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.

Needed – A Professional Approach to Teaching

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

I approach the subject of Rhee and the reactions of the teaching “profession” with a sadness bordering on despair for I enter a battlefield on which I have often fought. My few small victories pale in comparison with my many painful defeats.

I put “profession” in quotations because I am not sure teaching can be called a profession. In what other profession can its members practice with no training whatsoever, as happens frequently at the college level? In what other profession can its members start with basic training and learn nothing new over a 40 year career, as frequently happens at the K-12 level? If a doctor were to start bleeding patients rather than use the results of the latest medical research, he or she would be hauled before a medical tribunal, but in education ignoring research results is the norm.

adsitdec1508Nearly 20 years ago I was a highly regarded teacher. Although I was somewhat innovative, I used a largely traditional approach, imitating the best of those who had in turn taught me. All my graduate work was in my content area so I had little education training beyond my initial certification. One day I was sent to a workshop introducing a very different educational approach. Most of what I heard sounded perfectly wrong, and I was close to dismissing it.

I was intrigued by some points, though, that made me fear some of my practices might be harmful to student learning. I took some of the more interesting ideas back to my classroom and gave them a go. I first completely changed some of my favorite lessons into authentic learning projects, and I started experimenting with a mastery learning assessment process at the same time. (For more on the “mastery learning assessment process,” see my earlier article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes.” In upcoming articles, I’ll delve deeper into these approaches.) The level of immediate success was shocking. I implemented one change after another and watched student achievement soar beyond my wildest dreams until I was a complete convert.

One year I had more students get top scores (5) on the AP exam than all the other AP teachers in the school combined had students pass (3). I also taught a remedial writing class, and its average score on the district writing assessment was higher than most of the regular classes. Despite objective measures of success, my colleagues angrily accused me of lowering standards because so many of my students were getting A’s and B’s! I was not teaching the right way, the way teaching had always been done.

When I was brought into the central administration to help teach these methodologies, I became an education literature junkie, learning many things that the general education community evidently does not wish to know. Longitudinal studies, for example, have shown that some teachers have significantly superior student achievement than their colleagues in the same school, year after year, and some teachers have consistently poorer student achievement, year after year. If an elementary student is blessed with three consecutive years of good teaching, his or her achievement scores will be about 50 percentile points higher than a student cursed by three consecutive years of poor teaching. The most effective and least effective methods of instruction have been identified. Processes by which whole schools can be turned from failure to success are known.

adsitdec1508bNone of this is a secret. All of the nation’s top theorists are largely in agreement. Outline the main concepts before a meeting of district curriculum leaders, and they, too, will nod in agreement.

But talk about it in a meeting at the school level, and you’ll be lucky to get out alive.

Only a few weeks ago I watched a school leader outline the steps her school would take to improve its miserable failure rate, and I saw the same failed ideas that have been used for decades. I asked if they were planning to investigate the latest research on successful schools, and she said no, they were sticking with “tried and true” methods.  I was reminded of how George Washington’s doctors bled about half of the total blood volume from the choking ex-president  (the tried and true cure) and refused to allow another doctor to perform a new procedure, the tracheotomy that might have saved his life[1].

Change can happen. Individual teachers can change instructional methods and vastly improve student achievement. Schools can adopt processes that have been proven successful. This will not happen, though, as long as the majority of educators stick with the “tried and true” methods that have brought us to where we are today. This will not happen until education becomes a true profession, with members who view the educational process as worthy of study in and of itself.