by Terry Heick

Innovation matters because it reflects and causes adaptations to a changing world.

But while we stomp our feet for innovation in education and innovative teaching and innovative edtech and innovative innovation, it might be useful to clarify our thinking. First, how does education–as it exists–function as a sequence and model? What are its bits and pieces, and what is the thinking that underpins them?

Four (of the many) underlying questions of modern formal education (as it is) are:

1. Content: What do we want students to know?

2. Learning Models: How can they best learn what we want them to know?

3. Assessment: How will we know if they’ve learned it?

4. Responding to Assessment Data: How can we best respond if they don’t?

An Underlying Assumption Of Innovation

An underlying assumption of this thinking is that innovation is necessary, a thought suggested by our mediocrity as an industry in lieu of our considerable collective effort.

Innovation in and of itself is not only insufficient, but wasteful. Innovate what, and why? What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to speed up or slow down? What inefficiencies are we trying to correct? What questions are we trying to answer? In which direction are we seeking to improve our progress?

It very well may be that the innovation that education so badly needs is first in this kind of macro thinking. If learning should result in personal and social change, then we can’t simply seek a more streamlined and digitized version of what we already have.

What Are People For?

Fundamentally, the question is “What are people for, and what kind of world can we have if that question is honored?”

Somehow, asking what a person should ‘do’ and ‘be’ in an industry of ‘person-improvement’ are odd questions. But if we work backwards from that point, rather than “How can kids learn academic content more quickly and retain it longer?”, we have a new handle for the ‘ed reform’ argument. (See also, Wendell Berry on “What Are People For?“)

So where is the innovation in education coming from? What are its current levels of innovation? What might possibly disrupt it in the future?

The Sources Of Innovation In Education

1. Content: What do we want students to know?

The knowledge demands of a modern student are an extraordinarily complex and subjective thing–and not scrutinized nearly enough as a result. While we focus, as a profession, on the technology and practices to distribute content to students, there is very little thinking about the content itself. We accept that academic standards are, in fact, “what students should know,” and train our sights on distributing that knowledge.

For most public education classrooms in the United States, the question of “What we want students to know?” is answered (most broadly) by the Common Core–a mix of content knowledge and skills. This is further supplemented (or replaced) by competencies in competency-based learning environments.

From these standards, what we wants students to know and do is then clarified more precisely through curriculum maps and pacing guides, and then formatted by planning templates, and even ways of thinking about curriculum, from Understanding by Design and backwards design, to project-based learning, modules, packs, or any other number of ways of packaging content.

It is, then, useful to see the relationship between content and curriculum; one suggests the other, and when one isn’t designed with the other in mind, the results are less than ideal. For example, trying to wedge challenge-based learning into an AP curriculum creates loss from the incongruity between the two.

Content Innovation Level: Low

Content Innovation Trend: Stagnant

Content Innovation Sources: Competency-based learning, general ‘unbundling’ of higher ed, AI, data/trends

Opportunities for Disruption of Content: Mobile learning; full transparency for schools; deep parental involvement in education; innovative content packaging; personalized learning, effective use of AI

2. Learning Models: How can they best learn what we want them to know?

The question we are currently intrigued by is a useful one: How do students learn best? How can we change learning spaces, for example, to take create compelling learning for students? This is among the key questions that spawned the flipped classroom.

Education technology plays a central role here as well. How students will learn is illuminated and packaged by locally available technology (whether old or new).

Some innovation is happening here–e.g., flipped classrooms, eLearning, blended learning, self-directed learning, etc. However, the real opportunity lies in rethinking learning in a connected world–connected learning models, for starters. This shifts what students need to know and how they go about learning it.

Among the four key questions in education, learning models likely enjoy the most significant innovations, but relative to what’s possible, extraordinary potential remains.

Learning Models Innovation Level: Medium

Learning Models Innovation Trend: Modest Rise

Learning Models Innovation Sources: technology, improved sharing of learning models across digital PLNs; broadband access; tablets; video streaming; minor innovation in learning app development

Opportunities for Disruption of Learning Models: Mobile learning, Self-Directed Learning, open APIs, Social & Connected Learning Models

3. Assessment: How will we know if they’ve learned it?

If education is intrigued by how students learn, it is utterly fascinated with assessment–not so much unique forms of assessment, but the function assessment data can hypothetically play in the learning process. Innovation in assessment–both what’s assessed, how it’s assessed, how that data is visualized, reported, and interpreted, and so on–exists, with recent developments in computer-based testing.

But if we consider these kinds of minor innovations compared to what assessment is trying to do (clarify exactly what a person does and doesn’t know), it’s easy to see that significant opportunities for growth remain.

Assessment Innovation Level: Low

Assessment Innovation Trend: Slow Rise

Innovation Sources: performance-based assessment; adaptive learning algorithms, visual data, mobile technology, cloud technology

Opportunities for Disruption in Assessment: Strategic use of existing and emerging learning taxonomies; new media–not so much twitter and instagram, but rather media–writing, video, projects, etc.–that’s social; gamification, nanodegrees and other ‘new certificates’

4. Teaching: How can we best respond if they don’t?

While all of these questions are a part of ‘teaching,’ response to assessment data is increasingly on the shoulders of the classroom teacher, and, increasingly, characterizes teaching and dominates how teachers spend their time.

So while teachers are the prime actuators of the learning process in every area, the data-based efforts in school reform, combined with advances in education technology, have changed the landscape of a classroom.

Specifically, the strategies of professional learning communities, data teams, data committees, etc.–the modern tactics of school improvement–have highlighted data and data response as key drivers of education.

While this varies greatly on a local level, there are some patterns, including curriculum sharing. This is further enabled by national standards suggesting shared curriculum and curricula, and PLCs that emphasize teacher co-planning and collaboration. At least philosophically, this ‘frees’ teachers to focus less on turning standards into curriculum and units, and more on how they respond when students don’t understand.

Responding to Non-Mastery Innovation Level: Low

Responding to Non-Mastery Innovation Trend: Stagnant

Responding to Non-Mastery Innovation Sources: Unclear

Opportunities for Disruption in Responding to Non-Mastery: Social Learning Networks, Smarter app development, challenge-based learning/project-based learning, cloud technology

Where’s The Innovation In Education Coming From?


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