My Lesson From 2016 | Responsible Innovation in Education

A new school, in a new state. This year feels very different than the last few. It actually feels most like my first, which, I have to admit, has been tough on my confidence. But I've embraced the transition from Texas to Massachusetts because I'm learning a lot as this new perspective shows me something different yet still familiar around every turn.

One of the things that attracted me to Holliston, where I now teach, is how similar the programs were to what I was used to. The district uses Understanding by Design and Google Apps for Education. These are the two most important aspects of what I do, second only to building relationships with students and colleagues.

This post is about taking a moment to think more carefully about "innovation." It's about asking questions as we try new things and further implement programs like Understanding by Design or using Google Apps for Education.

When is Innovation Also Progress?

The bus tour during the Holliston Public Schools teacher orientation was a nice touch. We learned about historical landmarks, events, and people who have influenced the growth of Holliston. By showing us the treasures of the town, it really made me feel like the school administrators were valuing what teachers bring to a community.

It was the the Cutler School, however, that grabbed my attention. This was the first school in Holliston to depart from a mixed-age classroom and the neighborhood school model, according to the tour guide.

I wondered if this was the best move for the future of public education in Holliston or elsewhere. The tour guide mentioned that parents weren't too fond of the shift. Of course, the context is everything. How was the town to know where the economy and education would go in the coming centuries? In fact, we are still making a lot of guesses with our current system.

The reorganization that occurred with the Cutler School reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson's comment about grouping kids by age – their "date of manufacture." Were the students learning more or less by separating them by age groups? Or was it more convenient for adults?

What will the next shift be? What will be the next Cutler School for Holliston?

Honesty about current situations in education must be paramount in order to avoid being sold on the novelty of an idea. Ask questions, seek answers, and make sure your voice is heard. It's the only way to keep the conversation focused on evaluating the progress of new initiatives.

What is Innovation?

I have the courage to implement 1:1 Chromebooks, and I also have to courage to ask whether or not 1:1 is the next Cutler School. It could go either way. We have many aspects to challenge before we'll know, for sure.

Concerns range from physical and mental health effects of kids using devices to the role of the teacher. In this new model that dissolves the classroom walls and puts the student in the driver seat, educators will have to be trained to maintain a healthy balance between individual and cooperative work, as well as screen time, movement, and face-to-face time.

Here are some questions to consider.

  • How do we know our innovation is successful?  
  • What do we do to support implementation?
  • Why do initiatives fail? 
  • At what point do we let go?
  • How innovative is Understanding by Design? Google Apps?
  • To what extent are we returning to what has been proven to work when we adopt a "new" program? In other words, how new are the programs?
We cannot be blinded by the novelty of an idea. There's too much at stake. At the same time, we cannot be afraid to try new things that connect our kids with possibilities not explored through conventional means.

Innovative is not always great in the long term, but if we don't try to hone in on a model that works for our kids, we will fail them before they fail themselves. We will not prepare them for the kinds of problems they'll need to solve or the technology they'll use after high school.

Where Are We Going?

Since the economic changes don't seem as defined as the onset of the factory system that spurred the end of mixed-age grouping, we have to focus on broader changes. If education shifts too much, too fast, we could find ourselves with a system that looks nothing like the world in which it was born.

I believe our future is in curricula that lend to in-depth study. The best way to achieve the depth and engagement is through proper technology choices that take high-yield strategies beyond the analogue realm. Furthermore, students need to have some control over how they solve the problems educators place before them.

Our Superman will one day be realized – not as a person or program that immediately changed everything. It will be a process that keeps pace with the changing world. It will be a system that is as real as the world our kids will take on. 

I'll leave 2016 with the most important lesson I've learned. Avoid being seduced by words like "innovation." There are good innovations and bad ones. There are bad implementations of good innovations. 

I urge educators to be wise enough to be able to recognize a good innovation and its proper implementation.