Lately, it seems that the term innovation is all around us. If we are to be competitive, then we need to be innovative. The more I hear terms, the more I want to dig a bit deeper to say…tell me a bit more. What do we mean by innovation? Which instructional practices exactly would we call transformative? If you stood in a classroom and saw transformation or innovation in action – would you know what it looked like? Could you describe innovation and how it is different from “traditional” practices? Are “traditional” practices now somehow obsolete or ineffective?
Trying to answer some of these questions, I reached out to teachers asking for an invitation to their classroom to see what they would describe as innovative or transformative. If we value inquiry, then what better way to learn more about the questions above than to spark up a conversation with teachers where we debate and discuss the complexity surrounding educational transformation? I wanted to write this blog to both honour the work that I saw and to continue to put to the public the debate about innovation.
I received far more invites than my calendar could hold. I wanted to spend time with teachers, to learn from their practices and to engage with them about the complexities, challenges and wonders of their day to day life. I am a teacher and I remember the days quite well. However, my role is different from the time when I stood before children, made my lesson plans, wrote report cards, supervised at recess, and did the bazillion other things that teachers do in their daily lives.
I selected a range of classes from K to 12. I chose arts, applied skills, core academics, learning support, “regular” classes, “alternate” classes to best represent all teachers from all areas and at all levels. The visits ranged from an hour to well over two hours. I watched, I talked with teachers, I met kids, I taught, I went for walks, I shovelled bark mulch and I pushed wheel barrows. In each case I told teachers that I was at their disposal to do with me as they pleased. I am three months into the process and I will continue for the rest of the year. Learning is a journey and in the language of British Columbia report cards, I self-evaluate as not yet meeting expectations when it comes to my own expectations around defining and describing educational innovation.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, innovation is to “Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” From the Latin innovat – to “renew, to alter, to make new”. Transformation implies a rapid and dramatic change in the shape and nature of something. In contrast to innovation which seems to be more subtle, transformation is stark and radical. Innovation definitions are rife with changes in shape, form or practices, but transformation is equated with a metamorphosis, a radical shift with the end result having little in common with the original state. The two terms may be interconnected or they may be opposing. It depends which definitions you read or which beliefs you have.
The processes of innovation is deeply rooted in the classrooms of schools across BC every day. While it is true that some practices have remained static over the years, in multiple ways and in varying stages, innovation is all around us. To see the innovations happening, you need to step into classrooms and schools and simply discuss what is happening. There is fabulous work being done and we know that in BC our international results have been among the best in the world for years. Our system is world class, and the quality of our system is a mirror of the quality of our educators.
Teachers are incredibly proud of their work. They take it very seriously and they strive for continual improvement. They are reflective and are deeply inquiring about their practice and constantly refine all aspects of their work to match the needs of their learners. Their work is not static, it is dynamic and evolving. Teachers openly communicate their passion for their work to their students and it is obvious that they like what they are doing and that it has meaning for their students. Finally, teachers care about students. They care personally not only about achievement but about the well-being of those in their care. They want each child to be successful and they constantly demonstrate that success is so much more than the acquisition of knowledge and skills. There is so much to be proud of in classrooms across BC. Are all classrooms the same? Of course they are not. But innovation is all around us and all one needs to do is step into a classroom to see it.
Yet real pressures remain. Whether it be from technology and changes in distribution of knowledge, globalization, the outsourcing of education via online content or the global economy, clearly the pressures on the classrooms are greater than ever before. I have written about this topic before and the piece that keeps getting underrepresented is the simple pressures of demographic changes and the growing competition for public funding between health and education. Our society is aging and health costs continue to escalate at the expense of public education.
There is a need for significant change. However, I don’t believe that change is about incremental changes, the change that we hear about is radical transformation of a system with deep roots in everything from school calendar and timetables to expectations around entrance to post-secondary via a gatekeeping system based on percentages and letter grades.
Newton’s first law states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion remains in motion. The mass of the status quo in our educational system is significant. I would say that our system is in motion, however to change that motion requires substantial attention to the cultures and structures that keep us on the path that we are on. Innovation is about practices and the process of changing or altering those practices. Innovative practices attempt to comply with and exist within the very structures that bind us. If we are to accept and embrace transformation, then we have to examine the policies that limit our ability to transform and to consider how we take steps to truly transform what we do. We would need to go back to the drawing board and rethink teacher, student, class, school, instruction, reporting and the many other policy and legislative things that define the very structures within which we work and learn.
After much thought and a lot of conversations with teachers, I am currently of the mind that, within our current system, innovation may actually be more about practices, and transformation more about relationships and culture. I have seen many different practices, many places where teachers are shifting practice to improve the engagement of their students. I see that powerful teachers tap into their own passion for learning and that passion transfers to their students. Teachers enjoy what they do and it is obvious in the activities they design.
However, system transformation is a different beast. Transformation isn’t about a change in practice, it is about rethinking of education in light of our current and future circumstances. Rethinking education doesn’t mean just rethinking classroom instruction, it means rethinking all the structures and policies that dictate our worlds. I believe that we are looking at a massive task to transform cultures. Teachers are part of a system that goes beyond instruction. If transformation represents a metamorphosis, then we need to take the time to consider exactly what that entails, what it looks like, and how we are to get there. When opportunity knocks, do we answer, or do we leave it to remain standing at the door of possibilities? When money is available to reshape the structures and school design in which we learn, do we take up the torch and respond or do we look back and make small incremental changes to the structures we already know? I would argue the latter even in our own district and the forces that keep us at the status quo are substantial and come from within the system and from external agencies.
How will you know transformation when you see it? It likely will look like an education you have never seen before and one which in no way resembles what you or I went through. And by this I don’t mean using an iPad to keep doing what we have always done but using different tools. Design learning environments that do not resemble traditional beliefs about how learning works. Not only are the structures different, but the roles and practices are as well.
Finally, what is traditional practice? Perhaps these quotes may help remind us about traditional values and beliefs:
From where do these quotes come? From John Dewey who wrote his books in the early 1900’s, Democracy and Education (1902) and Experience and Education (1938). Sometimes I think we forget how much we have wrestled with the problem of education. We have debated it much over the years and as a result, much of what we call new and innovative thinking actually has been around for a century.
What about diverse and other ways of knowing and learning? Dewey of course does not have a monopoly on the philosophy of learning. Leanne Simpson (2000) as cited in Hart (2010) outlined seven principles of Indigenous worldviews and she reminds us that there are other ways of knowing and learning. One of Simpson’s principles of Indigenous worldviews reminds us about the origin of truth and states:
“There are many truths, and these truths are dependent upon individual experiences.”
Have we also forgotten the power of existing practices like formative assessment which still is at the very top of the list of factors that improve learning? Are we “there yet” with our practices of formative assessment when we know how big of a difference it makes? Is embedded formative assessment both innovative and transformative? I would argue we still have a long way to go but the reminder about existing powerful practices only underscore the challenges we have to make and the cultural shifts we need. The power and importance of these cultural shifts were so aptly reflected upon by Roland Case when he said in response to reform “The underappreciated challenge facing educational reform is to improve our collective ability to conceptualize and operationalize change initiatives.”
In the meantime, I will continue my visits to teachers and will continue to learn from them, to listen to their needs and to engage them in conversations about what they need to keep BC at the top of the list of quality education systems around the world. I still have a lot to think about and clearly there is still a lot of learning for me to do as the pressure for system transformation continues. The hope of this blog is to stimulate more thought about these concepts, what they mean and to deepen the dialogue about where we are, where we need to go and, more importantly, what it takes to get there.