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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A call to action has been issued: schools and districts need to innovate. This statement is often accompanied by an assertion that teachers need to integrate technology as well as transform instruction. But what does this innovation actually look like? As 2014 comes to a close and we set goals for the New Year, how will we define innovation?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, innovate means "to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products." This definition fits nicely with what is being asked of educators -- to integrate new technologies, practices, and concepts into the classroom. As teachers, however, we also have to ask the question: why?! We need to ensure that these changes are to the direct benefit of our students. For that reason, I prefer Scott Berkun's definition: "Innovation is significant positive change."

Significant Impact on Student Learning

In What Innovation Means, Scott writes, "It's not the results that are necessarily innovative, but the way the group goes about doing its work." How a student leverages the available tools to support his or her learning may be even more innovative and impactful than the resulting product or event.

Consider a teacher who provides an article to her students via paper, as a PDF, and with a link. Her students can then use the tools that best support their learning of the associated content. Maybe they draw, type, or even talk into the PDF via an app such as Notability or OneNote. Perhaps they choose to actively read in their browser so that they can incorporate text-to-speech and leverage tools such as Diigo or Clearly in order to save their notes across devices. Finally, think about the student who reads the printed copy, writes notes in the margins, takes pictures of those notes, and then curates them into Evernote so that they can be saved and shared.

At first glance, the act of reading an article may not appear to be innovative. And yet, by providing students with multiple formats and empowering them to take ownership of the process, the teacher supports not only their mastery of the content, but also their growth as independent learners -- changing the way the group goes about doing its work.

Significant Impact to Roles and Responsibilities

Lisa Palmieri, Director of Technology & Innovation at The Ellis School, defines innovation as "a growth mindset that results in identifying and solving challenges by taming complexity." In a traditional setting, the burden of this task fell to the teacher as the sole disseminator of content. Now, given the flexibility of new tools, this responsibility to identify and solve challenges can be distributed to the students -- creating a more student-centric learning environment.

For example, during a recent inquiry unit about animal habitats, Kristen Wideen combined the use of a RAN graphic organizer (Reading and Analyzing Nonfiction) with a Padlet wall to empower her primary students. First, she asked them to share what they knew about habitats by placing a virtual note in the Prior Knowledge column. Next, after watching a short video, the students added notes to the New Learning column.

To conclude the activity, Kristen and her students moved their notes from the Prior Knowledge column to either the Confirmed or Misconceptions columns as they analyzed their initial ideas. Through this approach, Kristen empowered all of her students to take an active role in taming the complexity of the topic.

In an innovative classroom, teachers add context, guide learning, and push students to construct meaning and understanding. The roles of both parties evolve as the teacher places the responsibility of knowledge construction on the shoulders of the students and then leverages his or her own expertise to ensure that the class meets the desired objectives.

Significant Creation of Meaningful Learning Opportunities

In Lawrence Reiff’s high school Language & Literature classes, students read a number of the classics, such as Animal Farm, Gilgamesh, and Fahrenheit 451. He asks them to keep journals, respond to writing prompts, and engage in class discussions. Although this may sound like a traditional English course where students analyze classic texts and engage in writing assignments, Lawrence expands his curriculum by incorporating dynamic learning activities that encourage his students to take risks and demonstrate their understanding through a variety of projects.

This fall, to culminate their study of Fahrenheit 451, his students could choose how they wanted to illustrate their knowledge of the content -- by collaborating to create a video trailer that would include mini-scenes and demonstrate persuasive writing skills, or by designing a graphic novel to showcase their ability to incorporate textual evidence. They might compile a music soundtrack that would reflect the emotional intensity of specific aspects of the novel, or film "cutaways" in which they'd recreate scenes and then interject with their characters' reflections.

In Lawrence's class, "anything goes" as long as the final product meets the designated learning objective. He offers choices that appeal to his students' learning styles and individual skillsets, provides context to help guide their knowledge construction, and orchestrates meaningful learning opportunities to create a truly innovative curriculum.

Defining Innovation

In writing this post, I tweeted out the question, "How do you define 'innovation'?" John Kao, author of Innovation Nation, responded with, "To me, innovation is the set of capabilities that allow for the continuous realization of a desired future."

As we look toward the New Year, I think we can all agree that we want our students to become successful learners who are capable of taming complexity. We wish for them to gain the skills that will allow them to enact significant positive change. So for 2015, our collective goal as educators should be striving to innovate our projects, activities, and curriculum such that we empower our students to develop into creative, insightful, successful learners who are prepared to become leaders in their desired future. What do you think?

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Hina Khan's picture

This fall, to culminate their study of Fahrenheit 451, his students could choose how they wanted to illustrate their knowledge of the content -- by collaborating to create a video trailer that would include mini-scenes and demonstrate persuasive writing skills, or by designing a graphic novel to showcase their ability to incorporate textual evidence.

PEC 5th Class Result 2015 BISE Lahore Board

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Beth,

There are many definitions of innovation; the reason I left my great job to go out into the extended world of K-12 education was really to find what "innovation" actually means and how schools are implementing it. In studying the history of organizational innovation, including sources you cite like Berkun, the best definition I can come up with is this: "Innovation is the implementation of ideas that enhance the value of an organization."

There are some pretty key words in this definition. Innovation is about new ideas, but not any idea or even great ideas. The innovation must build value...so we need to decide what we mean by value (that is another conversation!). And the innovation has to bring value not to the individual or to one particular locus (classroom?), but to the entire organization.

If a different way of reading books or articles provides what the school community understands as a better learning experience, and if that better learning experience results in better outcomes (there are many ways to look at outcomes!), then by definition it must be innovative. Of course, the relative value of innovations are widely disparate, but that also is another discussion!

(1)
Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Instructor and Communications Coordinator at EdTechTeacher

Hi Grant.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply! Maybe I'll need to write a follow-up to include your definition. What really sparked this post was that I felt as though "innovative" was often being used as a synonym for "novel" rather than as a driver towards that significant, positive change.

Your response is also timely as I referenced "The Falconer" yesterday when working with a group of teachers. Going back to what you wrote, innovation may be a result of "what if?" questions. By removing the limitations from the thinking about what's possible, then it may be possible to consider different avenues and angles for implementation of new ideas.

I do hope that we can continue this conversation.
Beth

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Beth,

I think you are spot on with the careless use of the word "innovation" in schools. I had heard for a decade "schools should be more innovative" with virtually no definition of what that meant. We have to instill rigor; innovation is not just about great ideas; schools are full of great ideas, but if those ideas do not generate value, they are not innovative.

I have been stewing over ideas for my first post to submit here to Edutopia, and (I am sure no surprise to you) was thinking about this sort of "intro to the nexus of innovation and value" within a school context. Your post would be a great lead in and link to that conversation, so maybe I will get going on that tomorrow morning.

Thanks for the reference to my book "The Falconer". Of course I see a deep and tight connection between innovation and the Falconer model of problem finding and solving! I had the most INCREDIBLE conversation with two high school sophomores yesterday who read The Falconer and were able to articulate both verbally and in long blog posts how it "snapped" so much into focus for them in terms of how we learn and what we should be focusing on. The link to innovative thinking in those two bright lights was pretty darn easy to see!

Look forward to continuing this conversation!

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Instructor and Communications Coordinator at EdTechTeacher

Grant,

Interesting that you use the word "stewing" as I've been doing that over definitions for the past few months. I've worked with some really thoughtful educators who are concerned that there is pressure to change simply for the sake of change. This particularly presents itself with technology integration. However, sometimes "paper is the best technology" and a more traditional pedagogical method may be the best solution for a particular context. This is not to justify stagnation, simply to make sure that we are thoughtfully moving forward with the goal of best supporting our students' learning.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Beth,

This is one of the takeaways (I think) from my work with school faculties; that innovation is not the same as change. Educators are not used to thinking in terms of relative value; even with word "value" or the idea that we need to concerned about value, turns some educators off. Schools have not had to justify traditional value in the past when the barriers to alternatives were very high. Those barriers have now fallen and value becomes critical to sustainability...thus the need to understand innovation.

(1)
Mary Cantwell's picture
Mary Cantwell
Educator, Atlanta, GA

Beth as much as I enjoyed your post about "innovation" I truly loved the back and forth between you and Grant. To me a powerful way to unpack and flatten the nuances of terminology, educational practices, and approaches to learning is through conversation. I am enjoying this thread and would encourage you and Grant converse again soon....
Thank you.

(1)
Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Instructor and Communications Coordinator at EdTechTeacher

Hi Mary.

Grant and I actually had a chance to meet in person over the weekend and certainly plan to continue this conversation.

To add to this thread, you might like this post as well - https://brholland.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/what-are-the-biggest-mistakes...

I think that there is a lot to unpack with regard to terminology that is often used without crafting a definition relevant to the context. For a more concrete example, I was working with a group of teachers in Chicago on Tuesday. We spent a considerable amount of time defining and distinguishing between the concept of Objectives, Tasks, Skills, Standards, and "Learning Targets" - a term that their district has started to employ. While the actual words are irrelevant, the conversations that they sparked are certainly requiring the teachers to dig into some pretty complex concepts.

I think this may qualify as a "non-response," so I look forward to hearing your thoughts as well.
Beth

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