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?