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Innovations and Expectations

By Peter Gow — November 27, 2013 3 min read
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A recent Wired magazine interview with writer Vaclav Smil had me rising from my seat. Billed as “the man Bill Gates thinks you should absolutely be reading,” Smil is the kind of futurist and Big Thinker that Wired loves to dote on, super-smart and insightful and archly pessimistic. He’s the kind of guy whose TED Talk we expect to see going viral, filled with head-slapping Doh! moments that make you feel as though you’ve had your consciousness expanded with a skillet up-side the head, except he doesn’t seem to have a TED Talk (although he does have a YouTube lecture with 3300 hits. This might just be okay, because I find that many people I talk to lately are in recovery from those Doh! moments, suddenly feeling as though they’ve--we’ve--been sucked into an Onion parody of a TED Talk.)

Professor Smil ends the interview, on the subject of innovation, with an unexpected tirade that I feel bound to quote in full:

Today, as you know, everything is "innovation." We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions--innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It's like, "Let's not reform the education system, the tax system. Let's not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin." You people at WIRED--you're the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.

Whoa! sez I, reading this. And Whoa! further, when one of my kids, who is becoming an unreconstructed New Dealer around the idea that government should actually do things for people, sent me an email from college consisting of the quote and the observation that “This is why we need politics!” I didn’t even know he was a regular reader of Wired.

Smil’s point is obvious: We keep painting ourselves into corners and then expecting to innovate our way out of them, and at some point this is going to stop working.

When I was in high school nearly fifty years ago a teacher rather unexpectedly and breathlessly had us (that is, his Spanish V class) read, in English, big chunks of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, a bestseller among the educated liberal crowd in those days. I vividly remember its dire warnings, which were soon largely made temporarily irrelevant by the so-called Green Revolution. Innovation in the form of hybridized staple crops staved off Ehrlich’s Malthusian apocalypse--the “death rate solution” to the birth rate problem--at least for a while. Recent articles in several publications are hinting that the problem is back, but of course one can never tell whether, say, The Atlantic is indulging in alarmist schadenfreude or actually pointing out serious issues; probably both, but one sometimes wonders.

At any rate, I thought of our worried Spanish teacher when I read Smil, and of course I thought still more about the gleeful joy educational alarmists seem to take in pointing out that the whole system is broken, that schools are awful, and that only a nuclear leveling of the system, replaced by wondrous disruptive innovation, will insulate us and our children from the ed crimes we’ve been perpetrating since the discovery of chalk. If we use enough social media or toss our paper away and replace it with the right gadget, we’ll save ourselves and maybe even (if the innovation has enough mojo) redeem our past.

As one educator friend, no stranger to real innovation himself, put it, “So many schools are in such a hurry to ‘innovate,’ as if that’s the only way to be better, without even thinking through what the innovation is or what effect it might have. Sometimes it seems as though schools are just saying, ‘Let’s drop some [fecal matter] on our community and see if it floats.’” To which another responded, “Yeah, and a lot of times these days that fecal matter is called an iPad” (with no specific offense intended, I am sure, to the properties or capacities of the noble iPad, one of which I own and use daily).

Indeed, the fact is that schools around the country, and probably the world, have glommed onto the iPad and its tabletoid cousins as the innovation du jour. They’re relatively inexpensive but not so cheap as to be expendable, they’re cool as all get out, they do all kinds of things, and they’re the topic of endless educational discourse, meaning they’re relevant and hot as “innovative” tools in our field. But how many schools have leapt into “iPad programs” without a fully developed plan for either curricular integration or the professional development that might truly extract value from such a program? I’ll say no more, but consult your conscience or experience for at least some confirmation.

To Smil’s point, real improvement is not going to fall like “manna from heaven” or even fecal matter into our schools, nor is it going to come from “fairy-tale solutions,” no matter how many apps we can access. For all schools, independent, private, public, it’s going to take real effort--better policies and more thoughtful and intentional practices--to move education forward. In the case of public schools, it may even take, as my son suggested, real politics--politics focused on supporting actual teachers and actual schools, actual students and actual communities.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives 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.

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