Sustainable Innovation in Schools

Innovation…. the cause of and solution to all of our problems, at least it is according to every article, book, or keynote speaker in the last couple of years. It will reinvent education, but only after it destroys the standard schoolhouse. We seem to act as though innovation is a 21st century invention. However, education has long been a realm of

innovation, from one room school houses, to the standardized classroom, to the open classroom; from slate, to paper, to computer; or from abacus, to slide ruler, to calculator. The story of modern innovation could be told in a classroom. Unfortunately, the word “innovation” has been so overused that it risks entering the lexicon of buzzwords. This is a shame because innovation has an important and strategic role in education.

I do not mean to diminish the power of innovation but rather the contrived manner in which it is applied as a panacea to what ails us. Rather than being respectfully regarded as the logical extension of inquiry and exploration, it is often viewed as the result of luck or happenstance; the deus ex machina of our times. In a realm as important and vital as education, this can be problematic or even dangerous thinking. For innovation in education to be truly impactful, it must be sustainable. To be sustainable, it must be devised thoughtfully and applied strategically.

Innovation, at its heart, addresses a need: productivity, efficiency, or opportunity. Innovative practice is one that is methodical and incorporates regular feedback. To determine the heart of our innovative needs and practice, we must employ a discerning eye for what Heidi Hayes Jacobs calls classical vs antiquated educational practices. What is classical is timeless and enduring, what is antiquated worked for a time, but that time has passed. Let us look at the graphing calculator replacing the slide ruler. It allowed students to more readily apply higher order mathematical practice in order to quickly and accurately solve complex equations. However, any good math teacher will tell you that it’s not the calculator alone, but its application and process. The tool evolved to fit the modern needs of the skill set. This is why calculators have endured, while other “innovations” (like the open classroom) have failed. Innovation in schools and classrooms should be meaningful, address contemporary challenges, and enrich the learning environment. Only by doing this will innovation in schools be sustainable and enduring.

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