to unlock a universe of understanding while still admonishing them to “stay with me.” The instructional activities and expectations starkly resemble an era of “read chapter three in your text book and answer the questions at the end.” The tasks remain the same. The only difference is that the evidence is produced digitally. Saving the trees from paper production is certainly a strong environmental initiative, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that this represents meaningful innovation. Sadly, I believe we need to concede that, at least so far, what we have accomplished by handing each child a tablet or laptop is the modern equivalent of providing each student a pencil.
So, again I ask: “Where’s the innovation?”
There is a simple explanation for the lack of substantial innovation in the field of K-12 education over the course of the last 100 years. It’s the two words that I referenced as I began this piece. There are two words, that when spoken together, offer an effective “off ramp” for any expectation or hope of innovation in our schools. These two little words exert tremendous power and offer the authority not to act. Here they are . . .
If only we had better funding.
If only the department of education (or the local school district) would allow us greater autonomy.
If only our class sizes were smaller.
If only more time was available to us for planning, grading and collaboration.
If only we had more support from parents.
If only we could rely on families to make sure kids complete their homework.
If only student attendance rates were more consistent.
If only kids took what we’re doing more seriously.
If only . . .
There are thousands of if only lamentations that are part of the legitimate reality facing modern educators that create a palpable tension, even if they hold a minimal desire to consider innovations to their teaching. In truth, if only complaints generally fall outside the sphere of influence of an individual or a faculty of practitioners. Yet, clinging to them becomes a convenient excuse and offers a purging of responsibility. “We can’t consider any innovations because of these factors. If only that were not the case.”
Despite obstacles that could have easily kept them home while safely being nurtured by the status quo, our collective history is full of innovators who’s efforts changed the world forever. They, too, applied two simple, though different, words to their thinking.
I doubt that Magellan thought “if only the situation could be more certain” before sailing into the horizon to prove a spherical globe.
Dr. Salk didn’t think “if only the circumstances were better and less daunting” as he sought to eradicate polio.
Edison wasn't thinking “if only I didn’t need to bear the burden of failure” before he successfully brought electricity into homes and businesses across the world.
No, the two words that they and thousands of other true innovators have used are markedly different. Their words suggest, that by scratching a curiosity itch, they might unleash possibility and hope. Their two words empowered them to act in transformative ways.
In every industry in every country, asking “what if?” has revolutionized practices. In every discipline of academic thought, asking “what if?” has expanded our collective understanding and appreciation of the world and the people who inhabit it. Every crusade toward justice has been driven by simply asking “what if?” So, what if our efforts could make such a difference?
Here is the question I pose to educators across our country. What if we could fundamentally change education in this country? What if we could devise ways to modernize and streamline our practices, while making the educational experience more relevant for our students and better preparing them to inherit a vastly different and rapidly changing world?
That would represent innovation!
What if . . . a student’s innate curiosity was nurtured throughout his or her educational experience and served as a vehicle for their learning inquiry?
What if . . . schools, and school systems made a deliberate and concerted effort to build on the creativity of every person in the organization?
What if . . . a student’s success is never pre-determined by their zip code? Rather, all children are assured of equal access and educational equity?
What if . . . the silos of thinking were removed, allowing students to recognize and build upon cross-curricular connections?
What if . . . students develop confidence that they are masters of the diverse skills that the 21st century demands of them, both in school and in the work place?
What if . . . risk taking was expected, encouraged and protected from ridicule when disappointment occurs?
What if . . . every student could experience relevance in their learning and could articulate how they were able to personalize their journey? (From Chapter 10, The Education Kids Deserve, 2018)
These concepts are, while revolutionary, fully within the scope of possibility for committed educators. They do not rely on external resources or outside decision makers. Instead, they rely on the courage of those inside the profession to address a moral imperative. These innovative ideas pivot on profound philosophical shifts about public education and its role, and responsibility, moving forward.
These suggestions are ground-breaking, At the same time, they are invigorating and exciting. They challenge us to engage in true innovation while representing, quite simply and profoundly, the right thing to do.
Kids across the country are waiting for these innovations to be in place. It’s time to act.