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A decade ago, I watched a local school district purchase hundreds of interactive whiteboards. Hailed as the ultimate solution for student achievement, teachers attended flip chart trainings. The school district purchased packaged curriculum promising huge results. Specialists observed classrooms to see if teachers were implementing the interactive whiteboards with fidelity. Now, many of those interactive whiteboards are being torn out and classrooms are re-installing physical whiteboards because dry erase markers are fast, efficient, and flexible.

However, this isn’t an isolated case. I’ve watched ed tech gurus hail the promise of netbooks, 1:1 devices, and adaptive learning programs. These were supposed to be the future of learning. We’ve since moved on to artificial intellgence, which will deliver the precise learning in a leveled, personalized way. Add to this virtual reality and augmented reality and you’ll have the classroom of the future.

However, A.I. won’t transform learning. Tablets won’t transform learning. Neither will virtual reality headsets. The truth is none of these things are the future of learning.

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Innovation is all about the role of the teacher as the designer of learning experiences. Always has been. Always will be.

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Four Myths About Innovation in Education

It’s easy to get cynical about the false promise of interactive whiteboards. But the truth is, it’s easy to get sucked into the mythology of futurism. I once tried to create a “paperless classroom” only to find that true innovation is almost always a mash-up. The truth is I love technology. I just reached level 40 in Pokemon Go today. I’m constantly amazed by what I can do on my MacBook Pro. If I’m not careful, I can slip into a place where I confuse novelty with innovation. With that in mind, I want to explore some of the myths about innovation in education.

Myth #1: Innovation Is All About the Technology

Schools have spent millions of dollars on cutting edge applications, new initiatives, and state-of-the-art technology. Technology futurists have promised that the “next best thing” will revolutionize learning forever. In some cases, we’ve heard that the technology will actually replace teachers. Experts said this about videotapes and laser discs decades ago. Later, we heard about this with the internet, with adaptive learning platforms, and now with Artificial Intelligence. But the focus on technology fails to address the human and social nature of learning.

Reality: Innovation Is About Deeper Learning

Much of the technology you have in your classroom will be obsolete in a decade. While these tools have great potential, they mean nothing if they don’t lead to deeper learning. For example, I’ve seen hyperdocs that are essentially digital worksheets. When I got an interactive whiteboard, I honestly used it mostly as a projector. When I had netbooks, I had assignments where they were essentially high-priced notebooks. Meanwhile, I’ve visited classrooms where students printed really cool things on 3D printers but I later found out that they barely modified a preexisting template.

In many cases, older tools actually lead to deeper innovations in learning:

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We can’t predict the future. We don’t know what world our students will inhabit. But we do know that deeper learning will help them develop the soft skills that will last a lifetime.

  • In a world of constant change, students will need to be divergent thinkers.
  • In a world of Artificial Intelligence, students will need to be philosophers. One thing computers lack is wisdom. They are inherently programmed, which is why our students need to think philosophically.
  • In the digital world, students will need to use analog tools. Similarly, in an automated world, students will need to do physical prototyping.
  • In a connected world, students will need to be empathetic. The best design is often fueled by the deeply human element of empathy. When students learn empathy, they become better collaborators and communicators. But more importantly, they become better humans.
  • In a world of instant information, students will need to be curators
  • In a globalized world, students will need to embrace the local
  • In a world of virtual reality, students will need to study nature
  • In a distracted world, students till need to engage in deep work
  • In a world of infinite possibilities, our students will need to be curious.

As the teacher, you are the heart of innovation. You are the architect designing epic projects. You are the experimenter trying new things. Nobody writes a thank you letter to a worksheet provider but they will go to great lengths to find that teacher who changed their world forever!

Myth #2: We should go “back to the basics”

So if technology didn’t fix everything, does that mean we throw out new technology? Do we avoid new research? Do we bring learning back to the “good old days?” This is the myth of the the “back to basics” reaction to technology. The truth is the “good old days” didn’t work for many students — especially those with challenges or those learning English. There were and continue to be racist and unjust systems we need to change. I never want to slip into the trap of nostalgia.

But more than that, there are great new tools, ideas, and approaches that we shouldn’t avoid simply because they are new. We should by all means geek out on these tools and the creative and connective capacity that they offer.

Reality: we need new ideas, approaches, and tools

As educators, we need to be open to change. We need to pay attention to the newest research. We need to experiment and try new strategies in our own classes. In terms of technology, we need to recognize that technology can offer amazing possibilities. We can research, connect with experts, create amazing digital content, and share it with an audience. We shouldn’t avoid newer, innovative approaches simply because they are new. We shouldn’t retreat into a fear-based traditionalism. Instead, we should embrace both the old and the new. We should explore what it means to mash-up the two together (and idea I explore later in this article).

Myth #3:We should focus on the future

We live in an era of rapid change. Information is now available at a rate that was unprecedented a few decades ago. Social media makes it easier to connect than ever before. We are just beginning to experiment with augmented reality and virtual reality and we have no idea what machine learning and artificial intelligence will hold for the future. Given these realities, many schools and districts have focused on the future. More coding classes. More STEM or STEAM or MEATS (if you rearrange the words). But there’s a danger in futurism. Because it’s so uncertain, we can easily slip into a place where we are focusing on the wrong skills and strategies only to find that those have become obsolete in a decade or two.

Reality: We should focus on timeless skills

Instead of focusing on the future, we should focus on the timeless skills that will last a lifetime. It’s interesting that the top skills that Google looks for in employees (based on their Project Oxygen report) were not coding or even engineering. They were timeless soft skills, like like being a problem-solver, being teachable, communicating effectively, having empathy, and making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. In other words, we should be preparing students for the type of skills that computers will never be able to do — the deeply human soft skills.

Myth #4: Veteran Teachers Are Less Innovative

There’s a common myth that veteran teachers are less innovative than new teachers. I see this mindset whenever I hear people say, “we have a very veteran staff so they are stuck in their ways.” Another version of this is, “We need some new blood in here to add some fresh ideas.” Not only does this smack of ageism, it simply isn’t true.

This is an idea I explored in my latest Instagram video:

Some of the most innovative teachers I know have been at it for years. Meanwhile, as a professor, I often see risk-aversion with some of the new teachers I work with as a professor. They are more likely to fall back on teaching in the way they were taught. Often, there’s a perfectionist streak that gets in the way of innovation.

The bottom line is that innovation doesn’t have a shelf life or an expiration date or an age limit.

Reality: Experience Is Vital for Innovation

I know of a teacher named Phyllis. She spent over 30 years as an art teacher. I don’t think she would have ever called herself innovative. In fact, the one time I called her that, she laughed and told me she wasn’t “very techie.” But she was incredibly innovative. Each year, she would take her best projects and build on them and iterate and improve them. She had a food truck mindset:

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Other times, she would experiment and try new things. She would curate ideas from every discipline and mash them up in creative ways — like her epic steam punk bug project. Eventually, Phyllis retired . . . for a summer. Then she switched from art to STEM and continued to innovate. For Phyllis, innovation was the overlap between best practices and next practices:

Experience didn’t make her reluctant to innovate. Instead, it made her more innovative. First, it gave her confidence to take creative risks. After honing her craft for years, she wasn’t the least bit insecure about teaching. In addition, her experience gave her a deeper contextual knowledge of middle school. This helped her continue to build empathy with students and thus design newer and better projects. Finally, she knew how to distinguish between innovation and novelty. She knew that relevance wasn’t about the fancy new gadgets or trendy new ideas.

Redefining Relevance

If we want students to become innovators, we need to choose “better and different” rather than “flashy and new.” Relevance isn’t about using the latest available technology. It’s about solving the latest problems by leveraging whatever technology works best.

Authentic, long-lasting innovation can’t be found in a new app or a set of slick gadgets or a new system. All of these things are necessary, but they will ultimately grow obsolete. The tools and systems will always remain secondary to the greatest influence of innovation: the teacher.

This is a core idea at the heart of vintage innovation:

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When teachers embrace vintage innovation, they design learning experiences that last forever. They look forward by looking back. They mash-up old-school analog tools with new tools and strategies. Here’s what I mean:

Vintage Modern Mash-Up
Sketches Video Sketch Videos
Journals Blogs Visual Blogging
Socratic Seminar Podcast Debate Podcasts
Cardboard prototyping 3D printer Blended divergent thinking challenge
Guest speakers Video recording Video history projects
Lo-fi materials Circuitry Tinkering projects

This is what’s happening right now at NASA. Engineers are using the ancient craft of origami with high-tech tools to design amazing new spacecraft:

By empowering students in the present, they prepare them for the future.

Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But teachers will continue to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas. They will continue to build relationships and inspire new possibilities in their students. When our tools have grown obsolete, teachers will continue to impact lives and change the world.

Check Out the Book

This is the third article in a series about vintage innovation. Parts of this blog post include excerpts from my upcoming book Vintage Innovation, which will be released in January. It will be a highly visual, engaging reading.

I’ll also be releasing the free Vintage Innovation Toolbox sometime in early January. For early access to the toolbox and for updates about the book, please fill out the form below:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • gary gruber says:

    “They were timeless soft skills, like like being a problem-solver, being teachable, communicating effectively, having empathy, and making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. In other words, we should be preparing students for the type of skills that computers will never be able to do — the deeply human soft skills.” These are not soft skills in contrast with hard skills, these are essential skills so why not call them what they are, essential?

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