From Thought to Action - Taking Control of Innovation
I have spent over two years focused on the idea of scaling innovation. Though pockets of excellence exist in classrooms, individual schools, and some smaller networks, systemic innovation of classroom practice across an entire school system remains elusive. After more hours of research than I can count, instead of finding examples of success or strategies for designing learning environments that encourage students to engage in complex problem solving, work through novel situations, design creative solutions, and synthesize information, I just keep finding signs of what does not work.
This is the most amazing, exciting time to be an educator; and yet, the system of education does not seem to be fulfilling its promise. Instead of moving forwards and inspiring teachers to empower their students as learners with every possible technology (whether digital or analog), the system of education cannot seem to evolve. For these reasons, when asked to give an IGNITE keynote at the EdTechTeacher Summit this week, I struggled to find a topic that would be "positive, uplifting, and actionable" (the only requirement). Only after much deliberation did I remember a potential quote from my college social-psychology textbook, you can control your own thoughts, feelings, and actions better than you can control those of other people.
As educators and administrators, we can think that all students possess curiosity. It is a well-documented phenomenon that students enter schools full of questions; however, over time, they lose their curiosity. Traditional learning values the quest for a single right answer. It assesses convergent thinking and routine expertise that can easily be measured by a standardized assessment. The first step towards innovation may lie in a belief that student curiosity can and should be nurtured.
Similarly, we can think that all students have the potential to develop creativity. In his 2005 Scientific American Mind article, Unleashing Creativity, Ulrich Kraft explained that creativity can, in fact, be nurtured. Where intelligence is an innate and finite trait, creativity examines a person's ability to seek out novel problems and solutions. We can believe that we have the power to then nurture this trait as long as we also think that all students have the potential to learn.
According to reports from the Economist Intelligence Unit and World Economic Forum, the most important skill for students to gain is the ability to learn how to learn. We can think that every student not only has this capacity but also a unique talent just waiting to be fostered. Finally, if we think that students can be curious, creative, learners, then we can also believe that they each have a unique voice. Recent U.S. demographic projections indicate that by the year 2020 over 50% of public school students will be children of various ethnicities. Given that different ethnicities possess different cultures, language patterns, and perceptions about school, we need to think about how we might help EVERY student to develop and share their voice so that they recognize the value that they bring to the global learning community.
As educators, we can feel confident in our ability to take risks. We can decide whether or not we will allow ourselves try something new, to iterate, and to potentially fail. Though we talk about letting students fail, are we really ok with it ourselves? In fact, do we feel strongly enough about our willingness to try new things that we can also feel dissatisfaction with the status quo? In their book, The New Institutionalism in Education, Meyer and Rowan (2006) explain that neither efficiency nor effectiveness can drive an institution such as education to innovate. Only instability - which often leads to dissatisfaction - can create the requisite conditions for change.
However, change and risk can create feelings of stress - not only for educators but also for students, parents, colleagues, and peers. To combat those sentiments, we need to be willing to embrace the views of others and feel empathetic.
Every person has the capacity to control their own thoughts, feelings, and subsequent actions. First, they can model technology literacy and fluency so that students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the need for an increasingly technological society. Lisa Guernsey, Director of Learning Technology & Deputy Director of Education Policy at New America - a think tank in DC - advocates for adults to serve as media mentors. In this role, teachers, parents, and leaders can help students to deeply understand, question, as well as interact with media and technology.
Even more important than mentoring and modelling with technology, educators can share their own learning with their students. If the ultimate goal is for our students to learn how to learn, we need to show them that we are learners, too. We can demonstrate how we allow ourselves to try, and struggle, and try some more. We can let our students know that learning is hard but still possible.
Through these actions, we can ultimately create the conditions for our students to thrive, to develop the future skills that they will need to be successful, and to ultimately become the next generation of problem solvers, creators, and innovators. While this can seem like a daunting task, perhaps we can begin by taking control of our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.