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Can K-12 innovation change the system from within?

February 16, 2021

Necessity is the mother of invention, and change in education is necessary. Do a quick Google search for "K-12 Innovation" and you will find a huge array of initiatives, collaborations, technologies, and methodologies. But where is it all headed?

Change takes time, and revolutions that seem to occur in a single year have been bubbling and fomenting for a generation or more beneath the surface. So what is bubbling in education?

We have seen a generational shift away from the behaviorist approach to education, where facts are memorized and repeated on demand. The evidence that supports better ways of learning is indisputable, and even the most traditional systems have progressed in some way towards a more learner-centered model.

We have seen industry demand an increased focus on skills, adaptability, and critical thinking with a practical application to real-world challenges, rather than the ability to express more abstract theoretical knowledge. The social shift towards a more circular, environmentally aware, and values-based approach to business and commerce has driven changes in education that reflect it. From social leadership programs for high schools to changemakers groups encouraging activism and action from the heart of education. Thought Leaders are leading, and innovators are innovating, but all within the same system. The question is: to what extent can we truly expect innovation to create transformative impact within the parameters of the same old system? While inspiring ideas from above are great, the people at the "top" are always changing, so ideas become policies, policies becomes politics, and around we go. Do these ideas really impulse bottom-up innovation to change things on a grander scale?

Oh great! More new ideas...

This needs to be said first because it really is the case. Teachers, who are the heart of the system and the core of its functions, are tired. New ideas and initiatives come by every single year, when the director has attended a conference or learning festival, or a colleague has embarked on a learning visit to another school, or when the government changes and hands down a slew of new curricular approaches and best practice guidelines.

All of this happens with the very best of intentions, but it must be exhausting. When we talk of innovation in K-12 education, we must be mindful of the health and wellbeing of those who will bring it to life.

To streamline what we might call "progress", innovation needs to be guided by purpose. Let's assume that the reason to innovate in education is to improve the learning experience, outcomes, and impact. Then let's think about all of the innovations that we have seen, and ask ourselves which of them supported that purpose more.

From theories in psychology, advances in applied neuroscience, the rise of AI and Augmented Reality to pedagogical changes in competence-based education, STEAM, and a whole host of others; some have made more impact than others, some resisted or written off as "the latest trend", and many have simply not been integrated or supported well and come in for undeserved criticism.

In our world of perpetual movement, the productivity paradox theory makes clear that all innovation is not progress, all progress is not growth, and all growth is not sustainable. Keeping purpose at the heart of innovation will join up the thinking around its implementation. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.

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Learner centered innovation - a chance to refresh

So let's think this through. If the thought leaders are evolving their arguments for change, the politicians are changing every few years and taking their ideas with them, where is the solid platform on which to build?

It was always the learner. The needs of a human being have remained present throughout it all. To belong somewhere, to find purpose and passion, to play and discover, to know yourself, and belong to a community.

Any attempt to innovate in education without including learners in the equation is not guided by purpose. We know that the best ideas come when we step back, or step outside and let go of our patterned ways of thinking. But yet, we find it difficult to let go of our learning structures; to allow learners to iterate and fail, play and reflect. To observe and embrace what our learners gravitate towards, and what they shun; what fires their neural networks and what puts them to sleep.

If we truly put learners at the center, we remove the contradictions that are barriers to innovation. Tablets are provided with great fanfare, but cellphones are banned. Any fact can be found in Google in seconds, but learners are required to memorize them. Activities to support learner diversity are used to prepare them for a standardized test. Innovation for impact means not tinkering at the edges, but following the guiding purpose all the way to its logical conclusion and outcome.

Bridge the technology-pedagogy gap

Is there anything as debated and discussed in education as technology right now? There is almost a scramble to adapt as apps and digital tools appear at a dizzying pace, and words like "gamification" can bring late adopters out in a cold sweat.

Technology is not a fad. It is the future, and educators should be more supported to vet, analyse, select and implement technology in ways that bring the most benefit for learners. The OECD reported in the area of Ed-Tech that "Major changes in informal teacher professional development should be highlighted as an encouraging trend" but that "the results should lead us to think more carefully about policy implementation".

This is exactly where we are. The gap is still wide between new technology and conscious integration of the way it is applied within purposeful learning frameworks. There is a risk that technology implemented in a top-down way will simply support and augment the approaches of a traditional learning environment, such as when some schools simply started delivering traditional lessons in the same way but on Zoom instead of in front of a physical class.

The comfort level of technology among educators is hugely varied, and research has found that "To effectively meet the learning styles of Generation Z and those students following, educators need to be able to adapt to quickly changing technology, be comfortable with students who multitask and be open to technology-rich teaching and learning environments. However, most educators do not have the adequate knowledge, skills, and confidence to effectively or efficiently use the available technologies to support technology integration into the learning environment".

If we are serious about innovation-driven by technology in the classroom, then not only do we need to make sure that it is learners themselves showing us how it can support them, but also that our educators are given all the support that they need to make it happen.

K-12 innovation as spreadable; not scalable

The Deeper Learning Dozen initiative tells us that innovation in education should not be "scalable" but "spreadable". Be wary of the word "scalability" when applied to education. This is a word of the industrial revolution, where replication is applied from a top-down perspective, exponentially maximizing efficiency; something that works when you are producing a uniform end product in uniform circumstances.

Our learners are not uniform, and neither are the environments they inhabit. Positive innovations need to be adapted to culture, context, resources, and a host of other things that meet the learner where they are. Spreading innovation is less proprietary, more altruistic, and more organic.

Why does this matter? The challenge is that an organic culture of collaboration and innovation through design-thinking is bubbling up from the roots of education, but having to innovate within the proscriptive structures of a traditional system. This is not how innovation flourishes best, but by sharing and collaborating peer-to-peer at the grassroots, there builds an impulse for change that is becoming difficult to ignore. Collaboration around innovation puts purpose at the heart of progress, refuses to commoditize it, and spreads widely across organic networks of educators on a global scale.

K-12 Innovation 2

Rallying around the same flag

Despite what may sound like a negative note, we really are hopeful about the future of education. We believe in the idea of purpose guiding innovation, but for innovation to spread, and gather evidence of its own efficacy, that purpose has to be common.

Learner-centered innovation through learner-directed practice can be shared widely, but unless there is a common sense of where we are trying to get to, things will move more slowly and sporadically without taking root. There are a huge number of organizations and individuals involved in a discussion about where education should change and what innovations are driving it forward, but unless that voice becomes more harmonious, agrees on certain fundamental principles, and finds commonality of purpose and vision among learners, educators, and parents, the system will continue to restrict innovation in its truest sense.

The question is, who is willing to lead? There is huge potential and big ideas, but the world of education hasn't yet managed to reform itself from within. Perhaps it is time for learners to step forward and lead the change? The next Greta is out there somewhere, and when they find their voice, it is time we listened.

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