Education Opinion

From Pockets of Innovation to Systems of Inspired Learning

By Beth Holland — April 27, 2018 5 min read
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I started writing this series in response to a seemingly straightforward request: define innovation. In the first article, I introduced the idea of innovation as inspired learning. The second article then provided examples from individual classrooms. However, while it may seem helpful to highlight the efforts of specific teachers, I worry that it presents an illusion rather than a concrete model for systemic change.

In their book, The Power of Unstoppable Momentum, Fullan and Edwards (2017) argue that whole system change involves all classes and all schools -- not just exemplars. Further, whole system change focuses on pedagogy, not technology or isolated strategies and events. Finally, whole system change should result in measurable outcomes for all students (Fullan & Edwards, 2017).

However, the challenge to envision inspired learning at the systems level still remains. Though many policymakers, educators, and scholars credit the 1983 A Nation at Risk report as a catalyst for whole-school reform, system-wide attempts at inspired learning can actually be traced back to John Dewey’s work at the Chicago Lab School in the early 1900s, the Dalton Plan in the 1920s, as well as the Eight-Year Study in the 1930s. When new efforts did emerge in the 1980s, they leveraged the progressive tenets of individualized instruction and mastery-based learning from those earlier endeavors. Most notably, Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools sought to create a culture of learning for mastery, personalization, and authentic work. Throughout the last several decades, charter networks, independent schools, and public districts have attempted to adopt similar paradigms that encourage students to ask meaningful questions, seek out creative solutions, critique the validity of their assumptions, challenge the credibility of sources, and make meaningful connections to content as well as community.

In their book - and accompanying movie - Most Likely to Succeed, Wagner and Dintersmith (2016) highlight High Tech High - a public charter school in San Diego - as an exemplar of inspired learning. Guided by Sizer’s work, High Tech High challenges all assumptions about what school could be and focuses on creating an environment that values equity, authenticity, community, and inquiry. Much like how Don Wettrick served as an exemplar in my last article for what could happen when a teacher breaks the structure of school, High Tech High represents the epitome of what might be possible when a school dramatically deviates from the traditional structures of the educational system. As such, when others attempt to adopt their ambitious tenets, they often struggle to implement them with fidelity. On the contrary, Fullan and Edwards (2017) argue that successful systems never imitate. Instead, they learn from others and build a vision that supports their own culture.

High Tech High captures attention because they demonstrate what may be possible when Scott McLeod’s Four Big Shifts - deeper learning, student agency, authenticity, and technology infusion - become a reality. However, achieving these shifts requires methodical, sustained change to ultimately alter the structure of school. If this shift is the goal at the systems level; then once again, I argue that it may occur in more subtle and nuanced ways.

The Subtlety of Inspired Systems

In the last article, I wrote about Kennan Scott’sCODEd Academy - an interdisciplinary, standards-based approach to inspired learning through the injection of computational thinking and leadership into the curriculum. What struck me from the moment that I first met Kennan was his comment that he wanted to change the system of school from the inside. Though currently at the vision stage for how that may evolve, he has identified a need and developed a series of pilots to iteratively test what may be possible. Using the frameworks from Agency By Design as a foundation, he is collaborating with students and colleagues to build a shared pedagogical language. Through interdisciplinary units, students wrestle with complexity and solve problems, open up new avenues of expression, and take ownership of their learning. At CODEd Academy, technology and coding may serve as the catalyst for change, but deep inquiry and reflection form the basis of their pedagogical language. Through incremental implementation, Kennan not only has an opportunity for experimentation but also a chance to forge a community in support of change.

Whereas Kennan has just begun this process, Ann Feldmann - the District Instructional Technology Specialist in Bellevue, NE - has spent the last several years building community and professional capacity via the iPad Academy. In 2012, the district decided to launch an iPad 1:1 program for the purpose of increasing student achievement while fostering a culture of creativity, curiosity, and individualized learning. They believed that success depended on more than just access to devices, it required ongoing professional support as well as solid pedagogy and content knowledge. By establishing iPad Academy as the professional development gateway for the program, teachers have morphed into a community of learners and formed a common language that closely aligns to the construct of inspired learning.

In Bellevue, iPads serve as the means through which teachers differentiate and personalize their curriculum to address those Four Big Shifts. Students gain a deep body of content knowledge, engage in inquiry and reflection, have opportunities to present their understanding in creative ways, and take ownership of their learning. Where Most Likely to Succeed features the large public displays of learning from High Tech High, sometimes the examples from Bellevue are so nuanced that they could be overlooked.

A few months ago, Ann shared the video below. I watched it three times before I realized what they had achieved. In fifteen weeks, the teacher had created conditions where she could build stronger relationships with her students, provide customized and differentiated content, support their progression as learners, and encourage active reflection.

Ann and her colleagues celebrate each incremental shift towards greater student-centered learning. They recognize that each step contributes to an ongoing evolution of thought and practice that takes time, sustained focus, and a clearly identified purpose to achieve. Though High Tech High, CODEd Academy, and Bellevue public schools may look different and may implement the tenets of inspired learning in their own unique ways, each one has not only developed a shared language of pedagogy and a common belief system but also a community dedicated to improvement.

How might leaders foster inspired learning and system-wide change? The final post in this series will examine the conditions and culture that school and district leaders must foster to make it a reality.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.