Monday, September 28, 2009

Can we be careful when talking about innovation?

Peter Ingle posted a spot-on comment to my last post about The School of One. Here is Peter, quoted at length:

Not to hijack your blog, but an interesting part of the article was where the teacher said something like "no one is doing anything like this". Why does everyone think they are the first to come up with something when it is just not true.

Elementary teachers at my school (see very old) used to move us through the spelling lists at different paces dependent on how we did on each test.

When I was teaching HS in the early 90's we used a software program for biology that placed students dependent on how they had performed previously.

Just because the newspaper comes out to interview you does not make one an educational innovator.

So much truth here, both on the specifics of the School of One and on the broader issue of innovation. There are plenty of instances of people applying old approaches in new contexts (peer-led instruction, for example, dates to at least the 1790s in India), lots of examples of people using new technology to do old things (an on-line discussion board is, well, a discussion), and lots of on-going practices that nonetheless get pitched as new (service-learning is a tradition dating to the late 19th century) but the "invention" of something in education is awfully rare.

So the key question is "Why do we have to sell something successful as something new in order to get attention?" Part of the answer is based in our view of progress--that something must be new to be good. This is part of a long American tradition, but one that ignores contingency, history, and humility. But a taste for progress is deep in higher ed, especially among progressives.

Another part of the answer is that higher ed is driven by the appearances of modern capitalism with its "new models," love of "growth," etc. Our innovations are a key part of the way we sell ourselves to the world.

But the biggest part, in my mind, is the hope that somewhere there is THE SOLUTION--the approach that works in all settings, for all students. That hope is bunk. There are no SOLUTIONS, only solutions--short-term, limited, but appropriate in a particular time and place.

So instead of trying to find the next new thing, can we instead search for the thing that works now, here, for our actual students? And can we carry on that search in every class, every year, for the long term?

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

I think the other problem with the idea behind the quote is that it's rooted in the idea that if nobody else is doing something, it must work... which is a very dangerous assumption, because a lot of the time the reason that no one is doing a certain thing is that it's been tried and it doesn't work... part of it is our desire to be cutting edge, but I think part of it is just a sense that if we're in a small group, we're somehow cooler than the majority. It's pedagogical cliqueshness.