True Innovation in Education

What is true innovation in education? George Couros, educator, blogger, and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, asserts that “innovation is more about mindset than anything.” Educators shouldn’t employ something new just because it is new. We need to ask ourselves where there is value added. Does this tool or approach improve teaching and learning? How can we use it even more effectively?

Too often educators conflate technology with innovation. In the early years of computers in the classroom, my department chair and I attended a technology conference. A dedicated teacher demonstrated how her students had created a spreadsheet of information about inventors like Eli Whitney and their inventions. The information was thorough: name, place of birth, type of invention, year invented, etc.

We asked, “What did the students do with the spreadsheet once they developed it?”

The presenter stared at us blankly. “What do you mean? They created it…”

A spreadsheet like this could prompt all sorts of analysis: Is there a pattern to where and/or when were most prolific? Do different times and/or places generate different types of inventions? But for this teacher and her students, the spreadsheet was an end in itself. Without using its data-sorting capacity to look for patterns, it served as a glorified graphic organizer. True innovation transforms teaching and learning.

The use of computers to teach writing offered me and my students that kind of transformation. While my high school and college papers were handwritten on yellow legal pads filled with cross-outs, arrows, and insertions, my students could save one version of a paper, rename their file, and revise it with ease. Then they could compare the two versions and track their progress. The ease of revision encouraged their willingness to improve their text.

Text analysis went far beyond a mere spellcheck capacity when we became the beta site for Bell Labs’ text analysis program, Writer’s Workbench [WWB]. That empowered my students to assess attributes like their sentence variety and use of passive voice. I never reduced their work to an absolute quantitative judgment, but I did require them to justify departures from the benchmarks suggested by the analysis. Good writing generally varies the openings, types, and length of sentences. While neither Faulkner’s nor Hemingway’s writing would have passed muster, students rarely achieved either style. Conscious work on sentence variety improved the flow of their writing. Passive voice provides for weak constructions and often hides an unclear or unknown subject. WWB identified all passive voice constructions, and my writers rewrote those or explained why. In the computer lab with an administrator’s access, I could comment directly on their work in progress, giving them real time feedback long before they turned in a draft for evaluation. Each class could desktop publish an anthology, giving students a communal document of accomplishment that we celebrated with a signing party.

Computers transformed the teaching of writing. Math teachers will tell you that calculators transformed the teaching of math. But it’s important to recognize that technology only fosters true innovation in education when it changes the work for the better. Couros is right: if any new approach or tool doesn’t meet the needs of learners better, if we don’t use it to make the experience more productive, then we’re missing the point. And learners deserve better than that!