Why Must Everything Be an Innovation?

Today, on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess argues that “not all innovations are created equal.” To merit attention, an innovation must be “game-changing, sustainable, and replicable.” I question all of this, including the underlying premise that innovations are what we need in the first place.

Must an idea be an innovation in order to have value? Of course not. Many of the best ideas in education are old ones–or else subtle modifications of old ideas. In many cases the innovation, if it exists at all, is slight. That does not detract from its importance.

An example: last year I observed a physics class where students were given pictures and asked to identify the force or forces acting on the objects. As they worked on this, I saw them making some key mistakes. I pointed this out to the teacher, and he said, “Yes, that’s what they usually do.” He wasn’t worried. When they came back together as a class, he took took time to discuss their reasoning with them. It was clear, as the discussion progressed, that the students were “getting it”–precisely because they had made the error and now saw why it was an error. It was one of the most illuminating lessons I have watched. The teacher didn’t do anything revolutionary; rather, he followed some complementary principles (letting the students struggle on their own and then walking them carefully through the problems) and exercised good judgment when doing so.

One could turn this into a Big Innovation (along the lines of “discovery” learning): Teachers, stop teaching students the right answer. Let them make mistakes, and then reason through the problems with them. But that’s exactly the sort of idea that goes wrong when taken large. One has to  know when to let kids make these mistakes and when to set them on the right track. One have to give them some direction, or they will be all over the place, and it will be difficult to bring them together for a fruitful discussion. This lesson worked beautifully because there was a basis for it and because the teacher knew how to do it right. He didn’t teach every lesson in this manner.

Why must a good idea, innovative or not, be replicated on a large scale? That takes away the very spirit of innovation, which involves, at the very least, the use of one’s best judgment. Tell others to copy a model, and you’re telling them to shut off part of their thinking. It makes more sense to translate a model–that is, to carry some aspects of it into new situations–than to replicate it.

I remember a professional development training–or series of trainings–where we were put in groups and taught how to perform “jigsaw” activities (where each group’s work would form part of a whole). We were then told to go implement it in the classroom the very next week, and come back and talk about what we had done. I found this peculiar. Why must I implement a “jigsaw” activity, unless it makes sense to do so? Instead, I reported on a project that my students had just completed. It involved elements of the jigsaw but was not a jigsaw activity per se. The final result was a collection of mystery stories the students had written (a feat for these English language learners, and a delightful collection). I brought the booklet to the next training; the trainer asked, “But how did you use our strategies?” I tried to explain that I had used elements of them, but that was not enough. It wasn’t that she held a higher standard; the “jigsaw activity” we had learned in training resulted in a bunch of charts that we then put on the wall. The content wasn’t what mattered here. What mattered (to the trainers) was that we replicate the “strategies.”

Later, I found myself adapting the “jigsaw” idea for certain lessons–for instance, when conducting a mock session of Congress. It seemed much more fruitful to me to wait for the right opportunity–and to make adjustments to the model as needed–than to just go and implement it because someone told me to do so, without regard for lesson topic. I see this error often in professional development; the trainers expect teachers to go and do exactly what they say, when a less literal implementation would actually be more interesting.

A good idea need not be new or grand, nor need it be replicated exactly, in order to have value. Why, then, does our education rhetoric scream “new, new, new” and “big, big, big”? The reasons are many–and the results disappointing. Many reforms tout themselves as innovations that will revolutionize the classroom and change the face of teaching and learning. This is a setup; first of all, revolutions carry losses, often severe and unforeseen; second, when you tell others to copy your idea exactly, you’re robbing them of the freedom you yourself enjoyed when developing the idea.

Why not take a more modest tack? Why not value tradition along with innovation and see how the two combine? Why not recognize the thoughtful, small-scale reform that may inspire many others but cannot and need not be copied?

Action Research and Its Misconceits

When I was in education school and teaching at the same time, we were all required to complete an “action research” project. I objected to this on ethical grounds but ended up doing it anyway. (I made my project as harmless and unobtrusive as possible.) At the time, I ransacked the Web for critiques of action research. The only substantial critique I found was an intriguing article by Allan Feldman, professor of science education at the University of South Florida, who suggested that action research should be more like teaching practice and less like traditional research. (Feldman has written extensively on this subject; he supports action research vigorously but recognizes its pitfalls.)

Action research is research conducted by a practitioner (say, a teacher, nurse, or counselor) in action—in his or her normal setting. It is often informal and does not have to follow standard research protocol. The researcher poses a question, conducts a study or experiment to investigate it, and arrives at conclusions. The action research study may or may not ever be published.

To some degree, teachers conduct action research every day. They frequently try things out and make adjustments. The difference is that (a) they don’t call this research and (b) they don’t have to stick with a research plan (if something isn’t working out, they can drop it immediately). Action research, by contrast, calls itself research and requires more sustained experimentation (if it is to have meaning at all). There lie its problems.

First of all, action research (that I have seen) adheres neither to traditional nor to alternate standards. To call it research is to muddy up the very concept, unless one clearly states what it is. What can action research be? It clearly cannot follow traditional research design. First, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a practitioner to conduct a scientifically valid experiment while performing his or her regular duties. Second, most practitioners have mitigating influences: their prior experience in that setting, their knowledge of the individuals, and their preferences and tendencies. This almost inevitably shapes the findings. If action research is to follow an alternate protocol, then this must be defined with care.

Now for the second problem. Although most action research projects probably do little or no harm, it is ethically problematic to require them. First of all, the teacher may distort her work more than she would do otherwise; she may find the project more distracting than helpful. Second, because of the sheer number of required action research projects, there is rarely much supervision. Teachers conducting such “research” are not required to obtain permission from parents or even notify the students. If education schools were to institute a protocol for action research, they’d double or triple their own work and that of the teachers. That would be impractical. Thus many novice teachers conduct their experiments without even the schools’ knowledge.

I originally thought that the ethical problem was the primary one. I am no longer sure. Most teachers conducting these projects are just getting their bearings in the classroom. An action research project usually amounts to a mild distraction at worst and an interesting investigation at best. However, there should be a standard protocol for such experiments, and they should be voluntary.

The greater problem, in my view, is the intellectual one, with all its implications for policy. We already have enough trouble with the phrase “research has shown.” Again and again we find out that research hasn’t quite shown what people claim it has shown. Because few people take time to read the actual research (which can be cumbersome), researchers and others get away with distorted interpretations of it. Add to this a huge body of quasi-research, and anyone can say that “research has shown” just about anything.

Proponents of educational fads can almost always find “research” to support what they do. Some of it is action research of dubious quality. For instance, the Whole Brain Teaching website cites, on its “Research” page, a “study” titled “Integrating Whole Brain Teaching Strategies to Create a More Engaged Learning Environment.” (I am linking to Google’s cached version of the “Research” page, since the original “Research” page is now blank.) As it turns out, the study took place over the course of a week. The author was testing the effect of “Whole Brain Teaching” on student engagement. She made a list of nine student “behaviors” and observed how they changed between Monday, October 19, 2009, and Friday, October 23, 2009.

One could write off Whole Brain Teaching as some fringe initiative, yet it made its way into an elementary school where I previously taught. It touts itself as “one of the fastest growing education reform movements in the United States.” (I have written more about it in my book and in my blog “Research Has Shown—Just What, Exactly?”) Important or not, it cites shaky research in support of itself—and so do many initiatives. One way to combat this is to insist on basic research standards.

Now, I recognize Dr. Feldman’s argument that action research should try to be less like traditional research and more like actual teaching practice. But in that case, its claims should be different. Its purpose should be to inform the practitioner, not to produce findings that can be generalized. Even in that case, it should have some sort of quality standard. In addition, those conducting the research should exercise caution in drawing conclusions from it, even for themselves. Any action research paper should begin with such cautionary statements.

I am not suggesting that action research be abolished; it has plenty of useful aspects. Of course, teachers should test things out and question their own practice—but voluntarily and perspicaciously. Should such investigation be called research? I’d say no–but the name isn’t really the problem. The challenge here–and for education research overall–is to dare to have a modest and uncertain finding.

A Blog Migration and a Contest

I finished transferring my blog posts from Open Salon. I will leave the old blog intact; I just won’t update it.

I did this because I have more flexibility over here. My avatar doesn’t pop up with each post. The statistical doodads are subtler or altogether absent. This will be a plain old-fashioned blog.  A good-old-days type of thing (except when I’m lamenting the past, present, or future, which I do fairly often). Whoever wants to read and comment on my pieces is welcome to do so. (Of course I reserve the right to delete any spam or inappropriate comments.)

Most but not all of the posts are about education. Some are satirical.

I took the picture in the heading. I welcome readers to guess where I took it. The first to guess correctly will receive a copy of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

It’s Too Hard!—No, It Isn’t

In education discussions, when I have suggested that students read Sophocles or Thomas Hardy or study a Newton theorem, people have often exclaimed, “That’s too hard!” (Andrew Hacker provoked outrage when recommending that high schools drop algebra on account of its difficulty, yet variations of his attitude run rampant.)

These works and subjects are not in themselves too hard. Of course, some aspects are quite challenging, even for scholars. Others are easy for a layperson to grasp. There’s a wide range in between. Part of the point of education is to absorb something, to take it into your mind, so that you can return to it later with more understanding.

What I find puzzling is the knee-jerk reaction “That’s too hard!” Why deem anything too hard until you’ve given it a serious try—that is, more than a try? And what’s wrong with a bit of difficulty? Of course if something is too hard, then it’s out of reach for students. But more often than not, when people say “too hard,” they just mean “mildly challenging.”  

In education we often have to consider opposing or counterbalancing principles. One principle is that students need background knowledge in order to comprehend what they read and learn. A good curriculum (such as the Core Knowledge Sequence) builds such knowledge in a thoughtful and logical manner, so that students are prepared for the next stage of study.

A counterbalancing principle is that one can plunge into a seemingly difficult problem or text and figure it out—or at least a great deal of it. Through doing so, one gains insights into the subject beyond the problem. 

To illustrate this, I opened a fairly challenging book to a random page, to see what I’d find there and what sense I could make of it. The book is The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. It is considered a classic of computer science. On page 113, the authors provide a function that returns a character string containing the name of the n-th month. So, if n = 5, the function will return “May.” Here’s what it looks like:

/* month_name: return name of n-th month*/
char *month_name(int n)
{
            static char [name[] = {
                        “Illegal month”,
                        “January”, February”, “March”,
                        “April”, “May”, “June”,
                        “July”, “August”, “September”,
                        “October”, “November”, “December”
              };

              return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];
}

Now, it helps to know just a little bit about programming syntax and logic. But even without that, you can figure out a few interesting things. First of all, look at this list (which is called an array—but you don’t need to know that right now). The first element of the list is “Illegal month.” So, if the elements of the list were numbered 1, 2, 3, and so forth, your function would return “Illegal month” for n = 1 and “January” for n = 2. That doesn’t seem to be what we want.

But look at what it says a few lines down:

return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];

This is clearly telling us to do something specific if n < 1 or n > 12. We’d expect that it would be telling us to return “Illegal month.” We can therefore surmise that “name[0]” refers to “Illegal month.” We can deduce from this that the numbering of the list (the array) begins with 0. The 0th element is “Illegal month”; the first element is “January,” and so on. That is indeed how arrays work.

So now we can interpret that line as follows: “If n < 1 or n > 12, return the 0th element of array ‘name,’ that is, ‘Illegal month’; otherwise, return the n-th element, which is the character string containing the name of the month.”

From there, we can grasp what the syntax actually means. We see that the double lines indicate “or”; the question mark, “if”; and the colon, “otherwise” or “else.”

I grant that I am cheating a little, since I already understand some of this stuff (which is rudimentary anyway; the book gets more challenging than that). But on many occasions, I had to make sense of the above syntax just as I am doing right now. I could bring in a hundred similar examples from literature, languages, mathematics, history, physics, and music.

Again, I’m not saying that we should study computer science or any subject haphazardly. My point is that in many cases, when something seems difficult, you can figure a great deal of it out with a bit of effort. Not only that, but it’s important to do so; such challenge is part of the nature of the subject. A first-rate curriculum includes beautiful, perplexing, and sometimes daunting problems.

What’s the fun of learning, if you don’t get to delve in and struggle a bit? Where’s the reality, if you are never seriously confronted? Where’s the illumination, if the answers are right there before you? Where’s the awe, if nothing is beyond your grasp?

Personal Narrative Is Bad

The following is a speech delivered by Ernest Leghorn at the quarterly meeting of the Society for Improvement of Culture on August 14, 2012. 

Good evening. It is a pleasure for me, as CEO of Future Innovations Today, Inc., to be speaking to such a distinguished audience about the future of education. As you know, FIT has been working closely with school districts to promote best practices for a changing economy. Our top priority is literacy. We need to persuade schools to stop focusing on personal narratives (you know, those compositions about what I did over the weekend or my scariest memory). We don’t need personal narratives in today’s workplace. What we do need is evidence-based argumentative writing and informational text. This is what employers and colleges want to see; this is what’s missing from the typical curriculum. This is part of the reason why our schools are failing.

Now, most of you already agree with me, or you wouldn’t be here tonight—but a few may be wondering whether such a sea change is necessary. Well, it is necessary, and I will explain why.

I stand before you as a fairly well-known executive, to put it mildly, but I was not always so. I grew up in a small town in Virginia—Buchanan, that’s right, BUCK-an-an, and while we weren’t poor, we didn’t have many luxuries. I had my bike, my toy cars, my Nintendo, and that was about it. Then one day we came home, and the bike, Nintendo, and my mom’s jewelry were gone. Windows broken. Chairs tipped over. Someone had broken into the house, taken a bunch of items, and made a mess of things.

Well, I started having nightmares about robbers every night. My dreams would always start with the sound of footsteps outside. They’d grow louder and louder. Then I’d hear someone turning the doorknob. I’d remember, just then, that my dad forgot to lock the door. I’d hear the door open with a creak. Then footsteps again, coming down the hallway, toward my room. I’d jump up and press against the door as hard as I could—but the door would push open, and just when a face started to peek through—an ugly, mean face—I would wake up in a sweat.

When I was old enough to have children, I made a promise. Never, I said, would I let my kids go through such a scare. I’d make sure the home was safe. I’d lock all doors. We’d install burglar alarms. I kept my promise to the letter: got married, had two sons, started working in the dot-com industry, made enough money to purchase an alarm system, and kept the house so safe and quiet that Bobby and Jimmy didn’t even know what danger was. They were innocent, happy boys. We lived out on the outskirts of San Mateo, California, on a long and sparsely populated road with orchards and fields on either side. My wife worked in entertainment, so between the two of  us, we could afford this lovely property. The boys ran around and played outside without fear, often until late in the evening. We hardly ever saw a car from our window—except for our own two cars, that is.

One night, when everyone else was sleeping, I sat up and gazed out the window. The moon was full, and its light pouring through the peach trees made the fruits look silver. But there was another light out there, or two. Craning my neck to the limit, I saw that it was a car. No mistake about it: a car that had paused right outside our gate and didn’t seem to be budging.

Suddenly I was in a flashback. The old terror returned to my head in a rush. But now, as a father, I had to brave it. I jumped out of bed, ran down to the second floor, and stepped out on the balcony, to make my presence known. That would be enough, I thought, to send him away. He didn’t budge.

I didn’t want the boys to wake up and see him. Whatever he was doing there, I had to get rid of him quickly. All the same, the thought of going out there to confront him (or her) made me tremble a little, even at my age. Maybe this was the very burglar who took my bike and tipped over my chair so many years ago. A crazy thought, I know—but such was my state of mind.

At last my concern for my sons overrode all else. I opened the door and walked out onto the path—in my bathrobe and pajamas. The car was still there, in the moonlight, like a bug taking a bath in a shimmering puddle. As I approached, I saw that it was a yellow Saab. Like a bee, I thought, about to collect its honey. Well, it won’t get my honey. I walked right up to it and knocked on the front passenger’s window, which then rolled down. I saw one man alone in the car, staring at a map that he had spread out over the steering wheel.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked, peering in.

“Oh, no, thank you.” He showed me his round, pleasant face, his curly hair and spectacles. “I’m just trying to decide where to go next.”

I left him to his decision-making and headed back to the house. I turned back once and saw him still in the same spot. But when I entered the house and looked out the window, I saw him pull slowly away. I never saw him again, nor did any car come to bother us.

You can imagine what impression this story made on my colleagues. (I wasn’t at FIT yet; I was just a manager of an engineering team.) They made a joke of it. Whenever I seemed in doubt, one of them would ask, “Do you need help finding something?” and I’d reply, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” Or I’d ask the question, and they’d give the answer. Pretty soon, it became part of our lore. People even forgot where it came from.

Sounds fun, eh? Yes, we had fun with that joke. Until the new director of employee relations came along. The CEO had brought him in to address some personnel issues, and one of the first things he did was to get to know people. He’d go on break and lunch with them and pick their brains about the atmosphere, tensions, inside gossip, all that. One day, he asked one of our team members whether she needed any help, and without thinking about it, she answered, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” He thought she meant she was leaving the company; when she explained herself, he was not amused. Language in the workplace, he said, must mean what it seems to mean, or else all kinds of misunderstandings can arise.

So he pulled us into a meeting and told us that the inside jokes and stories had to end—that those were suited to times of luxury, not times of austerity, like ours. “The successful worker of today’s society has to use words precisely, accurately, and strategically,” he told us. I, for one, wondered about the difference between “precisely” and “accurately,” but soon enough I learned that they mean quite different things. After all, you can be precise with a falsehood.

This man ended up teaching me everything I know about leadership. It’s thanks to him that I became CEO of FIT, an amazing company with phenomenally talented employees. I want to leave you with this thought. Life is short. Only so many words can go into it. We must make the most of these words and ensure that they are fact-based. If schools do this, then they will succeed.

But my story isn’t quite finished. As it happened, when I was giving this same speech to the Video Game Association last year, one of the audience members told me that the man in the yellow Saab was his brother, a famous writer. “Yeah,” he said, “Sam used to go out on drives, just like that, to explore towns and get some details for his stories.” At the reception, he showed me a picture. Not the same guy. Didn’t look at all like him. Still, I’d like to think that the Saab guy is a writer of some kind and that maybe I exist in one of his books. All of us, for that matter, may be in books without knowing it. Isn’t that even more reason to choose your words well? I would like to end with that thought. Thank you.

After a standing ovation, an audience member asked, “Mr. Leghorn, one aspect of your speech puzzles me. On the one hand, you say that schools should stop emphasizing personal narrative. On the other…” He paused. Others looked at him expectantly; he gulped and continued. “I hear that FIT employees get free movie tickets when they meet their weekly quotas. Aren’t movies personal narratives in a way?”

Elizabeth Annabee, the event moderator, stepped to the microphone. “That was a fascinating question. Thank you so much for asking it. But the banquet is waiting, and we must not let the food get cold. Thank you, Mr. Leghorn, for addressing us tonight, and thank you, members of the Society for Improvement of Culture, for taking part in this wonderfuland in more than one way deliciousevent.”

Why the Lecture Isn’t Obsolete

feature article in Harvard Magazine (March-April 2012) asserts that the traditional lecture method of instruction is giving way to something far better. The author, Craig Lambert, waxes euphoric over this development. He tells how Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard, had an “epiphany” that led him to overturn his teaching methods. Finding that his students dutifully memorized formulas but lacked a grasp of fundamental physics concepts, he had them engage in “peer instruction” during class and saw dramatic results.

Mazur began experimenting more with peer instruction, gathered data on the results, published a book on the subject, and became a coveted speaker on the subject around the world. Other professors have followed suit, replacing lectures with “innovative” methods. According to Lambert, “active” or “interactive” learning is in, and “passive” learning out. “Interactive pedagogy,” he writes, “turns passive, note-taking students into active, de facto teachers who explain their ideas to each other and contend for their points of view.” 

Lambert’s error (by no means his alone) lies in his assumption that students who listen to a lecture are less active than those who confer with each other. The reverse may be the case. In treating the lecture as an unwanted relic of the past, as the locus of passivity, we may set ourselves up for serious loss. 

When a teacher or professor gives a lecture (including a physics lecture), he or she is not only delivering information, but also shaping, questioning, and recasting it. A lecture is a work of imagination and insight as well as an exposition. The student listening to the lecture may put it together in his mind, relate it to the reading or to specific problems, think of questions, enjoy the lecturer’s style, and more. A single phrase in the lecture may lead the student to an insight; one insight might lead to another. Lectures are not always this invigorating, but if they’re reasonably good, a student can find room for rumination in them. In addition, they offer respite from peer noise. There is plenty of time for talking with peers; during the lecture, this is not necessary.

Peer instruction, by contrast, can deaden the spirit and lower the level of instruction. Many subjects require quiet, extended thought; if there is no room for this in the classroom, if the room is usually “abuzz” with students talking to their neighbors, headaches may increase and insights decrease. Although students look active in such a situation (to outsiders, at least), they may be insidiously passive—relying on peers’ explanations instead of thinking about the problems on their own, or providing explanations to peers who haven’t done their homework. Of course, peer instruction need not always be stultifying—but it can be.

Oh, but the research shows… Let’s stop right there. Education research rarely “shows” what the researchers or the media claim it shows. (See, for instance, an egregiously flawed study that purportedly shows the superiority of “deliberate practice” to the lecture method.) Moreover, to determine what “works,” you need to establish what you want to accomplish in the first place. Otherwise the findings may not apply to your goals at all. (This point often gets lost in education discussion.)

If you wish to teach a subject richly, if you want students to grapple with its fundamentals and tackle difficult problems, then you need to present these fundamentals and problems, period. There are different ways to do this; the lecture is a particularly appealing method, since it brings everyone together in the same room. It brings responsibilities; students must learn to take the lectures in and work with them in their minds. If they don’t know how to do this, if a lecture strikes them as boring because it’s a lecture, then they need more practice listening to lectures, not less.

In addition, a lecture sets an example of scholarship. A fifty-minute lecture approximates certain scholarly articles in scope and length. When listening to the lecture, students learn what kinds of topics might fit into that time frame. They recognize interesting explanations and examples; they light up over an insight; they enjoy a good joke or allusion. The lecture carries a certain honor; just as the students listen respectfully to the professor, they imagine a time when they themselves might speak to an audience. The challenge (for professors and students alike) is to live up to that honor, not destroy it.

So, if we want students to grasp both the substance and shaping of a subject, we want something like a lecture. Of course, we also want them to do well in the subject and to understand it. How to accomplish all of this? Well, first of all, take them into the lecture format gradually, during the K-12 years of school, so that they know what to do with it. Second, pair it with a contrasting instructional format, such as a seminar or discussion group. (The lecture is usually insufficient on its own.) Third, provide books, problems, and other resources.

But don’t get rid of the lecture. Properly prepared, delivered, and received, it gives students something substantial and allows them to think about it. At its best, it offers insight and illumination; it may stay in the memory, for years, as both detail and gesture. Better not to spurn such gifts.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 157 other followers