The President emphasized the words education and innovation in his State of the Union speech last week. In fact, he used both words in some form at least 10 times each- not necessarily in tandem. While I didn’t do a frequency count of all the words used multiple times, those two certainly jumped out as I listened to his words.
He also spoke to America’s frustration with losing our balance because we didn’t see change coming. It’s as if we woke up one day and the world had changed without asking our permission. We just didn’t anticipate the shift of global sands under our nation’s feet as the rules of the game changed that govern our economic survival.
We, the current crop of Americans, don’t remember a time when we weren’t the world leader we are today. None among us are old enough to remember the 19th century preeminent status of the British Empire as the world power prior to its decline in the first half of the 20th century. Many of us are too young to have processed the truly recent emergence of the United States as a “super” power in the second half of the 20th century. We’ve grown up assuming that’s just the way it is and has always been – America leading the world.
Times have changed though. Instead of a universal confidence in our capability to negotiate our way through tough times, some feel we’re sliding into a pit of quick sand and we’re not sure where to grab a handle to pull ourselves out. The President seems to think our capability to educate and innovate might provide that handle.
In concept, these two words do feel like the right handle when used together. In reality, I don’t see viable and multiple pathways being applied in the President’s education office to link those two words in a meaningful way in our schoolwork. Instead, the “trickle down” economics of USDOE’s approach to public education feels disconnected from the work of those who labor out in the field (with the exception of the National Educational Technology Plan which I see as USDOE’s best work).
At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best educators in the field could get behind a grassroots-driven plan to support radical invention of a public education system for contemporary learners and learning. They gather all the time now at teach-meets, un-conferences, online in social learning media networks, and in formal settings such as this weekend’s EduCon 2.3. They also understand we can’t get to innovation without going through invention as a precursor process.
Unfortunately, the time to simply do what inventors do – think, consider ideas, try things out, talk to others, reflect, modify, figure out possibilities, do something – just doesn’t come often in their world of full time jobs. They need time and the space to do the work of radical invention. If anyone wonders why it doesn’t happen, shadow our best educators for just one day. They need the attention from the private sector to support them in DARPA-like invention work.
We need radical invention learning models, but we need them working in just plain “old” schools that represent the range of demographics and facilities distributed across the country. Unless we’re committed to wholesale replacement of the buildings, learners who attend America’s schools, and those who teach, we need to spend concentrated time and resources working as inventors in the schools we have. The charter concept isn’t bad. We need customized options for kids. It just won’t change the game for the vast majority of America’s millions of students. All of our students need schools that operate like the best functional communities. All of them deserve the best we have to offer in schools, teachers, and resources. All of them deserve learning spaces where they can pursue their passions. It’s not about providing that opportunity. It’s about providing that reality.
This year, I’ve spent a number of hours in job-embedded “invention” work with teams of elementary educators. Some of these teams are from upper middle class community schools. Some are from schools populated with children who represent either the urban or rural poor. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common.
They all know they want more for the children they serve. More creative time to think and act upon big learning ideas. More opportunities for project-based learning work for all students, but especially for those trapped in the molasses-slow drudgery of remediation and intervention. More spaces to connect with like-minded educators who also dream different ways to reach out and offer children a handle out of the quick sand of the 20th century testing curricula 1.0 that we’ve adopted across the nation.
Their rooms and schools may look different because of the resources they have available. Most live in the time capsule of boxed places created in the 20th century, but not all. Some have access to additional parent-driven funding for resources about which others can only dream. Their worlds aren’t the same and most likely never will be. Yet, they all see themselves as inventors, creators, designers, builders, and innovators in the learning places where they’ve landed. They just need time, permission, and support to engage. Each of their inventions may be different and that’s okay. What we need to scale is more creative customization aiming towards passion-based learning inside all our schools, not rote standardization of a one-size fits all model.
We hear that teachers of poor children should be able to propel children over the testing hurdles we place in front of them at equal rates to those of teachers whose children have come to appreciate the Paris Hilton over spring break. But, their worlds are not the same. Their academic and social background knowledge is not the same. The resources their teachers have access to are not the same. The places they call home or school are not the same. While we can find both wealthy and poor schools that have figured out the buttons to punch to get great pass rates, we have not come close to leveling the playing field in the provision of the rich and varied learning experiences that those of privilege have come to appreciate in the schools they attend- public or private. If we believe in the past three Presidents’ public commitment that all children must realize their maximal potential through the work of our system, then we have work to do, not just in schools, but also in every other service sector of our government.
It’s not Sputnik rocket science to figure out President Obama’s correct in saying that extending the handle of education and innovation provides Americans with the best chance to escape the quick sand into which we are sinking globally. However, innovation of education won’t happen without an infusion of passion into the work of the millions of teachers who serve our young people. From my observations, I’ve come to see passion for learning and standardization of learning structures and processes as representing an inversely proportional relationship. The more our schools become standardized, the less passion is evident in the work of teachers and students. In other words, standardization drains passion from our schools. Unfortunately, without passion-driven learning, innovation just won’t occur, not in any field- but especially not in education.
The accountability pathway we’re on won’t ever lead us to passion-driven learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Children who get a chance to pursue interests- the things they love- generate a passion for learning in themselves and others. When given the opportunity to create, design, build, work with each other and share their interests and passion, their excitement about learning creates a contagion of creativity among peers and their teachers. If what America needs the most is to fuel our next generation economy, then we better focus on how we set the stage from the ground up for both children and educators to get passionate about their learning work. One thing’s for sure. More focus on the standardization of schools, curricula, classrooms, and teachers with the goal of more children passing more high stakes multiple choice tests will not sustain America’s children in their journey towards a 22nd century world.