Friday, May 17, 2013

Pondering the Pace of Innovation

In Now You See It!, Cathy Davidson tells of some people who designed a robot in 2006 to take a typical bubble test. The robot was capable of decoding the question, conducting a simple search, and then using algorithms to select the answer. The robot scored significantly higher, 82%correct, than an average human. Given technological advances, now the robot likely could ace any of the tests currently out there. That notion is particularly scary since Davidson's major point is that such test focus on lower-level aptitudes. While this section of the book gave me plenty of ammunition in my tirades against standardized testing, this particular example prompted my thinking about something else: innovation--or at least what sometimes passes, and is even celebrated, for being innovative. As it that's enough in itself.

When I share the robot story with people, they generally have the same initial reaction that I did. They think it's pretty darned cool that someone designed such a robot. And in many ways it is. But when you really take a closer look at this, not to say it's easy, but this really is not particularly complex artificial intelligence.Yes, one might counter, but it's a robot! I mean, it's a robot reading and answering questions! How cool is that? Well, kinda cool. But I'd be really jazzed if it could...

Some of the innovation I read about in schools strikes me the same way. On the surface it looks great. But perhaps we confuse greatness with new and different, with unique. (I'm not going to provide any truly specific examples for two reasons: I don't want to single out anyone, and I hope you will consider cases of your own by this standard.) Whenever we evaluate curriculum and pedagogy, we must consider carefully what students will be asked to do and what criteria we really want to assess. Having students collaborate or blog or complete projects doesn't matter if students can still do so while having to do little more than basic recall and simple, routine tasks. Trivial pursuit remains trivial pursuit, whether played on a board or on a tablet pc.

Consider the following two scenarios. Teacher A is a master of the traditional Socratic method, and the routine seldom varies. Students in her class are challenged to think in ways they never imagined; as one student says, "I leave that class every day with my brain aching." They learn to question, to probe, to provide evidence, to can go down the list of vital critical thinking skills. They have to communicate through carefully crafted essays and eloquent speeches. Teacher B is incredibly creative, always finding exciting ways to engage the students in some fun class activity. The students Tweet as historical characters, create time period electronic archives, and map out elaborate timelines on the washable paint of their rooms. But it all remains superficial, a mess of dates and facts and names. The energy shaping the arc of history remains fuzzy.

Which class would you want your child in?

Obviously they are extreme examples, and In an ideal world we could merge the two. I hope that doesn't weaken the point. Plus I offer extreme examples for another reason, one that leads to perhaps a much tougher question. It's not uncommon for a school to have teachers at both ends of the spectrum. Think about the innovation craze. Think about what kids really need. Which teacher concerns you more?

I'm not some sort of educational Luddite. As I have written many times before, we need to keep reworking our models to provide better, more relevant education. We have an ethical, professional obligation to keep finding better practices. I want teachers experimenting; I want teachers creating a modern educational experience in every way. And I want it all not now, but years ago. But in doing so, I also want them to be quite mindful. That means we have to tap the brakes frequently rather than simply careen along random superhighways of innovation.

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