Education Opinion

What Stops Innovation in Schools?

By Anthony Cody — September 15, 2009 3 min read
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Why has the structure of learning in our country remained basically the same for so long?
John Merrow’s blog, Taking Note, this week poses an interesting set of questions based on the premise that there has been little innovation in the field of education in the past 50 years. He wonders why, and offers reasons primarily related to the flat pay structure for teachers, resulting in few incentives for innovation.

He writes:

The thirst for money, prestige and fame are reliable spurs of innovation. Living in Silicon Valley as I do, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of that. Unfortunately, public education is not the road to travel if your goals are money, prestige and fame.
Education’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to evaluating and paying teachers has to dampen enthusiasm for trying new approaches. Why bother if you aren’t going to be rewarded?

I think these are valid observations, and I believe the coming decades will see teachers embracing more differentiation in the roles we play, with more room for leadership and teachers playing special roles in schools.

But I finished his essay feeling as if the focus on technology and pay misses the point. I believe the main reason we have so little innovation is that, as a society, we remain deeply conflicted about how to prepare young people for adulthood.

The fundamental educational innovation of the past century has been the idea that young people can and should learn to think for themselves. There have been a thousand educational movements aimed in this direction. Whole language and the writing process in English, constructivism and inquiry in science and math, using original source documents in history, problem-based learning in a variety of content areas.

But as a society, Americans are not ready to allow our children this freedom

In Science, a majority still believe in the Biblical story of creation, and are skeptical of the theory of evolution. As a result we have religious dogma presented alongside scientific theory in many schools. In California, when science content standards were designed about 11 years ago, there was a huge fight over those who wanted to emphasize the processes of science, so that students could learn science by actually investigating the natural world, and those who saw science as a body of knowledge to be learned. In the end, the latter group won for the most part, and we have a very detailed set of standards that reads like the table of contents from a science textbook.

There is a very strong movement to elevate educational standards to the national level to codify what must be learned across the country, and make it possible to measure learning from coast to coast with a single set of tests.

At the same time, there is a deep suspicion of the role education plays in “brainwashing” our children, as we saw recently in the furor over President Obama’s schoolhouse lecture. When traditionalists wanted to repeal gay marriage in California recently, their most powerful weapons were TV ads predicting that “children will be taught about homosexual lifestyles in school.” I still recall in California how a wholistic testing system developed over a decade ago under state Superintendent Bill Honig was attacked because one of the writing prompts asked students to “think of a time in their lives when they wanted to rebel,” and write about that. Some parents were outraged and accused the schools of fomenting rebellion. The assessment system was dismantled and replaced with the much more traditional multiple choice tests we have now.

Merrow cites an auto mechanic and a doctor as example of two careers that have seen substantial innovations over the past few decades. But these are fields in which technology is at the forefront. Where has technology led us in the field of education?

In education technology has led us back to the fundamental conundrum I describe.
Do we use technology to allow our students to develop their own ideas? To create original videos? To write, edit and publish their own works? Or do we use it to deliver videotaped lectures, or have everyone play games that reinforce basic concepts?

I believe Americans are deeply divided over the fundamental nature of freedom in our society. Many people feel threatened by changes they see occurring in society, and want schools to play the traditional role they have had, of being a sort of shock absorber for the system, providing a little room for debate, but steering young people back into the roles we have planned out for them. If we really want schools to embrace innovation, we are going to need to get over the fear of change that grips us every time it appears possible.

Update: Education historian Diane Ravitch has posted a fascinating exposition contrasting the two approaches I have described in my entry above -- coming down firmly on the side of “knowledge first.” I will have a response in a day or two.

What do you think? What are the forces that block innovations in schools? Where are there signs of change?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.