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Building a Legacy: Innovations Shouldn't Necessarily Become Institutions

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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I spent the weekend extending a stone wall I have been working on over the years. Now, before you get too impressed, please understand that my effort this weekend was only about 8 feet long and about 2 feet or so from the ground to the capstones.

Credit: Courtesy of Jim Moulton

This is the third section I have built, and I should no longer be surprised by how much work it is, but on Sunday at around 2:30, I was starting to think that maybe I should finish the wall the next weekend. However, I persevered and got it done -- and, boy, does it feel so good. I love to just stop and look at it when I walk by.

Our home in Maine is in the woods, and the stones I am using to build my walls come from a stone pile made when the folks who originally farmed the land cleared it, most likely some 150 years ago. You see, the house that originally sat on the land was noted on the 1857 map of Sagadahoc County, so I know rocks have been picked from this land since at least then.

The wall-making process requires me to take my wheelbarrow, the same one I used to mix concrete in when I began to build our home back in 1982, out to the stone pile, where I fill it up with rocks. I pay some attention to the sizes and shapes before wheeling them back to the building site.

The actual building is slow, and from time to time, I have to take rocks out and I need to restart the general flow of the project. But in the end, I finished this section of wall. It was finished on Sunday at around 4 P.M. and is still finished. It will still be there in a week, in a month, in a year. In fact, the thing that I have been thinking about since I finished this piece of wall is that I have created something that will most likely still be here after I die. My stone wall, I believe, will pass the hit-by-a-truck test.

Not to get morbid or anything, but when I work with schools and meet agents of change who either just naturally shake things up in their schools or who purposefully set out to change behaviors and outcomes, people who are thoughtfully doing things differently, I speak to them about the hit-by-a-truck test. It's a way to see if they've made a real change: They must try to think about what would happen if, God forbid, a truck were to hit and kill them as they drove to work next week. Would the changes they have made through passionate commitment to improving things for kids carry on beyond them?

If the change would carry on, as my stone wall will stand when I die, the change is strong enough to pass the test. But the longer I live, the more aware I become that positive change that can withstand the hit-by-a-truck test is rare indeed, and it's oh so hard to accomplish in a school.

So, to everyone who has had a great idea, to those among us who have started something from scratch that proved to be successful at multiple levels, I ask, "Will your idea outlive your tenure? If you get transferred to another school next year, will your project continue? If your grade-level assignment changes, will the teacher who moves into your classroom continue where you have left off?"

Or -- hold it -- what about this whole stability thing. Perhaps I should be asking, "Is it a good thing to have your innovation outlive your tenure?" Could the desire for the continuation of my ideas or your ideas beyond our tenure be part of the problem rather than a good thing? Could the rigidity of how teaching and learning is supposed to happen in a school simply be evidence that someone or some group was very good at making sure their ideas would stand up to the hit-by-a-truck test, that they knew how to build a New-England-stone-wall type of curriculum or pedagogy or bell schedule?

So, might continuous change actually be the best thing for schools, rather than the institutionalization of innovations? Is it perhaps best that your great idea or my great idea eventually whither and die? Doesn't the very act of institutionalizing an innovation, be it your precious baby or mine, render it noninnovative? And is not thoughtful innovation the lifeblood of learners engaged in good learning and teachers engaged in good teaching?

Or perhaps there are different levels of change, like creating a more caring school or creating a school that fosters lifelong learning or creative problem solving, changes that are global and nonspecific in how they are accomplished, changes that call for personal and schoolwide innovations in order to happen and that deserve to be ongoing. Perhaps the methods that are in place now to accomplish those broad, foundationally good goals should be the ones we don't bronze and put on the shelf. As good as they are, there has to be a better way. There is not now, nor will there ever be, a best way. Will there be a better way? Sure. But a best way? Never.

Edutopia is a cornucopia of innovations, many open ended enough to provide inspiration without expectation of direct replication. I think right away of the Garden of Eating: Middle Schoolers Grow Their Own Lunch and Leapin' Lizards!: Students as Data Collectors articles as wonderful innovations that are ready to be tweaked to fit your school, your community, your classroom.

But you probably have your own favorites on Edutopia. What are the Edutopia articles, podcasts, or videos that inspired you, that caused you to think, "I need to do something like that," and from which you took the innovative kernel and built your own innovation, moving these wonderful ideas forward in your own environment? Please share your stories, and be assured that others will take what you have done and do what good teachers always do -- make it better!

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Arien Wise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your last line, "others will take what you have done and do what good teachers always do--make it better", I believe sums up the idea of teaching and learning. Everyone is different. What might be best for one person might not be best for all. That is why it is upsetting to me to base student knowledge off of a test and not off of their personal experience and knowledge.
One of the greatest things about teaching is that it is always changing. Each year I meet at least 140 new people. People with different lives and experiences to share and learn from. I use these experiences as my Edutopia. I find inspiration from the students in my classroom. I try to challenge the students who want more. I try to change the minds of those who want to rebel against my class. I try to build up the ones who feel insecure with their selves and their learning abilities. Everyday is a different day that is inspired by what my students bring, from the good to the bad.

Chris Cherry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found Mr. Moulton's posting interesting. At first, though intrigued by his wall-building story since I am building a retaining wall on my own property that I hope stands the test of time, I wondered where he was going with his dialogue. However, I found myself looking in a mirror at his conclusions of his instructional innovations.

I have been teaching for 15 years, and within the last 5 I have gone from one of the younger teachers, learning from the colleagues who surround me, to one of the elder teachers being looked to for direction and advice. As much as I have aged, this is more due to retirements and new hirings to replace those who retired. During that time, I have been responsible for training new teachers, developing new courses, and incorporating new materials into our system of education. I also see things that I had the opportunity to develop and worked very hard to complete, being reworked, reapproached, and renovated, almost to the point that some things are not what I designed them to be. My resulting ire at my new colleagues for their "disrespect" of my hard work has led me to frustration, because as an educational leader, I found myself suppressing the emotions of my insulted ego.

The notion that "institutionalization of innovation" is "noninnovative" sounds so oxymoronic, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is true. I found myself agreeing with Mr. Moulton's suggestion that "continuous change" might be the best thing for schools. While many may argue that consistancy is best, and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," this goes against my personal belief that educators need to be life-long learners. Most would agree that stagnation leads to a deterioration of skills. Incorporation of new techniques and new ideas should be viewed with an open mind, and I see that I need to do that. My own continued growth as a life-long learner is not mutually exclusive to the incorporation of my experience and previous knowledge influencing my instruction.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris -

I have read your response several times, enjoying your thoughtfulness. My re-reading was not because of any lack of clarity, but rather because of the obvious care you put into the writing. Your closing, "My own continued growth as a life-long learner is not mutually exclusive to the incorporation of my experience and previous knowledge influencing my instruction," makes me think about my parenting (our kids are now 22 & 20) and how there is no "perfect parenting." I just need to remember what worked and try to keep on getting better.

Your experience and willingness to grow is a gift to your students, I would imagine. I often say that, should I have to choose, I would want to "apprentice my kids to a knowledgeable and effective learner" rather than putting them "under the direction of a teacher." And that the very best is when that effective learner is an effective teacher!

Have fun learning! And teaching!

Cheers - Jim

Mark Geary's picture

Love your blogs, but please double check how they appear in google reader - I am getting "title unknown", which usually means "skip" as I go through my hundred or so feeds.


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