When you strip an American classroom of the technological developments of the past two decades, you are likely to see a structure for learning nearly identical to what you experienced as a student. As I observe classrooms in today’s schools, most frequently I see teacher-directed learning, where students engage in largely independent and predictable tasks — answering questions from a textbook, following step-by-step instructions for a lab with an anticipated result or passively copying down notes.
Sure smart boards have replaced LCD projectors, which replaced overhead bulb-lit projectors. And many students are copying their notes on iPads and laptops and reading digital textbooks. But the academic tasks and the interaction among teachers, content and students remains incredibly similar.
My point: the “innovation” that has happened in classrooms — mostly in the form of gizmos and gadgets — is not sufficient to produce the student learning required in the 21st century. What the innovation has done in many cases is simply change the format, not the substance of the teaching and learning. And in some cases the innovation hasn’t even changed the format.
Rather than critically examining the very basis or structure of the teaching and learning in our schools and classrooms, we have erroneously focused on reforms that impact schools superficially. Instead of examining the tasks we require of students, we provide teachers Smartboards and students with laptops, expecting—falsely—that we have made a significant change in instruction and student learning.
Even big policy ideas, heralded as innovative by some reformers (including changes in the ways teachers are evaluated and compensated or the way students are assessed), remain largely “in the box” because they do little to rethink and restructure our schools.
Consider the national focus on common core standards. Creating common, nationwide standards is neither new nor innovative — and it might even be the wrong thing for our students. As noted by Clay Christensen in Disrupting Class, “If the nation is serious about leaving no child behind, it cannot be done by standardized methods. Today’s system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue. Only an administrator suffering from virulent masochism would attempt to teach … within this monolithic batch system. Schools need a new system.”
This required innovation may take various forms. As outlined in previous columns, it may involve restructuring the roles and function of districts or redefining the pathways students can choose in order to gain relevant and valuable knowledge and skills through high school and into higher education.
Innovation will likely involve adjustments to the teacher-directed classroom and the age/grade structure of our schools. Whatever they are, the innovations will not be easy. They will not be easily captured in sound bites.
Innovation will require greater autonomy of local schools to have the flexibility to incubate new ideas. The ideas will start small, being introduced to the larger education community only after being proven in individual schools. Examples of this model working are already occurring in pockets throughout the state with efforts such as project-based learning, eMINTS and webquest knowledge paths.
Candidly, I’m not sure what the best innovations will be to yield optimal student learning. What I do know is that finding the solutions will take a pooling of diverse experience and insights. My hope in writing this column is not to prescribe the exact innovation, but to encourage a broader dialogue — one that challenges the very core of our education systems and policies.
We must do a better job listening to our educators as the experts in the field. But we also cannot make an education background the litmus test to get invited into this dialogue. The lessons learned in other disciplines are not only valuable, but necessary in driving far-reaching and system-changing innovations in public education. It will truly take a village.
Only when we open the forum on education reform to ideas that challenge the very structure of schooling today will we create the innovations required to dramatically improve student learning.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.