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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Five Qualities to Spreading Innovation in Education

"21st Century Education" is a term gaining more and more popularity, despite the fact we are 12 years into it. This term has been thrown around so often that many innovative educators have been faced with rolling eyes at the sight of their upcoming professional development session titled "Teaching for the 21st Century Learner".

Out of curiosity, I started to type "21st Century" into Google. As I started typing, "21st Century Education" pops up 3rd on the auto-fill search display.

So here is the question: How can 21st Century Education seem like it's being done to death, yet still not be spreading?

To approach this question, I'm referring to the five qualities that spread innovation, with a focus on education. If you would like to know more about these 5 qualities, there is a great summary of Everett Rogers' Theory of the Diffusion of Innovation.

1. Relative Advantage:
For teachers to take on the behaviour consistent with a new educational paradigm, they must first trust that the innovation is better than what came before it. This is where many of our late majority and laggards hold their ground, and for good reason. The idea that "It's been working for me so far. My students are attaining very high results so why do I need to change anything?"

How can an innovator argue with that? The problem is that in many educational systems, students will still score a high result in a traditional learning environment because the system itself has traditional context, curriculum, expectations and modes of assessment. The most important variable to all this is the student and their potential for FUTURE success based on a world of ongoing change. If the education system remains static, so will the teaching and learning that resides within it and therefore, blocking the "relative advantage" from taking place.

A good example is the exam. Some schools go to the extent of scheduling large scale examinations for subjects, just so students can gain "exam sitting experience" for state and national standardised testing later in the year. It sounds ludacris, but it's true. Not only do students walk out into the world where examinations are almost never a part of their lives, but they have to spend time doing assessment in a way that builds skills to do even more assessment in an environment to which they will never be faced with again.....what the?

2. Compatibility with Existing Values and Practices:
This 2nd quality questions how educational reform is meeting the values and practices of traditional schooling. Many teachers ask questions like this one: "Will online education inhibit a student's ability to socially interact?"
When we ask this question however, we need to think of which society we are referring to. Are we referring to the society we grew up in as children? Or the society our students will need to prepare themselves for? Drawing that comparison may stop us thinking about our own circumstances and consider the student's potential to not only survive, but thrive in a global online economy. If we focus on that more important idea, then no we are not inhibiting social skills- we're enhancing them.

3. Simplicity & Ease of Use
This 3rd quality states that the easier it is to use the innovation, the faster it spreads. Here is where the ball stops for many of us. Managing a classroom and everything that comes with being a teacher is difficult enough, yet teachers are now overwhelmed with online web tools, social media, technology and portable devices they don't have the time to learn and integrate into their teaching. Tackling this issue is and will never be easy. Firstly, introducing technology to a classroom needs to always be about the learning or teachers will not see an educational purpose. Unfortunately, this is being ignored far too often and educational systems and schools are deploying portable tablets and shoving tech into classrooms to exhibit a visual and tangible advertisment of 21st Century learning, despite whether that learning is actually happening or not.

4. Trialability
If teachers are able to test out a few lessons that challenge traditional teaching methods without feeling failure anxiety or resistance, then this part would be easy. Most teachers however, feel it's easier to teach a lesson they know won't trainwreck, rather than take a risk and teach out of their comfort zone. For a teacher to feel comfortable to trial new classroom practice, they need to feel confident their students will come away with something valuable. They need to feel supported by their school colleagues and leadership. Teachers also need to feel that failing a lesson can be a good thing. I heard a great quote at a conference I attended not long ago:
"You must first endure failure to truly enjoy success"

5. Observable Results
Most people would like to see something is working successfully before they jump on board. The problem with innovating education is that many of the results are not easily visible. Thinking about it big picture, if a student starting in Year 1 was taught by (lets just call them) passionate "innovative teachers" until they finished high school, they would only be finishing school now. Do we know undoubtedly that this student will excel in their future endeavours? Of course not. It's difficult to see some results, but also easier to see others. A few examples that I can answer "yes" to based on what I have seen.
Have you noticed increased engagement since you changed your teaching?
Has a change in a school timetable or eliminating a timetable alltogether improved attendance?
Have students completing online courses achieved higher results than students face to face?
A way we can help spread innovation in education is to acknowledge the positive changes that have already happened because of it. If you are trying something different in your class, research it, get some metrics or a way to analyse and evaluate it. Be a school that celebrates new learning experiences. It's been shown that an "islands of innovation" approach can be more effective than a top down innovation model. If bits and pieces of learning innovations are taking place in the school, then the spread will be more natural and pulled together, rather than pushed.

The more these 5 qualities are addressed in education, the sooner we will stop hearing the term "21st Century Education" and it will become simply...Education.

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