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Teachers and Teaching
Rules of innovation?
Effective innovation requires consistent commitment and boundless energy. Heather Watson explains why it is not only professionally worth doing but also critical if students are to learn in the classroom as well as beyond.
The year is 1907…One hundred years ago. Some background statistics for the year 1907:
- the average life expectancy was 47 years
- only 14 per cent of homes had a bathtub
- the tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower
- Leon Delagrange flew the Voisin biplane for 30 feet
- Variety published its first film review
- the triode thermionic amplifier was invented by Lee de Forest, thereby starting the development of electronics as a practical technology.
What a difference a century makes.While it is always risky to draw historic analogies, changes over the century in every one of these areas have taken place through a series of developmental steps. The Burj Dubai, achieving over 800 metres, is currently the tallest building in the world. It bears little direct relationship to the Eiffel Tower, but with hindsight, pathways to achieving its height can be iteratively traced through thousands of small innovations. To drive any change, you actually need innovators who understand the importance of these baby steps applied to solving a current problem in a new way. Innovators with the capacity to deliver developmental changes one after another and regularly, are key to sustained change. We needn’t make innovation hard by insisting that the end product is always monumental and the outcomes extraordinary. The size of your innovation is not what matters: it’s whether it works. As John Maynard Keynes was fond of saying, ‘It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong’.
Big, visionary ideas are often impractical. If you don’t experience the problem you are solving, you are unlikely to solve it in an innovative way. Successful innovations from other contexts may not directly translate to meet your needs even with tweaks that have been effectively delivering for you in the past.
Innovation and technology
Over the last decade there has been much talk about innovation in education. Typically, this has been associated with technology—in fact the terms have often been used almost interchangeably. This focus places technology as the catalyst; the stimulus for change in current classroom practice. This largely misplaced expectation mirrors the hype cycle associated with new information technologies defined by Gartner. (See Figure 1.) This model identifies a peak of inflated expectations, which leads to a trough of disillusionment that, typically, with increased realism, can only then develop into a plateau of improved productivity. Technology itself is just a tool, and it is the innovative ways in which the tool is applied that creates real change. The person thinking and applying the tool innovatively brings about the change.
Figure 1: The hype cycle
In the context of schooling, the range of increased expectations of technologies is by no means consistent. The effectiveness of technologies can vary as enormously as teacher and learner access to it. Educator attitudes to technologies are also spread across all points of acceptance. These variables are central to the unevenness that currently characterises the engagement of teachers with technologies and their patchy confidence in using technologies to support learning.
One of the enduring debates in education is the extent to which learners should be taught to resist or rely on new technologies. There have been historic concerns about slates, pen and ink, ballpoint pens, calculators and spell-checkers. The challenges of digital technologies are more complex because they have become so embedded in everyday life. To what extent can we as educators shape assumptions about society and technology when our engagement with learners may no longer be valid for them?
What are the rules of innovation?
‘Innovation’ is an action, a culture, an activity—not just a word to repeat in meetings. It is often something that is not highly planned, but with reflection, is clearly identifiable. A summary of criteria includes:
- innovation does not have a size, a small change can solve a big problem
- it is not in a vacuum, anyone may have a solution, including your students
- it will be most successful when it is accepted and expected as part of the culture
- it is important to stay connected to technology and new media that drive social changes
- adapting, combining and extending existing ideas is innovative
- it is not about creating something totally new.
The pace of technology change is more rapid than we can predict and yet its general take-up in education is monumentally slow. Some innovations are relatively hard to ignore, like Web 2.0. Web users have reached a critical mass, all with a developed expectation of fulfilment. Web 2.0 shifts the focus to the user and away from the creator of information. Information moves beyond websites to find components and relationships across domains and devices, providing current information to users as they move around. Web 2.0 is not all hype, but what we do need is less awareness about its dangers and replace this with examples of sustainable, effective application of its capacities for innovation in learning. It has fresh, useful data as its core, provides users the ability to manipulate information and adapt tools for participation, rather than just being passive recipients.
So why does such innovation matter for teachers? For educators to not maximise the massive potential of this resource for teaching, learning and driving innovation is to risk becoming marginalised as a viable influence in shaping the 21st century. We will widen the gap between learners and the formal education systems. Without widespread engagement and clearly defined needs, education also risks remaining the Cinderella sector of the technology world, constantly re-purposing tools originally designed for business, defence and the leisure industries.
We have had over a decade of collaborative reform in curriculum and assessment, and at least two decades of significantly improved technology access. I believe many of the key issues that continue to exist in education, need to be solved from the bottom up. Effective practices that become enshrined were often experiments in someone’s classroom. We needn’t worry that we’re not having enough ideas: it’s not ideas that are lacking, it’s the detail of practices to deliver them that require rethinking. Many professionals are currently working away at this daily in their classrooms; working to define ways that make learning more successful. The romantic notion that technologies, particularly the web, would revolutionise education, where all were equally heard, all information accessed and all wisdom shared, has continued to be proven just that—a romantic notion. Technologies can provide a stimulus to rethink current practice, but the expectation that the opportunities it offers will provide imperatives to unlock the full benefits—educational, cultural, and creative—seems to me just another form of romantic illusion.
Technology and learning
We’re only just beginning to explore the real potential of using digital activities for learning. It is still very early days in education innovation using technologies. The central issues still concern trying to fit new technologies into old pedagogies. It’s not that we have got it wrong. There are numerous examples of innovation in education all around us. Often changes are very specific, and because schools are such busy places, innovation is rarely shared and often goes unremarked. This is largely cultural. It is partly about the lack of value we give to sharing real innovation and making it central to our thinking and practice. It is also operational. It is to do with how leaders and others think teachers should behave to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning. I believe teachers already have a shared sense that we need to restructure current approaches to education delivery. It’s just that practice is harder to move on.
As Alan C Kay observed: ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’. As educators, we need practices that invent the building blocks and then develop the capacity to use them systematically for education. Predicting the future is notoriously unreliable, but we are on the threshold of an opportunity to engage learners as never before. We have never been more flexibly enabled to personalise learning and give effect to the aspirations we share for effective 21st century learners. The importance, as always, lies in the detail of how it is delivered. How do we bring learning to life in the classroom and embed generic competencies into a curriculum that extends beyond the constraints of traditionally defined disciplines. I want to re-establish recognition of the courageous and passionate individual who does what is required for learners and then extends it; who takes on responsibility and innovates both in the classroom and across the school; the educator who is engaged emotionally and intellectually and who uses small innovations consistently and boldly to underpin transformation of student engagement and learning.
Articulating effective innovation requires consistent commitment and boundless energy. In addition to being professionally worth doing, it is becoming increasingly critical to re-engage learners and to reduce the credibility gap for students between traditional school practice and their learning that takes place outside the classroom.
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