For What? Framing Educational Innovation with Purpose

March 23, 2015 Jonathan Martin

These are some of the things I’ve heard from school-leaders in the past few months:

  • We’re going to implement a new schedule, with longer blocks, and can you help support teachers in using the extended time to be more engaging?
  • We’re determined to become more innovative as a school, which has been very traditional in the past, and can you assist with this shift?
  • We’re starting to do a bunch of exciting new things with project based learning and maker spaces, but our parents are confused or concerned: will this assist with their preparation for admission to the next level?
  • We’re working hard and pleased to date with our instructional innovation, which we’re subsuming under the heading, and beginning to brand externally, as “student centered learning.”
  • We’re asking more and more “what if” and “how might we” in our strategic and instructional planning: it is opening many creative and exciting opportunities for us.

Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes. All great things, to be sure.   Certainly I’m someone happy to enthuse and exult about innovation, about engagement, about experiential and student –centered learning.

Look, nobody wants to be a nag, but I think too often we fall back into the all-too-easy mistake of overlooking or underestimating the question “what for?”

In my work with schools, and I’ve worked with more than thirty schools and a dozen educational organizations in the last three years, I’m finding there’s a problematic leapfrogging. New technologies, new teachers, new student types are demanding new approaches; connected educators, snazzy magazine covers, and inspirational speakers are motivating us to shake up teaching methodologies.   What’s we’re missing is a concentration on our purposes: what do we want for our students above and beyond their engagement and enthusiasm?

Essential to guiding instructional innovation is a clear, coherent, and loudly communicated destination: this is where we’re headed, this is what we want for our students, these outcomes are to what we’re holding ourselves accountable. And then, only then, do should we imagine and ideate more widely what instructional techniques will take us there.

The National Research Council gets this right in a fantastic 2012 report, “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.” From the very beginning, in the title and subtitle, they frame their argument and establish their program of innovation in its purpose.   What we need to do in schools, we need to do for life and work success; the instructional transformation that we must make is for developing transferable knowledge and skills.

The NRC in its report embraces the term “Deeper Learning” to describe the learning necessary for life and work, and I do think the term, though far from perfect, is better than many alternatives.   It captures and conveys more than many others that the changes we seek and the changes we are making have as their purpose something greater for our students: their larger and more lasting understanding, their richer thinking and problem-solving skills.

This is the first of a year-long (or longer?) series of monthly posts in which I’ll introduce and reflect upon important and interesting innovating in teaching, learning, and assessing.     We’ll look far-off and close-up to see the potentially transformative practices that are looming on the horizon, those which educators can or should ponder on and experiment with in their schools or for themselves.

I’ll draw from resources like the NMC Horizons report, New Zealand’s CORE research, and the innovative thinking about Design Thinking coming from Stanford’s D. School, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, and the Leadership and Design group.

We’ll consider topics as grand, (or potentially grand) as the

  • smart web,
  • 3D thinking,
  • the singularity of previously discrete technologies,
  • open content,
  • wearable technologies,
  • learning analytics,
  • educational data-mining, and
  • the gamification of everything.

And we’ll be sure to other things more mundane but more immediately applicable, such as grading online student work, open internet testing, and how might we make project-based learning effective for introverted students.

But as we do, and I invite you to hold me to this, let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

Let’s be sure that as we ask what if, and how might we, we also ask for what, and how will we know, what will this mean for our students’ future, and can we do this better next time?


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