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Creative Destruction in Teaching (and the Ongoing Relevance of Teachers)

Don Wettrick

Innovation Coordinator always looking for great collaborators for my students!
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Teacher working with X-acto knife with student watching

How safe is your job? Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Freakonomics, posed that question in a recent podcast as they evaluated how technology has "innovated" people out of many automated jobs. These contrarian thinkers discussed how and why many jobs, even entire industries, are disappearing. This phenomena is called creative destruction, a term coined by German sociologist Werner Sombart, who defined it as:

The process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.

And continual innovation is destroying many occupations. Think of how many times a day you deal with computers, rather than live people, to make purchases and pay bills. Reminders of downsizing are all around us.

Then I started to think about, well, my job as an educator.

Defining Our Roles

My two professional passions are teaching and innovation. I'm obsessed with finding solutions that challenge and empower students beyond consuming information for the sake of a grade. In my book Pure Genius, I took a hard look at how technology, innovation, and the "20 Percent Time" model are changing -- improving -- education. I've diligently worked to create an atmosphere where learning is without boundaries and where true collaboration leads to innovation.

More technological tools exist in education today than at any time in history. We have great apps such as Skype and Google Hangouts for collaboration, literally hundreds of educational games for learning, and YouTube videos and blogs for gaining and sharing knowledge. In my class, students are encouraged to use all of these tools to explore their passions and test their ideas. Using technology, they learn independently and in small groups, very often without my guidance.

For some educators, the fearful question is: "Could those apps and tools ever replace teachers?"

The answer lies in how we define teaching. Or learning. Or innovation.

We're doomed if the role of a teacher is to solely have students "learn" content. Consuming content can now be done on demand any time, anywhere, and students no longer have to be in school to access it. Flipped learning has paved the way for on-demand content delivery. However, the point of flipping (in my opinion) is to move past the consumption aspect of teaching, and toward production. By getting the lecture part of instruction out of the way, our classes can move toward collaboration and production (the new, more dynamic classroom time).

Educational games and apps are nice, but what happens after our students master the content, win the game, or watch the video? Was the knowledge the end of the journey? Or could it be the starting point to something more meaningful?

What's the Upside to Creative Destruction?

The fear is that technology and access to unlimited information could innovate teachers out of their jobs. But if knowledge is only the beginning, there must be an upside to innovation for educators as well as our students. Remember, creative destruction necessitates the creation of new roles as technology ushers in new industries. Innovation harnesses creativity to create new solutions. By redefining our roles as teachers, asking new questions, and setting new goals, we can use the innovation process to create better solutions. So ponder these questions:

  • How is the role of teacher being redefined in an ever-changing economy?
  • Are we looking to train our students for life outside of school?
  • If so, how do we justify a "factory model" classroom when very few of these jobs exist?
  • Do we place a priority on memorizing facts and figures?
  • Or do we expect our students, armed with knowledge, to come up with solutions using their skills?
  • Wouldn't this allow them an opportunity to fail, pivot, and create new solutions in the process?

Innovation Is Empowerment

These questions should be a reality check for educators and policy makers. We can no longer stay status quo in education. Our struggling economy demands that we prepare our students to be innovators. Not to be an alarmist, but this gap between modern needs and employee preparedness is becoming a crisis. Education has the potential to lead us out of that crisis.

If school systems and educators are willing to evolve, we can secure not only our jobs, but our students' futures as well. Requiring students to consume knowledge solely for the purpose of getting a good grade is no longer acceptable. We must provide tools that empower students to experiment, prototype, and test their ideas. We must encourage them to use knowledge to create, innovate, and produce. That's their future.

A recent explosion of apps and tools can help our students to get their ideas out of the classroom and into the world. Common tools like Google Documents have made collaborative writing easier than ever, but we can encourage students to publish blogs to bigger communities like Medium, or school-friendly sites like Edublogs. For prototyping, I like the POP app (prototyping on paper), which empowers the users to import their sketches on paper into a digital portfolio. For the artists in your class, encourage them to showcase or even possibly sell their products. If they are musicians, explore the possibilities of TuneCore, which distributes to a multitude of channels for them to be discovered. For the students that produce 3D printed objects or physical art, go to etsy.com or shapeways.com to encourage those entrepreneurs to sell to the public! Lastly, YouTube is one of the best tools to showcase exceptional student content, whether it be a great school news package, a documentary, or just a vlog. Either way, video examples of your students' talent go much farther than an essay and poster board.

We Remain Relevant

America's greatest untapped natural resource is our students' ideas and concepts toward solving real-world problems. By arming them with the time and resources, we give them the key to unlimited potential. We can literally transform schools into idea factories for change given the proper time, resources, and a willingness to try something different.

Will educational leaders and policy makers have the courage to usher in this change? Or will we stand by and see what the standardized test has to say? I believe that innovation will not push teachers out -- it will enable us to empower our students to change the world.

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Don Wettrick

Innovation Coordinator always looking for great collaborators for my students!

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Dawn Hood's picture

I really liked how you pointed out that creative destruction can be a positive thing in education - changing the focus from knowledge consumption to production. What are the key things that need to be done in order to shift our definitions of roles in education so that we are meeting these changes head on?

Don Wettrick's picture
Don Wettrick
Innovation Coordinator always looking for great collaborators for my students!

Dawn,
First there must be a dialogue between k-12 and universities that there is a huge need. Convincing students to be more than a "good student" aka consumers, is pointless unless universities reward students for being innovators.
Second, school administrators should also have a conversation with the teachers on what being a "producer" of content looks like. Also questions of relevancy and mastery can be examined.
If the principal/ supt. go about this with a spirit of learning (and not making commandments on high) I believe that the teachers can begin to flesh out what this transition will look like.
Lastly, and most importantly, have this conversation with the students. Let THEM brainstorm what becoming a producer of content looks like in his/her class.

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