Innovation in Education

When I found out that the Google Teacher Academy would be held here in Seattle this year, I decided that now was the ideal time to apply for it. I’ve been looking at GTA for a couple of years now and always hesitated because I didn’t want to make the trek to some distant locale for a one-day workshop. And with our district likely going forward with Google Apps in the next year, I started thinking about the application process.

Like a good English teacher, I’ve drafted and will revise my responses to the written questions, but I also want to plan out my video ahead of time. The written responses are fairly natural for me, but the video requires some serious thinking. There are two topics to choose from, and I decided that “Innovation in Education” would be a better fit for me than “Motivation and Learning.” But what do I do? What should I include in the video? What kind of video should I make? What the heck is “Innovation in Education”?Innovation

What is Innovation?

As is often the case, I begin with definitions. What is innovation? Webster’s defines it as “a new idea, method, or device.” Wikipedia points the word’s etymology to the Latin innovare, which means “to renew or change.” Good definitions, but innovation also goes deeper than that. Many inventions are new or changed, as are many theories. The difference between invention and innovation, though, is that an innovation is “put to use, is accepted by users and effectively causes a social or commercial reorganization(Wikipedia).

In other words, innovation is about taking something and using it in a new way – a way that changes the way we think about that idea, method, or device. The Chia Pet, for example, is an invention, but does it cause us to reorganize what we do? No. In contrast, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us – it is an innovation. Microsoft Windows is an innovation. WYSIWYG editing is an innovation. Electronic fart machines are not.

Of course, innovation is more than just products. Ideas can be just as revolutionary as products. Based on the definitions above, republican democracy is a tremendous innovation – it has completely altered the world as we know it. Similarly, the assembly line was a tremendous innovation because it caused us to reorganize the way we did business in the 20th century.

Innovation is not change for the sake of change – it’s refining things that work and replacing things that don’t. Henry Ford saw the need for a specific change in his business, so he devised a new method that caused commercial reorganization. That is innovation. The Romans saw a need for change on the battlefield, so they devised a new method called the Testudo, which protected their legions and allowed them to move together as armored units. That is innovation. Knute Rockne and a small Catholic school called Notre Dame utilized something called the forward pass to upset powerhouse Army 35-13 and changed the way that football was played. That is innovation.

The Innovator

In addition to these definitions, there is also some research – specifically the work of Everett M. Rogers – about those people who are the innovators. In his work, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers tries to explain how (and why) new ideas, methods, and devices take hold – how they become innovations. One of the key components in the process is the people involved in the process of adopting the innovation, of which he says there are 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The innovators, he says, are the risk-takers – the people willing to try something out in the hopes that it makes their lives or work better. As risk takers, these are also the people who are willing to fail if it means they have a chance of doing something great. Typically, Rogers says, these people are young, often not wanting for money, and interact most frequently with other innovators. Comparatively, early adopters jump on board after innovators have done test runs, early majority take their time and watch what happens to the first two groups, while late majority and laggards are slow to jump on board, if they jump on at all.

Rogers’ work reveals one more interesting detail: innovators are not the group that make an innovation successful. They may be the group that tries something first, but the majority look at them as being something akin to mad scientists. It is the early adopters, however, that are also the opinion leaders; they are the group that the majority will look to and trust because they are taking a more responsible risk. While the innovators are often young and frequently considered naive, the early adopters often demonstrate prudence in the innovations they adopt and are viewed as more responsible because of it. They are typically the group refining and perfecting the ideas and methods put forth by the innovators. It is because of this that early adopters often make or break a particular innovation.

Innovation in Education

So what does this look like in education? What are the educational equivalents of the assembly line, the Testudo, and the forward pass? What does it mean to be an innovator in education? No doubt the Socratic Method was innovative in its own time and changed the way people learned. Surely inquiry learning is an innovative approach to teaching content and/or skills. And there are countless other innovations that have impacted education over time – the printing press, chalkboard, and more recently, the computer. These are all innovations.

While innovation certainly has to happen at every level of the education system, I’m not sure this is the sort of innovation the Google Teacher Academy is talking about here. I imagine they are looking for innovation on a smaller scale – individual teachers, departments, or schools that are utilizing new tools, methods, or ideas to change the way students learn about the content.

Without question, technology plays a critical role in this sort of innovation. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of teachers (and schools and districts) that simply use technology for technology’s sake. And there are innumerable ways to use technology without being innovative. The question, then, is how we are using technology in ways that will change the way we teach and the way students learn?

In my experience, there is perhaps no more significant technological innovation in the Language Arts classroom than the internet. Even if only used for research, the ability to access nearly any material in the entire world is an unbelievable advance in education. Doing the research for this particular post, for example, would likely have taken months using traditional library research methods, rather than hours. Email changed how teachers communicate with students and parents – everything from quick messages to class newsletters can be sent via email. Web-based grading systems allow parents and students to track their grades on a regular basis.

Other digital tools have the potential to be equally innovative. This year, a few of us (probably “innovators” according to Rogers) have been piloting Moodle – an open-source learning management system. It’s a great tool that enables us to utilize a controlled digital environment with our students. We can use forums, wikis, online assignments, surveys, resources, quizzes – just about anything we might want. Using Moodle has helped us dramatically cut paper usage, given us opportunities to use a number of web-based resources in conjunction with activities, and changed the way I teach my classes.

Cell phones also have the potential to change how students learn. Access to the internet in students’ pockets allows them to quickly look up facts and information. Tools like PollEverywhere change the way teachers can formatively assess students. And combined with tools like Twitter, cell phones can allow students to get reminders and announcements anywhere, any time.

And while technology tools like cell phones and Moodle have innovative potential, it is often the simple adjustments or “tweaks” that become real innovations. For example, I discovered shortly after we began using digital projectors that I could simply project writing onto a whiteboard and make it “interactive” (rather than spending $5,000 on a big, digital version). This is an easily adopted change that impacts teaching directly and immediately without great expense or labor. This is the sort of change that is quickly adopted by the early majority and becomes innovation.

What About Me?

I suppose, since this is an application, there ought to be some explanation of how I have been innovative. I always hate this part because I worry about coming off as an arrogant braggart. Nevertheless, I do think that I would quickly be identified as an “innovator” by my colleagues, particularly around technology. I like to try new things, even when I don’t know if they will work out. I am quick to jump on pilot programs, such as our Moodle pilot (which has been very successful) or a Wiimote Whiteboard pilot (which failed miserably), and I’ll share my experiences with anyone who will listen. In particular, I enjoy experimenting with different technologies and how they can positively influence learning in my classroom. Honestly, even this blog is an extension of this mentality – I wanted to see what this blogging thing was all about and see how it could affect my teaching. I can live with (and learn from) failure, I enjoy taking responsible risks, and I fit Rogers’ general profile of an “innovator.”

But as an “innovator,” I also recognize that I am not an opinion leader. I am the “mad scientist” that many people will ignore. In order to turn an idea into a true innovation, I understand that I need the help of those that are opinion leaders – I have to identify and utilize the early adopters. This is why I teach workshop classes at our 10Tech Summer Conference. This is why I share things that I find to be successful (such as Moodle or Delicious) with people in my department and in my building that I recognize to be opinion leaders. I show them how a new tool, idea, or method has positively impacted my students so they can try it out and convince everyone else the idea is worthwhile. Of course, any innovation would be meaningless if it doesn’t impact the world in some way. Whatever innovations I may be trying to share will be utterly worthless if they do not accomplish one simple goal: help students learn.

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