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!

4 thoughts on “True Innovation in Education”

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful perspective … well said! I’m constantly reminded how much technology brings to writing: those precious back up files, comparison of files as you describe, and wonderful research opportunities. And spreadsheets, also. For the past four months, I’ve been prepping my novel’s characters on a spreadsheet. My current book has two central characters but also two secondary, four others who are pivotal, and another four supporting characters. The spreadsheet helps order their backstories, relative ages, how their lives move forward and where, when and how they intersect. It also tracks historical events in England, the Virginia and Maryland colonies, and within the Powhatan Confederation that impact the characters’ lives between the 1580s and 1670. I printed the spreadsheet out and assembled it yesterday for perspective and to sketch into the book’s outline. It’s very big, but it establishes order.
    All of this is readying me for a writing blitz in November, using the NaNoWriMo 50K words (another support from the world of tech) as a prod. How much harder to write and how much more vulnerable to anomalies this novel would have been without technology. We live in a very good time for writers.

  2. In 2003, I believe it was, my gifted math students were to do statistical research on various topics. The district curriculum had the 5th groups checking with their classmates on the colors of the paw pads of pet cats and recording and presenting that data. To me, that seemed so useless and uninteresting in their daily lives, especially as gifted children. I had heard that the upcoming winter was expected to be an El Nino year. So, I thought it might be much more interesting to the kids if we would research how El Nino would impact the weather in the U.S. that winter by collecting and recording the actual high and low temperatures and the precipitation for each day along with the “average” data for those same days. I showed the kids how to use Excel on the computer to make their graphs. We watched a video about what El Nino all about, how data was collected in the Pacific Ocean buoys, and the history of past El Nino’s to help them understand the context of what it was they were doing and why. We realized that the Jet Stream had a lot to do with the changes in the weather during the winter, so each student selected several states in the northern, central, and southern tier of the U.S. on which to collect their data for the several month period. In the end, after their data was collected, graphed, and analyzed, they presented their conclusions to their peers, their regular classmates. They were not aware, however, that I had also invited the Principal of their school as well as the central office administrator of the gifted program to see what these children were capable of doing. They each did a 10-minute presentation, using Powerpoint and notes, to the large group of about 80 people. As a final exciting reward for the fine work they did, we visited the Meteorology Lab at College of DuPage where the instructor shared more about El Nino and also showed us some of his very exciting work on being a tornado chaser. I know that this experience has changed those students, and myself, to appreciate AND enjoy doing research as well as opened some doors of interest in meteorology.

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