One could actually argue that the social sector is rife with too much innovation. Each day a new “silver bullet” seems to emerge that will somehow solve all our challenges. What we really need is to be more informed about where we innovate and to what end. (Tom Vander Ark, Smart Cities ThatWork for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education and Employment, Loc 2522)
Hmmmm. Really? Too much innovation? I know I’m providing a snippet out of context. Surely that’s why this passage jumped out at me in a book I eventually found myself skimming rather than truly reading. So bear with me as I try to make some sense of this, which I’ve been trying to do for a few days now.
On some level I get it. In fact, a couple of the points could be lifted right from previous posts on this blog or from presentations I’ve made. I’ve referred several times to the silver bullet thinking that seems to be inherent to education reformers’ thinking. I think it’s a result of the author’s second point, which is that we really lack a clear north star by which we’re orienting our efforts. Just think about some of the debates about the basic purpose of education. Is it life preparatory or college preparatory or job preparatory or all of these or none of these and actually something else? Even if you manage to reach some consensus on that topic, chaos can ensure about what it actually means in terms of implementation. We’ve all been through some curriculum skirmishes, if not outright wars. Both of these notions tie to another concern I’ve expressed: those schools which grab quickly onto any shiny new idea as the thing so rapidly that you can begin to wonder who they are at their very core.
While I can see some validity to Vander Ark's claim, I’m still perplexed. Let’s put aside the fact that the book has basically outlines all sorts of “innovative” (yes, not the quotation marks; I’ll be coming back to this). It’s only now, after however long, that we’re beginning to see schools that look any different than they have for decades. I’m not talking about the outliers, those places which always have done things differently. I’m talking about those based on the assembly line model; in other words, the overwhelming majority. Even where we see new practices within them, they retain many of the same characteristics schools always have had. Some trappings have changed—kids many have laptops rather than notebooks—too many practices have not. The innovative often is not that different. When it is, that’s when we see what real, deeper learning looks like.
To return to the skepticism-signaling quotation marks. Vander Ark seems to want things both ways. He writes this book to show how innovations in education are the key to cities flourishing—and I agree. But—big, bold, all caps screaming but—the innovations he holds out as grand and working are really not impressive. In fact, they seem to be mainly about efficiency and pace, i.e. having more kids take AP courses at younger ages. He holds out many models of personalized learning, many of which would seem to be self-paced drill-and-kill work, with loads of testing to ensure accountability. If that’s the ideal, then of course you will believe that there is too much innovation. And of course I end up skimming rather than really reading.
Now, reflecting on the book, I can help but thinking of that wild-haired genius who was deemed an idiot in school, Einstein, and the so-often used quotation that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” And we sure aren't going to end up with smart cities, at least not in the current and future world.