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.

Making a Case for Online Science Labs

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
10 November 2008

In my last article, I spoke of states blocking progress in online science education. California and New York proscribe the use of virtual labs for their high school diplomas. Rather than complain about this situation, the online community must find ways to work with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the New York State Board of Regents (Regents) to amend their rules.

There’s much at stake here — too much to waste our efforts attempting somehow to make simulations okay as labs. Realize that if these states modify their rules, then we open up a great set of opportunities for online education.

Instead of beginning by opposing UCOP and Regents, begin where they are and work with them. I read in the UCOP position a statement that no virtual labs that they had seen were good enough to substitute for hands-on labs. Take that as our starting point.

First, make contact with these groups. Then, show them the possibility of using online labs as a part of the instructional process. What’s the best way to make that demonstration?

Because the UCOP and Regents have not seen any virtual labs that they feel are suitable, and they have seen plenty of simulations (data, objects, and phenomena generated by equations and algorithms), do not begin by showing them what they’ve already rejected. Instead, show them something completely different.

keller10nov08Remember that the decision makers are taking their guidance from scientists. I’m a scientist (chemistry) and have some ideas about how these important advisors view science lab experience. Understand that the traditional education community is very protective of hands-on labs. Any solution must include these to some extent. The exact extent should be a subject of negotiation. The College Board, for example, mandates 34 hours of hands-on time for AP Chemistry.

Use America’s Lab Report for guidance and as a possible neutral virtual meeting ground. Showing adherence to all aspects of the report will, I believe, demonstrate the required possibility.

Having established communication and demonstrated the potential for online science to succeed, engage in a dialog regarding any deficiencies perceived by the UCOP and/or Regents in the various presented alternatives. Agree that one or more, if amended, can substitute for some fraction of the total hands-on requirement. Some approach may even succeed without modification.

Overcoming any such deficiencies and presenting our case again will complete the process and open the door for online science instruction throughout the United States.

Our initial presentation should include as many innovative approaches to virtual labs as we can muster and should not include simulations as lab substitutes for the reasons stated above.

I’m aware of three possibilities for presentation. None use simulations. All use the methods of science.

1. Large online scientific database investigation. Prof. Susan Singer, the lead author for America’s Lab Report, uses this approach in her own classes.

2. Remote, real-time robotic experimentation. Prof. Kemi Jona, one of the authors of the NACOL document about online science (together with John Adsit), is working with the MIT iLab people to supply these labs to students.

3. Prerecorded real experiments embedded in highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The Smart Science® system is the only known example of this approach. (Disclaimer: I’m a creator of this system.) Apex Learning and Johns Hopkins University’s CTY are just two organizations that use these integrated instructional lab units.

I’d be happy to hear of other approaches that are not simulations and to work with anyone who’d like to see a change in the UCOP and Regents standards for lab experience. I’d especially like to talk to anyone who has contacts with the UCOP or Regents. The sooner we start in earnest, the sooner we’ll succeed.

Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
7 November 2008

[Editor’s note: This article was originally submitted as a comment to John Adsit’s November 6 I-Blog article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes,” on 11.6.08.]

I completely agree with the last portion of what John [Adsit says in “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes“]. My own blogging on the subject is at smartscience.blogspot.com.

I also mostly agree with the rest of his comments.

1. Typical lab experiences are poor. However, many science teachers, using the same labs, provide great lab experiences. Online science courses must do as well.

2. John refers to an “‘integrated’ lab program” in America’s Lab Report. [The entire report is available online at no cost.] Actually, the report refers to “integrated instructional units” more than twenty times. It never uses the phrase “integrated lab program” or even “integrated lab.” It’s not the lab program that they wish to be integrated but the instructional unit containing the lab.

keller013. The question of exactly how online science courses will meet the goals is left open. That’s partly good because new technologies cannot always be anticipated. However, the range of options should be restricted a little. Here, America’s Lab Report provides an excellent guideline. Here it is.

“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As long as your online science labs fill this definition, you can go forward and test it against the lab goals and the integration goals.

4. Absolutely, old school thinking is blocking excellent innovation in science, especially in the lab area. The reason for this blockage is not hard to find. In addition, the blockage comes in the form of restricted means rather than ends. The blockers (e.g., UCOP) say you cannot use online labs in any form rather than specifying results that must be achieved. America’s Lab Report took the opposite approach.

The reason for the blockage clearly comes from a statement on one UC web page that no virtual lab THAT THEY HAD SEEN could substitute for hands-on labs. Yet, they steadfastly refuse to look at new technologies in virtual labs.

Here’s the problem. A plethora of virtual labs have appeared, and they’re all SIMULATED. That is, they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students. This approach is anathema to most scientists. The attempts to make simulations into science labs has so turned off these scientists that now they won’t even consider ANY virtual labs.

alrYet, many people continue to attempt to create virtual labs from simulations. Instead, they should be looking elsewhere. For example, one of the authors of the NACOL report, Kemi Jona, has been working on an alternate approach: remote real-time robotic labs. They’re virtual, online, and real. They violate the rules of the UCOP, but they meet the America’s Lab Report definition and goals.

That such exemplary work is banned by California and New York is a travesty. With ever-declining budgets and schools in crisis, any valid approach should be supported.

The approach should be as good or better than the best traditional labs. The standard cannot be the “typical” labs that are so poor. They’re a “straw man” and should not be part of the debate.

I hope that someone can get the attention of the UCOP and have them look into some of the excellent alternatives to supervised traditional labs. If they end up looking at simulations, they’ll just be turned off again, and we’ll have to suffer many more years of banned virtual labs. We must present them with real innovations that don’t depend on simulated activities but use real data from the real world with highly-interactive collection of personal data by students.