Innovation in Education: What? How?

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

What is innovation in education? How can you make it happen?

Within my focus of science education, I see little in the way of really innovative ideas being implemented in classrooms. Part of the reason has been discussed by John Adsit (“Needed – A Professional Approach to Teaching“). More on that later.

I’ll begin with where education innovations originate.

“That which has come to be, that is what will come to be; and that which has been done, that is what will be done; and so there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

And so it is with ideas. There are really no new ideas, just remixing and repackaging of old ideas. As I researched the ideas underlying the use of student science laboratory experiences in teaching science, I found a single theme repeated again and again: inquire, explore, and discover.

In many of these cases, the author did not acknowledge those who had gone before, suggesting a rediscovery rather than building on previous knowledge. What a waste! You’ll detect echoes of Adsit’s article here. If educators would just study what has gone before, they could save time and improve education.

Therein lies at least one fertile area for innovation. Seek out previous ideas that worked well in the classroom but failed to spread for some reason. Understand that reason. Find a way to overcome the problem and repackage the good idea so that it will work this time.

hallAs for inquiry learning in science, Prof. Edwin H. Hall of Harvard University was using it in 1891. He wrote a book, A Text-Book of Physics: Largely Experimental, that included his philosophy in its introduction. Reading that introduction was a real eye opener for me. Those old guys were really quite smart. I should note that Prof. Hall was famous for discovering the Hall effect.

Hall had great success initially with his idea, but it foundered. Why? The reasons are not hard to find. Hall himself states that the laboratory class sizes must be no greater than twelve students. Try to imagine that in today’s typical public schools. New York City limits class size to 34 students, nearly triple the Hall limit.

Another reason can be found in the writings of Frederic W. Westaway, a very well-known writer on science philosophy and education from the 1890s through the 1920s. He also supported the inquiry approach to learning science and wrote eloquently about the qualifications of a science instructor in the inquiry mode. Such a person must be conversant with all science subjects, not just the one being taught. The instructor must also be well-acquainted with the history of science and understand the philosophy of science.

No amount of teacher recruiting, professional development, increase in teacher salaries (a good thing for other reasons), curriculum reform, or other traditional methods of improving instruction will fix these problems – at least not in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of money. So, for over 100 years, this concept has languished. Periodically, it’s been resurrected and promoted by this person or that. Teacher workshops result in enthusiastic responses. Yet, it dies again and again. The pressures of required curriculum, tight budgets, limited and diminishing instruction time, remedial work with unprepared students, and so on prevent using this technique. Also, the teachers are not prepared for the demands of this teaching style. They haven’t the background that Westaway suggests they must have.

The rapidly and exponentially increasing computational and communication capabilities provided by today’s technology provide the best means to get out of this situation. Software can build in process and support so that teachers don’t have to be experts. Software can track student progress and success and suggest where extra effort should be expended. Administration can see whether teachers are using the tools well. I’ve implemented these ideas for online/offline science labs and found that they work very well. The best part, in some ways, is being able to make adjustments in the software rapidly. The software evolves much more rapidly than traditional textbooks or curricula. It just keeps getting better.

I can recommend this approach to innovation to anyone:

  • Research your particular area of interest.
  • Find educational approaches that have worked very well but failed to spread out into the general population.
  • Find out why.
  • Think about how technology can overcome the obstacles.

If you find a way, you could be the author of the next great education innovation.

kellerdec1808Lest you jump too quickly into innovating, allow me to add a small caution. You’ll have to get the educators who will use your innovation on board. Here’s where Adsit’s comments really come into play. Working for a school is completely unlike working for a company. The company will tell you what tools to use. You’ll be reviewed once or twice a year. Your salary and continued employment depend on the outcome of the review. Even if your job has little that can be measured objectively, you’ll still be measured.

If you invent a truly astounding education innovation that can transform students everywhere into great learners, you’ll face very high hurdles. You won’t be able simply to sell a school district on your invention. They have to get the buy-in of the teachers, who may say nice things about your idea and then go back to the classroom and continue on as though you didn’t exist. The teachers cannot be forced to use new ideas. Unless you’re relieving some real pain that these teachers feel, you won’t succeed without Herculean efforts. And failing students are not pain.

Adsit comments that a school leader was sticking to the “tried and true” methods. He was right to put that phrase in quotes. The real tried and true methods are those that have been tried and found to be true in that they work well. The methods the leader was implementing were “tried and false” instead. It’s insanity to expect doing more of the same in a failing situation will change the result.

For all of us who would like to see education progress to greater success, we have to identify the problems. That’s easy. We have to determine how to fix the problems. That’s proven to be very hard indeed. Someone once told me that education is the institution that is the third most resistant to change. “What are the first two?” I asked. Monasteries and nunneries was the answer.

4 Responses

  1. Harry is quite right when he says that older thinkers have much of value for us. The Committee of Ten that created the basis of our existing curriculum model had an inquiry approach in mind for much (not all) of science. I was just looking at a 1922 text (Every Teacher’s Problems, by William Stark) that cautions teachers that guiding students step by step through a process is not truly teaching them to make their own decisions, which exactly descibes the conflict between the regimented writing instruction of recent decades v. the concepts in the thinking/decision making structure of the newer 6 + 1 Traits of Writing system. The book has other lessons that emphasize the importance of building student thinking skills rather than having them simply absorb content. A 1921 text I once saw described an innovation (the desks were no longer bolted to the floor) that allowed what would be called collaborative grouping today. (Unfortunately, word of that innovation has still not reached many of our teachers.) Finally, I once saw a description of a teaching methodology that would be considered considered innovative today on the wall of King’s College chapel in Cambridge. It was describing the teaching methods used during the school’s Medieval days.

  2. Working in education, I spend a lot of my time looking outside of education to find ideas that can be pirated, re-mixed, or blended into education.

    I am often asked why I spend so much time reading books, blogs, etc outside of education. My answer is that 99% of people in education are already reading education books, research, blogs, etc. What can I add to that. What I can add is what I find from outside education.

    If you are thinking in a certain way and about certain things how can we innovate if I share the same thinking on the same topics. I prefer the Medici Effect, to be the the Cross-Pollinator (Tom Kelly’s Ten Faces of Innovation) and the one who looks for ideas outside of our box. That’s how I innovate. But, that’s just what works for me.

  3. Innovation is always good.

  4. Rob Jacobs wrote: If you are thinking in a certain way and about certain things how can we innovate if I share the same thinking on the same topics.

    I agree. I teach a graduate level Multicultural Education course which illustrates his point very well. In the past I used to have Instructional Technology majors, as well as teachers of all grade levels in that course. Due to programmatic changes in our Graduate School of Education most of my students at present are Special Education teachers. Although we have some interesting discussions, I find that they do often run along the same track. When there were IT people in the class, in particular, the discussions were much different and often “outside the box” because many of these students were not classroom teachers. They were from business backgrounds and offered different perspectives that I felt challenged those who were teachers in a different way. The IT students also gained a different appreciation of the classroom teacher’s role. I hope that once the programmatic changes are completed that there will once again be a more diverse group of voices in the class.

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