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From Educational Innovation to Inspired Learning

The word innovation first caught my attention in 2014. It seemed like thought-leaders and policymakers had issued calls for schools to innovate but without ever defining what that innovation might look like.  In ed tech circles, sometimes it emerged as a signal for a disruptive phenomenon. Other times, it just served as a synonym for throwing a lot of technology into a classroom or school. After some research, I settled in on a personal definition: innovation describes something that is not only novel and an improvement, but also impactful and meaningful.

Though I wrote my first post about innovation as significant positive change almost four years ago, I would argue that the examples in that article could still be considered innovative. Schools may have more devices, and apps may have more features, but I believe that innovation in education still means that students have the opportunity to assume new roles and responsibilities as active learners; that they participate in meaningful, authentic learning opportunities; and that they wrestle with complexity.

Instead of using the term innovation, educators in Mendon-Upton, MA would describe my vision as Inspired Learning. I really like this notion because it places the emphasis on the actions of the students instead of the tenets or structures of the environment. In many ways, it reminds me of Will Richardson's notion of "beautiful learning" - unique, authentic, complex, and both project as well as passion-based.

Whether we use the term innovation or inspired learning or even the idea of beautiful learning, the basic traits remain the same. Students wrestle with messy problems that require convergent and divergent thinking as well as a deep understanding of a domain of knowledge. They view the experience as authentic in that it allows them to address issues related to the world beyond the classroom and make connections beyond individual lessons or tools. Further, instead of working in isolation, students navigate this complexity as part of a learning community that values their skills and talents. Finally, students own their identities as learners, making the process a personal (vs. personalized) experience.

"Four Big Shifts" for Inspired Learning

In their book, Different Schools for a Different World, Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski argue that Four Big Shifts need to occur within schools to create these types of learning experiences. First, students need the opportunity to engage in higher-level thinking and deeper learning beyond factual recall or procedural application of information. Second, the classroom needs to focus on student agency in terms of "what, how, when, where, with who, and why they learn" (p. 4). To achieve this end, teachers need to focus on differentiation, personalization, and universal access to the process of learning. Third, students should have the opportunity to learn within an authentic context. This implies collaboration with individuals in the field, participation in communities outside of school, and an overall learning experience that feels relevant to society. Finally, Scott and Dean view technology infusion as the fourth Big Shift.

By infusing technology into the learning experience, students can gain additional scaffolds for their learning, access to broader communities, tools for creative expression, and modelled experience within an increasingly digital society.  The technology enables and enhances the other three Big Shifts. Focusing on just the technology, which so often happens in schools, leads to digitization - not inspired learning.

Researcher and professor James Paul Gee would argue that inspired learning requires active experience. In a lecture that he delivered at Columbia Teachers College, he explained that a good learning experience includes four key features:

  1. It has a clearly defined goal.
  2. The learner must not only take action within this experience but also care about both their actions as well as the associated reactions.
  3. A skilled teacher must manage the attention of the learner and help them to notice the critical traits or attributes of the experience that ultimately lead to learning.
  4. The experience must be well-designed in that it should take advantage of convergent media (books, video, digital text, audio, etc.), challenging problem solving, creative play, and a feedback system that balances extrinsic rewards with an intrinsic sense of achievement.

These ideas all sound great in theory, but what do they look like in practice? Over the past few months, I have become reluctant about providing examples. The culture and environment in every classroom are different, so examples are often seen as unattainable or unreplicable. Additionally, examples are often presented in isolation - a single experience within a broader curriculum, a single teacher within a school, or even a single school inside a system. However, as Gee explains, learning occurs when image, action, and experience converge as a dialog to describe the lived world. In other words, it is not about the text to describe inspired learning - which is essentially what I have done in this post - but the opportunity to apply the text to experience.

With all of that in mind, this article is the first of a series. If the ultimate goal is to innovate the system of education, it may take a few posts.

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