Tag Archives: innovation

What is Innovation?

When I posted last month about Innovation in Education, I was starting to work on my application for the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle this summer. Well, now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share my application video with the few of you that read this blog. Before sharing, here is what GTA says they are looking for in application videos:

Create an original one minute video on ONE of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” OR “Classroom Innovation.” This video is a very important part of your application. We’re specifically looking for educators who creatively address one of the specific topics listed above. You do not need to be in the video, but, the task is designed to demonstrate your technical ability, your resourcefulness, your commitment, and your unique personality and interests. Please do not submit videos produced for another project or videos created by others. We realize that you may have never produced a video before and that you may not own video equipment, but through perseverance we are confident you can find a way to meet this requirement.

With that in mind, here is the video I created. I’d love to hear what you think.

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What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life

Background

Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?


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.