After week 1 of the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC and reading many blogs, compiling the highlights and rereading the Introduction, I am really digging into this notion of innovation and these two questions are key: Is it new? and Is it better?
One blog post this week from Terry Whitmell really got me thinking about how we frame “innovation” and how we assess our impact? She shares, “Some teachers may be innovating in a negative way by asking students to put away their phones, providing MORE handouts, and pushing the “play” button on the wealth of video that can now replace their personal instruction.”
I would argue these examples are not innovation. If a teacher is doing any of these things, they may be new but they don’t seem to have better implications for the learners. Many teachers might be using technology but it has no real impact on students and they are doing the same things they could be doing without the devices. On the flip side, I have heard teachers push back on “innovation” because it is just flashy stuff that takes away from the learning. I think that to move forward and help all teachers see themselves as innovators we have to not only ask, “Is it new and better?” but I think it is also important to ask, “How do you know?”
Making it new and better
I am teaching a course for teachers this semester that I have taught previously 3 other times. I could use the same syllabus and readings but I knew that it could be better. The students probably would have been fine and It would have been a lot easier on me if I had taken the same one and just gone through the motions. In fact, I am pretty sure no one expected that I would do any different but a lot has changed since I last taught the class and have learned a lot. I feel that as a teacher it was my responsibility to create a course that reflected the most relevant and current resources and ideas, which required me to try some new methods and take some risks.
As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.”
I didn’t start from scratch because there were some great structures that had worked for the course in the past that I wanted to keep but there were also some new approaches that I wanted to try. For example, when I first taught the class, I modeled how to create a blog and took everyone through the steps to make their blog and then they all ended looking just like mine. They all watched my “mini lesson” and then for homework were expected to create their own blog. They did and they wrote weekly blog post and completed each assignment but I am pretty sure that the second class ended not one of them even continued to write, reflect and share their learning on their blog because it was just an assignment for class.
This year I wanted to do better so I tried a new approach. I had students read some blogs on the power of social media and developing a PLN and then I shared some of my experiences and why blogging would be a central component of the course. I talked about the foundational elements of the blog that needed to be included and provided some alternatives for what they might do to add on if they were so inclined. Instead of the mini lesson, I provided time for the students to go for it and start creating— after all that’s how I learned how to create my own. To guide the process, I created a tiered list that allow individuals to check their progress on the specific expectations and find some areas to challenge themselves. They tracked their progress openly so they could ask each other for help if they couldn’t figure something out that one of their classmates had already mastered.
I created something new but I still wasn’t sure if it was better. I wanted students to be using this space to learn and connect with others and for them to take ownership of this space. So I checked out the blogs— they had the met the criteria, which was ok, but I knew it was better when I saw that they had created their own sites, they no longer looked like mine. There were a variety of platforms, designs, and formats. They were personal. For class they had to post it to the #EDCS480 hashtag (you should check out their amazing blogs!) but when they started sharing other articles and resources, I knew that they were owning the process and going above an beyond. More evidence that the new approach was better. Finally, to make sure, I asked the students. I sent out an anonymous survey to see if the course and the structure was meeting the needs of the learners to achieve the collective learning goals. To model taking risks and open reflection, I shared the results live so students saw them as I did. I was anxious but I wanted to model the importance of getting feedback and using it.
It turns out that my students agreed the new format was powerful and they also had some great suggestions for me to improve. They were embracing the productive struggle as they were learning new tools and processes of interacting and sharing ideas. I also tweaked the course based on their feedback to make it even better.
My point in all of this is innovation cannot be for the sake of innovation. Just adding on new resources and tools without a clear purpose nor assessing the impact on the learners, is not going to move us forward in education. We have to take what’s working and keep it and then get rid of outdated practices that are not meeting the needs of learners and refine, remix, revise and create new and better ways to meet the needs of the learners in our classrooms. Always.
Image Credit: Amy Storer