Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Real Innovation...or School as We Know It?

Recently I sent out the following Tweet:
Of course, innovation is one of the hot words in education currently. It has followed right in the footsteps of creativity. (I can’t recall what the word was before that.)
                I know that aside suggests a degree of cynicism, but I don’t mean it that way. In fact, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I believe in the immense power of education and that education would benefit from some fundamental changes. But my referring to the series of hot words is a way of introducing my theme. We go through a series of words, trends, reforms, latest-greatest…yet it remains school as we know it. So no cynicism, but some skepticism.
                Let’s go back a few years, when schools were first developing 1:1 laptop programs. The move, we were told, would prove transformative. Was it? Perhaps in pockets. A school here and there really shifted. But at most of the places I studied or visited, except for a few classes, it looked like school as usual. In most classes the only difference I could discern was that the kids had replaced traditional binders with expensive machines.
                Still, I remain hopeful. Thus, I have been following with great interest Grant Lichtman’s blog The Learning Pond. For the past 14 years Grant has filled many roles in association with The Francis Parker School in San Diego, one of the largest independent schools in America. Over the past several weeks he has undertaken a remarkable journey. As the header on the blog reads:
What does the future of K-12 education look like? What programs are leading the way? How are educational organizations changing in order to promote real innovation? Join me as I visit 60+ schools across America this fall to learn and report on how leading educators are implementing significant change to meet 21st Century challenges.
I’m incredibly jealous, as I often have imagined taking such a trip (but without all the driving). The chance to visit so many excellent schools and to meet with so many top educators would be stunning. As great a job as Grant does at sharing his experience—and, Grant, thank you for that!—I wish I could see all this for myself. First, I think of all I could learn and bring back to my own school.
                But, more than anything, I want some assurance that my hopes remain true possibilities. In at least some cases, even emerging realities. As I read his entries, I find myself asking pointed questions. For example, I will see that a school has implemented a new program or created a new position; and I wonder how it truly has changed the learning experience, if at all. Changing curricula does not guarantee anything; it may just emphasize different content. Adding an administrator does not ensure a pedagogical shift. I want to observe the classes. I want to talk with teachers. I want even more to talk with the students.
                Even though I lack the tangible, first-hand evidence, Grant has deepened my hope, primarily for two reasons. I find it truly heartening that he found over 60 schools he judged worth visiting. Also, what he found showed enough variety that suggests the innovation is becoming part of each school’s culture, that each is remaking parts of itself in line with its mission and culture and not just grabbing onto the current flavor. Consequently, Grant has given me another hope: that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it.

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