Too often when we talk about “innovation” in education, we point to that new set of Chromebooks or those shiny new Smartboards as examples of our efforts to change what we do in the classroom. That is, after all, what “innovation” is all about, to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Over the last few years, many schools in the developed world have done a pretty good job on the new products front, earning billions of dollars for vendors who sell their gadgets or code under the guise of “innovation” of some degree or another. We’ve definitely got more stuff. And it’s arguable that our methods are changing, even if just a bit; the Maker Movement in schools, when fully embraced, is one such example of shifting roles in the classroom.
But on balance, is all of this “innovation” really changing us?
Not so much. Our efforts at innovating, regardless of method, idea, or product, have been focused far too much on incrementally improving the centuries old structures and practices we employ in schools, not on fundamentally rethinking them. And the vast majority of “innovation” I’ve seen in my visits to schools around the world doesn’t amount to much change at all in the area where we need it most: using those new methods, ideas, or products to shift agency for learning to the learner. To put it simply, innovation in schools today is far too focused on improving teaching, not amplifying learning.
That needs to stop, especially now when the ability to learn at a moment’s notice is increasingly more important than the knowledge we carry around in our heads. As we approach 4 billion people in the world with Internet access, there’s little question any longer that those who are learners will have more opportunities for growth and success than those who are learned. And if our work in schools does not have a laser focus on developing our kids as powerful, passionate, persistent learners, we’re not preparing them for their futures.
But innovating through the lens of the learner means fundamentally changing the way we think about schools and classrooms, not just layering on technology. Ironically, it means setting aside the new and, instead, getting back to the old, to what author and educator Seymour Papert calls our “stock of intuitive, empathic, commonsense knowledge about learning.” As learners ourselves, we know that real, learning that sticks with us over time occurs when it’s built on passion, when it has an authentic purpose and audience, when it’s relevant to our lives in the moment and beyond, when it’s not constrained by time, and more. This isn’t rocket science. Yet generally in schools, we provide few if any of those conditions that we know are required for that type of deep learning to take place. We don’t let students pursue the questions most in their minds. More often than not, the sole audience for the work students do is the teacher, and it serves no real world, authentic purpose. Our kids passions and interests are ignored in favor of compliance to the curriculum.
The real innovation that we need in schools has little to do with technologies or tools or products designed to improve our teaching. The real innovation, instead, is in relearning why we want kids in schools in the first place. As author Seymour Sarason says, the overarching purpose of school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world when they leave us. Yet, Sarason writes, that purpose is mostly ignored. I’ve yet to find a school that has created an assessment to see if, in fact, students leave at least as interested in learning as when they entered. In all likelihood, they don’t want to know the answer.
Innovation in schools of any type needs to start with the idea that the goal is not to force kids to abandon their passions and interests for our curriculum when they come to school, which is what we currently do. Instead, as Sarason says, we must start with their questions and curiosities, and bring our world to them. If we are to develop and sustain the types of learner-citizens that we need in the future, we need to meld the worlds of school and of children, but we start with the children. In Letters to a Serious Education President, he writes:
“We have to change our schools, but if that is not preceded or accompanied by a change in our thinking, in our preconceptions, in how we regard what and where children are, in our imaginativeness and boldness — absent these changes we will again confirm the maxim that the more things change, the more they stay the same (123).”
Which is why despite the shiny new tools or the seemingly unending string of new learning approaches (flipped, blended, collaborative, personalized, project-based and on and on), nothing has really changed. Kids are still bored in school. We still assess the stuff that’s easy to measure at the expense of attending to the more important stuff that isn’t, things like creativity and curiosity and determination. Our cultures focus on teaching, not learning, and very little “innovation” as it’s currently constituted has impacted that at all.
How we innovate depends largely on how we define learning. If we believe that learning is defined by “student achievement,” i.e. test scores or GPAs, then the vendors peddling their gadgets and code will continue to reap the profits of selling into our desires for better. But if we believe that the most powerful learning that kids do can only be measured by their desire to learn more, then any innovation we introduce must focus on creating fundamentally different experiences for kids in our classrooms, with or without technology.