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Why Change? Launching Innovation in Schools

Starting September 28th, we will launch our second run of the free online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught by MIT faculty Justin Reich and Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders-teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents-through fundamental principles of launching and sustaining innovation in schools. You can register now. 

As my course team and I get ready to offer the second run of our free, online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, I find myself returning to one question: "Why change?"

To answer that question, I think it's important to start with an assumption that I have--and many other people share--about the future employment outlook for our students. When I think about what I want our young students to be able to do in the future, one of the main questions I have in my mind is: How can students do work that computers can't do? And how can we equip students with the skills that they need to succeed in the 21st century?

During the first run of our course, we interviewed many educators and administrators and asked them a similar "Why change" question. In one interview, Ann Hadwen, vice principal of Sanborn Regional High School (NH) underscored the need for educators to catch up with the speed of technological change to better prepare students:

We are looking at a world that is so much different than what our world was going to school and our parents' world, and education hadn't changed. And we recognized that the day of the textbook is long gone, that we're preparing kids for these jobs and careers that, in some cases, weren't around when we were young or even aren't around now. So how do we do that?

It's a great question. Advances in technology and automation are rapid. One of the things that we've seen over the last 30 years is that in the labor market, in the civic sphere, and in our own lives, we keep finding ways for computers to take over human tasks. Computers are really good at anything that you can translate into a routine, and our capacity to figure out routines within the world is growing increasingly sophisticated--and automated. Ten years ago, we would have thought that driving a truck is an incredibly non-routine task. But today, there are engineers, computer programmers, and roboticists who are working to make driving a truck become a routine task. As soon as we can encode that as a routine task, it's not going to be work that the 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States are able to do anymore, or at least work that earns a living wage.

There are different approaches to equip students with what's commonly called 21st century skills. But one way is for educators to think like economists and ask, Where do human beings have a comparative advantage over computers? I think there are two big areas of advantage educators can focus on. The first is ill-structured problem solving. Computers are really good at solving problems when they have all the data needed to solve the problem--all the information in advance--and they know what the solutions are supposed to look like. Humans, on the other hand, are much better at solving problems when we have no idea what we need to solve the problem and no idea what the output is supposed to look like. The second area where humans are much better than computers is communication, especially persuasive communication or communication that helps us solve a problem. Humans have a substantial advantage over computers in communicating authentically, meaningfully, and personally. To be successful in an age of competition with automation, our students will need to develop their imaginations and critical thinking skills to solve problems creatively and communicate effectively.

As we look to the future of schooling, it's important to recognize that our school systems were designed for an era in which it was reasonable to prepare students to do routine tasks really well. But how many schools have adapted and started to change?

Try this exercise: Imagine one day going throughout your school district and looking through all of the homework assignments that have been offered by the teachers. Every worksheet, every textbook assignment, every online assignment. How many of those assignments ask students to solve ill-structured problems? How many of those assignments ask students to engage in complex communication? And how many of those assignments ask students to do the kinds of routine tasks that today's computers can do? I would imagine that most schools, when they think hard about that question, recognize that they probably don't have the balance quite right.

Changing a complex system like schooling is difficult. And thinking about today's challenges makes me think of another interview from our course with then Assistant Superintendent at Shrewsbury Public Schools in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Mary Beth Banios. She captured what, I imagine, a lot of us are thinking and feeling these days:

As educators, it's scary, because we don't have a model that says, here's what you do. We are involved in, I think, exactly the same kind of learning that our students need to be involved in, that we have a challenge in front of us. And none of us knows the answer to it. No single one of us is going to figure it out, and that we're going to have to collectively work together to build models, to iterate on those models, to get feedback on those models, to take risk, to fail, in order to be a part of the solution that figures out what school looks like in the 21st century.

Like Mary Beth, I think it's important to think of looming workforce changes as an opportunity and challenge to keep improving our schools. That's the signature challenge that schools face right now. When asking teachers to think about the next level of work--or asking school communities to improve--part of what we need to be doing is not saying, 'Oh, there's something that we've been doing wrong the last five or 10 years.' Instead, let's inspire our communities to look at our teaching practices, look at the work that we do right now, and ask, How can we do it better? Not because what we were doing before was wrong, but because we need to do more to ensure our students are successful in the not-too-distant future.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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