We Don’t Need No Innovation

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Actually, I’m being polemical and that’s not entirely true. I like the way a vigorous community of platform developers and users is beetling away at new, clever and challenging ways to teach. But we don’t need no more innovation, not above the level we already have, anyway. First of all, we’re getting carried away by the word. We borrowed it from business, which was a mistake because education is not a business, even if schools might need to keep the bottom line in mind. A modern business in a capitalist market economy grows through innovation, that is through product development. But an education is not a product in the sense that cars are or that TV shows are products and education is not about being competitive, except in the narrowest sense. Innovation relies on obsolescence, and while there may be certain educational practices practice that need to go by the way, there are many that need to stay, too. Innovation is necessary, but not sufficient for securing education’s future. (And, I’ll argue that so far, little fundamentally new is being created. As a small example, most prezi presentations I see, for all their spinning, are still run A-to-B-to-C linearly like old PowerPoints. And the teacher who creates a Ning but doesn’t open it to the public has only recreated the brick-and-mortar classroom. Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited by the potential emerging technologies offer education, I just don’t think we’ve tipped yet. As Clay Shirky says, things are breaking down faster than we can think of ways to replace them.) Secondly, innovation tends to focus on technology, and as I’ve said many times before, the essence of technology is by no means anything technological (actually I’m paraphrasing Heidegger).

Innovation is only half of what we need to get schools moving forward. Emerging web technologies, especially social media, subvert authorities; that is they resist top-down development and give the most payback when they are in the hands of the many, in this case teachers. But for this to happen, schools need to create a climate where experimentation and development by teachers is encouraged. It is the administrator’s job to make that possible. (We can talk another time about what administration looks like in the next iteration of “the school”, whatever that might look like.) To do that job, administrators need certain assurances that that innovation is done safely, accountably and, most of all, with purpose.

And here’s where things become polarized: administrators need control and teachers need freedom. I’m generalizing now, but these two camps are usually presented in opposition to each other. We’re making a mistake if we think one has to give way to the other. And we’re making another mistake if we think the one doesn’t want the other. I will be one of the first to say that control frequently become over-control and stifles real innovation; and even if we–both teachers and administrators–want to let go a little, we may find it hard because structurally, schools are set up as systems of control. Altering control even a little may mean altering the very structure of a school. But just as innovation isn’t inherently good, control isn’t inherently bad. We need a modicum of control–enough at least to hold off chaos and actually get some work done. So, ironically, without some control, there’d be no place in which to innovate. Wordsworth knew this:

Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found

We need not more innovation but, rather urgently, to open a substantial dialogue between administrators and teachers–or between control and innovation, if that is a better, less prejudicial way to characterize the players. We need a conversation that recognizes mutual need.

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