What produces innovation? Why does there seem to be such an abundance of it in serious fields like medicine and computer technology and trivial ones like online dating, but so little in education, arguably the most important of human activities?
First, let me support my premise, that schooling is largely bereft of innovation. A doctor or an auto mechanic from the 1950’s, if dropped into today’s hospital or garage, would be baffled. A teacher from the 50’s, however, would feel pretty darn comfortable in today’s classrooms. Maybe the desks wouldn’t be attached to the floor, and perhaps the blackboards would have been replaced by whiteboards, but there’d be bells every 50 minutes or so, attendance to be taken, and interruptions by the principal. I rest my case.
Back to why: The thirst for money, prestige and fame are reliable spurs of innovation. Living in Silicon Valley as I do, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of that. Unfortunately, public education is not the road to travel if your goals are money, prestige and fame.
Another spur to innovate is a supportive but challenging environment, one in which failure is seen as an opportunity to learn, not a stain. Does that describe most schools? I don’t think so.
John Doerr’s New Schools Venture Fund is working to recreate in education some of the conditions that have spurred Silicon Valley’s growth. That’s an uphill battle with a number of hurdles standing in the way, including a ‘one size fits all’ mentality and a glut of ‘experts’.
Education’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to evaluating and paying teachers has to dampen enthusiasm for trying new approaches. Why bother if you aren’t going to be rewarded? As “The Widget Effect,” a new report from the New Teacher Project, makes clear, administrators don’t pay much attention to teacher effectiveness. “Evaluation systems fail to differentiate performance among teachers. As a result, teacher effectiveness is largely ignored. Excellent teachers cannot be recognized or rewarded, chronically low-performing teachers languish, and the wide majority of teachers performing at moderate levels do not get the differentiated support and development they need to improve as professionals.”
Another barrier to innovation in education is the glut of ‘experts,’ meaning all of us went to school and therefore ‘know’ what school should be like. It’s tough to argue for new and different approaches when everyone’s an expert!
Imagine, for example, trying to create an ungraded classroom for children in the K-2 range. It makes sense, because children learn in spurts and at different times. We segregate by age largely because it’s administratively convenient, not for pedagogical reasons. Now suppose an enlightened principal wanted to put all the kindergarten, first grade and second grade students into one group, empowering teachers to work with them in skill-appropriate groups. She’d say, in effect, “Your job is to get them all to a certain level by the end of what we used to call Second Grade.”
That’s innovation at its best, in my view, because it empowers teachers, sets standards and encourages responsibility.
What would happen if we did try to innovate? Imagine the conversations at the hairdresser’s or the hardware store:
“How’s little Charlie doing this year? He’s in 1st grade this year, right?”
“Well, no. There’s no such thing as 1st grade any more. Now they call it “K-2.” Charlie’s 6, but they’ve got him in with a bunch of 4-, 5- and 7-year olds.”
“That’s crazy. We didn’t do stuff like that when I went to school. Have they lost their minds down there? Wait till I tell people about this”
How long would that innovation last?
Perhaps bad times will spur innovation. A theory going around is that today’s desperate circumstances are likely to produce educational breakthroughs.
Certainly desperation can be a source of innovation, as in Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve got a problem”) or in countless big game situations when time is running out. The Apollo 13 astronauts solved a life-threatening crisis with stuff like duct tape, baling wire and paper clips, just as quarterbacks like Tom Brady manage to find ways to overcome impossible odds and win the game. But those are not innovations with a long shelf life, just ways to get past a challenge.
I’m hearing that recession conditions—45 students in a class, and so on—do not have a silver lining, at least not one that teachers themselves have been able to discern.
Are you hearing different? I’d like to know.