I’ve just returned from Doha, Qatar for the first-ever WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. For three days we talked about innovation. Is technology an essential component of innovation? I found myself wondering what produces innovation in education—in teaching actually. And it occurs to me that, unless one happens to be sadistic or off the charts antisocial, all of us are, on certain occasions, innovative teachers. At those moments, we are wonderful role models of what our education system ought to be striving to emulate. And our motivation is a combination of self-interest and basic human decency.
You’re not a teacher, you say? OK, neither am I by profession, but sometimes we are put in that role. Imagine you’re walking in your neighborhood when a stranger stops her car, rolls down the window, and asks for directions to a local restaurant. You know the place she’s asking about, so you immediately begin figuring out how to explain it to her.
You are, for the moment, her teacher, she your pupil. You’ll explain it as clearly as you can (“Continue for three blocks, turn right on Maple Street, and go for two more blocks. The restaurant is on your right.”). As her teacher, you’ll be watching to see if she understands your directions.
Innovations occurs when you realize that you are not getting through. At that point, like a good teacher, you will scrap that ‘lesson plan’ and devise a new one. That is, you will find another way to teach her how to get where she needs to be. (“See that church steeple. Go one block past that and turn right. Then when you see the two gas stations…”)
Suppose she still doesn’t get it? At that point, more creativity: you might draw a map. Anything at all, just to get her to her destination.
Why is that innovation, you might be wondering? Maps aren’t new, and neither is rephrasing. But being innovative doesn’t require complete invention, only finding different approaches to a problem. Putting new wine into old bottles qualifies as an innovation because solves the problem of what to do with the wine.
What conditions are necessary for innovation in education? I find several, and all exist in my example of the lost driver: a relevant task; a measurable outcome; a willing student; and instructional flexibility.
You (the teacher) and the driver (your student) have a clear goal, getting her to understand how to get to her destination. Because the challenge is relevant—she wants to get to her destination–she is a willing student. You, the teacher, have instructional flexibility, the room to be innovative, precisely because the goal is clear. And because the goal is clear (and you are not sadistic or antisocial), you want to be successful. It’s odd, because you have never seen the lost driver before and most likely will never see her again, but at that moment you are measuring your own worth according to how well she learns. In effect, you believe that you haven’t taught effectively if she doesn’t learn it.
The parallel works in another way in that most of the work—ultimate success—is up to the student, not the teacher. The driver still has to follow those directions in order to get to her destination, and that’s as it should be. Teachers should not be expected to do it all.
But don’t you wish all teachers worked that way? Many, perhaps most, would like to but cannot because schooling’s goals and outcomes are murky or trivial. Without clear and relevant goals, process inevitably becomes the focus. Because process rules, many teachers today are given detailed lessons plans describing what they should be doing in class, every day. Innovation is neither expected nor encouraged. That in turn leads to a ‘cover the material’ philosophy, as in “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” What they really are doing is covering a certain part of their anatomy.
Transfer that situation—unclear goals and outcomes and a consequent focus on process—to my analogy of the lost driver. What might happen if you asked a stranger for directions and then didn’t grasp what he told you? Rather than find an innovative way to communicate, he’d just say the same thing again, but louder, or maybe slower. And if you still didn’t get it, he would raise his voice again. Before long, he’d be SHOUTING slowly.
It wouldn’t take you long to realize that, with that guy as your teacher, you’ll never get where you need to go, and so you would step on the gas and seek help elsewhere.
And he would write you off as a dense student who failed to grasp the material.
Some teachers, schools and systems take that approach to learning. Just as that guy would blame you for not grasping his shouted directions, schools and teachers often blame students for not understanding. When students don’t get it, they fail and have to repeat the grade, which is the equivalent of shouting the same words.
Many of those failing students—well over one million a year–do the equivalent of ‘driving away.’ They drop out of school.
My question is, who is failing? If school systems consistently fail at teaching and then at remediation–and that’s what often happens–can we just blame it on students? In fact, most remediation programs are echoes of what’s already failed.
The recipe for good schools has three steps, which must be taken in order: 1) figure out where we want to go and how we will measure our achievement; 2) hire capable, trained people and let them figure out how to get there; 3) and hold them accountable for results. Innovation per se isn’t a goal and shouldn’t be, but we can encourage it by replicating the conditions described above: clear and measurable goals, relevant tasks, and instructional flexibility, the freedom to innovate.