Education Opinion

Innovation in Schools: Changing Environment, Behaviors, and Beliefs

By Beth Holland — January 26, 2016 6 min read
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Given the growing ubiquity of mobile devices in the classroom, a new question has presented itself: now what? Beyond just how to use these devices, or why to use these devices, this new question hones in on what else should change in the classroom. Over the past few years, schools and districts have integrated technologies, implemented learning management systems, adopted social media, and trained their faculty. Whether these schools are one year or four years into their new digital programs, they now want to know why learning still seems to look the same. In other words, while they may have dramatically changed the physical appearance of their learning environments, they may not have changed the behaviors and beliefs within those environments.

A Lesson from Sesame Street

The researchers behind Sesame Street started with a problem: to help bridge the achievement gap between those children who could access preschool and kindergarten and those who could not. From the start, the goal of Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop was to “foster intellectual and cultural development in preschoolers” (Cooney, 1966). The creators did not begin with the idea of putting Muppets in a neighborhood on TV. Instead, they started with a vision of supporting early learners in their acquisition of essential literacy skills. Public television just happened to be the technology at the time. By leveraging this new tool, the creators of Sesame Street could design a solution where one never previously existed. The research and development team may have started by looking at television as a possible environment, but they focused more on how to ultimately develop a new generation of learners.

Today’s Problem

In the 1960s, television connected students to the world from their homes and their classrooms. Today, smartphones, tablets, and laptops connect them from anywhere. However, despite the influx of these devices which have the potential to provide virtually unlimited access to content, connections to experts around the world, and the potential to create previously inconceivable artifacts as evidence of their learning, school still looks relatively the same. It is this sameness that has teachers and administrators asking “what’s next?”

If we look at the history of schooling in the United States, we can uncover a system designed to prepare a labor force for the Industrial Era. Procedural knowledge, the ability to follow directions with precision, and obedience were highly valued skills when the original Council of 10 conceived of public education (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Though the world now values problem solving, creativity, and complex communications, we struggle to break from this intrinsic “grammar of school” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). In fact, if we look at reform programs that have been adopted the fastest - and with the least resistance - they have all operated on the fringes of the classroom: Special Education (SPED), vocational training, computer labs, and now makerspaces. According to Tyack and Cuban (1995), authors of Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, these programs did not disrupt traditional classroom practice, and teachers could choose whether or not to engage in them. Today’s challenge is that mobile devices are in the classroom. They are disrupting the grammar of school and that requires a shift in behavior and belief.

In Raising Innovators, Tony Wagner claims that we have entered an “innovation economy” where people care more about what you do than what you know. In an era where people can “Google” most answers from their phones, rather than expecting individuals to follow directions and implement procedures, employers look not just for problem solvers but problem seekers. Again, though, the challenge lies in our history. For teachers who have formed their impressions and knowledge of teaching from their own personal experience as students, jumping from teacher-directed, procedure-based instruction to student-driven learning can feel like stepping into the wild west. Many teachers long for a structure for their planning and a way to ensure that while they are innovating their curriculum, they are also still meeting the requirements and standards of the day. This yearning for scaffolding may help to explain the rise in popularity of Project Based Learning and Design Thinking. Both offer concrete strategies for teachers to gradually relinquish control of their instruction and provide scaffolding for what change may look like.

As teachers, and students, gain comfort with this shift in expectation of student-driven, active learning, they also start to form new beliefs about the nature of learning itself. Teachers begin to view their classrooms as communities of knowledge co-construction. Rather than seeing themselves as content disseminators and the sole expert in the room, they can begin to orchestrate events and empower their students as active constructors of their own understanding. When this happens, then the students will also start to view themselves as active learners rather than passive recipients of information.

From Big Bird to Bandura

Albert Bandura, a psychologist known for his contributions to the field of social cognition and the creation of social learning theory, writes about the interrelatedness of environment, behavior, and cognition. He discusses that it is the interplay between these three elements that ultimately leads to learning. Adding devices may shape the environment, but it is the reciprocal relationship between the technology, classroom, culture, behavior and cognition that ultimately represents the shift in learning that many schools have been seeking to find.

Scott Berkun, author and speaker, defines innovation as “significant positive change.” If the goal of technology integration is to innovate schools and classrooms, then we need to change more than just adding technology. In other words, we need to take a similar approach as the creators of Sesame Street. They did not begin by creating a neighborhood in New York full of Muppets; they started by envisioning an environment to nurture literacy, learning, language and culture. Ultimately, the creators of Sesame Street focused on developing programming that would actively engage young learners rather than just provide entertainment. Many of us can still remember that “one of these things is not like the other... ” or “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, 11, tweeeelve!”

Beyond nostalgia, Sesame Street has been linked to increased performance in schools as evidenced by a recent Brookings Report. The creators of Big Bird, Oscar, and the rest of the furry friends focused on that interrelation of environment, behavior, and cognition to create a truly innovative learning. We can learn a lot from Big Bird, and Bandura, as we work to innovate our schools and classrooms.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Cooney, J. G. (1966). The potential uses of television in preschool education: A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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.