The Need for Foundational Innovation (or Why Change is Hard for Teachers)

IMG_7203“Innovation can only be ‘top-down’ if the top innovates first.”

-Me- (about 20 minutes ago)

“Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education these days. Since the turn of the millenium it seems to have been agreed upon by everyone that change is essential to the continued success of public education. Teachers have been asked to be innovative in their teaching. We assess the capacity for innovation in our students as though it were a State Standard. We invest millions of dollars in technology hardware and software to assist us in speeding the evolution of teaching and learning into the 21st Century. We’ve begun to see every child as a potential Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elroy Jetson. And it’s good…for the most part.

Beyond the abstract, however, there lies a fundamental problem with the “innovation movement.” Beneath the drop ceilings where miles of ethernet cables and wireless routers connect our kids to the technological matrix, there is a tradition-bound, 19th Century foundation that hinders whatever intention teachers and administrators may hold. We are currently trying to rebuild an engine that is too powerful for the chassis it rests upon. Until we examine those seemingly unshakable ties to the past and begin innovating at a foundational level, our teachers and students are destined for half-measures, misguided initiatives, and missed opportunities to truly alter teaching and learning in meaningful ways.

Nowhere is this disconnect more obvious than in the basic structure of the school schedule and teacher planning time.  Just a few decades ago, planning a lesson or unit was simpler. Teachers were confined somewhat to the chosen textbook or canon of literature provided. Students had pens and paper, a thesaurus, a compass or a graphing calculator. Innovation was limited to plugging in an elmo or maybe building a Powerpoint presentation for your lecture.  In Google-time, that was a century ago. Now here’s the new math: Student-per-teacher ratios are up. Demands on teacher time for PLC meeting, parent conferencing, test proctoring and remediation are up.  Requirements for goal setting and performance evaluation have increased. Add to this the amount of time it takes to find tech resources, learn new applications and software, create new lessons using the proper technology and then find ways to assess projects that can’t be fed through a scan tron machine. Subtract the time teachers actually spend with students and you can see a clear deficit. There is no easy way to add a 25th hour to the day or an 8th day to a week. The simple fact is that asking teachers to be innovative and creative under this current schedule is unrealistic and maybe even a little unfair.

If innovation is to take hold, it needs to be foundational innovation. We need to begin rebuilding our vision and attitude about what a school day looks like and what it’s purpose really is.  We must begin with questions about why teachers spend 30 hours per week in front of students, but are given just 7 or 8 hours to plan for them, assess their work, provide feedback, and address their remaining needs with new approaches.  We need to ask ourselves why teachers aren’t given more opportunity to meet with peers or with parents and students during the school day. For that matter, we have to wonder why we’re still making 15-year-olds memorize grammar rules and why kids who hate math and clearly have no aptitude for it are forced to endure it for four full years of high school (that’s a whole other rant, I suppose). We do a lot of things in our schools that few people can really explain the reasoning behind.

We must innovate from the top.

We need to find a way to restructure the school day, stretching teacher learning time without sacrificing student learning. There seem to be a fair number of working models from which we can choose. We need to make professional development something that happens every day for every teacher as a part of their assigned duties and not as an “add-on.” Our teacher-training programs and education schools have to take the lead in re-envisioning classroom and curriculum design. Most importantly, school administrators and policy makers need to learn to let go of last century’s structures and create new ones that fit the times and needs of teachers and students. This, of course, starts with listening and responding in real and meaningful ways to the teachers in the classrooms.

Innovation can happen. It usually does, even without making it a requirement. But change doesn’t happen in the absence of trial and error, of studying and planning, of taking the time to learn new ways and practice them. I suppose it’s possible that this can happen in the course of a sixty or ninety minute planning period, but it seems unlikely. If we want a faster, more powerful engine, we have to start with a stronger and more stable frame.


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