School & District Management Opinion

Research to Support Innovation in Schools

By Beth Holland — February 11, 2016 5 min read
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Last week, Shawn McCusker (@shawnmccusker) and I co-keynoted the EdTechTeacher Innovation Summit in San Diego. We wanted to extend the conversation past innovation as a buzzword and offer up a tangible, measurable, actionable definition. During our talk, I highlighted salient points from several studies that spanned from 1996-2014. Each one helped us to build our argument that innovation is significant, positive change in environment, behavior, and beliefs.

Survival of an Innovative Species

Shawn shared a story about when his principal called him into the office to discuss his use of cellphones in the classroom. Much to his surprise, the principal supported his efforts and encouraged him to continue. That anecdote led me to address the question: how do we ensure the survival of an innovative species?

To answer, I referenced Zhao and Frank (2003). They compared the introduction of new technologies into schools with the introduction of invasive species into an ecosystem. Between 1996 and 2001, they conducted a study of technology use in nineteen elementary schools within four districts in one Midwestern state. Most frequently, teachers used technology for administrative purposes rather than encouraging students use. Following the pattern of organism adaptation, Zhao and Frank showed that teachers chose to use computers in ways that maximized personal benefit while reducing the amount of time expended (adaptation). Additionally, in school ecosystems with teachers who actively used computers in their personal lives, the adoption rate increased.

When introducing new technologies and practices into the ecosystem of school, this study presented a means to analyze the factors that impact adoption rates. The authors noted that for new ideas to take hold, the teacher - and environment - needs to be receptive; indicating that for significant, positive change to occur, attitudes and beliefs within the ecosystem of schools could be the keys to guaranteeing survival.

The Impact of Teacher Beliefs

Shawn and I recognized that teacher, administrator, and community beliefs play a significant role in whether or not new practices take hold. Again, though, we wanted to provide evidence.

As part of the North Carolina IMPACTing Leadership Project, Overbay, Patterson, and Vasu (2010) found that teachers who possess stronger constructivist orientations tend to use technology more often with students and in more student-centric ways. Based on the argument that technology plays a significant role in supporting knowledge construction and problem solving, they examined teachers’ instructional beliefs so as to quantify a relationship between constructivism and reported technology use. After multiple quantitative studies, they concluded that teachers who believe in constructivist practices show increased willingness to use technology to support student-centered activities, and their beliefs proved to be the greatest predictor of their technology use.

Ertmer, Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Sadik, Sendurur, and Sendurur (2012) sought to further explore this correlation between teacher beliefs and technology use. They used a multiple case study design to interview twelve of the top innovators in K-12 classrooms. During these interviews, when asked to rate the impact of various barriers to their ability to innovate with technology, the teachers did not cite any external factors such as money, state standards, or time. They saw their own positive attitudes and beliefs in student-centered, active-learning as drivers for improved classroom practice.

Validating the Need for Innovation

Shawn and I not only wanted our audience to leave with a clear vision of “what’s next” but also a tangible validation for their efforts. Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, and Wenderoth (2014) conducted a meta-analysis to measure the effectiveness of student-centered learning in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) courses as compared to traditional, teacher-directed, lecture-based approaches. They meta-analyzed 225 studies to address two essential research questions: does active learning and constructivist practices improve assessment scores and does it lower failure rates in STEM courses.

To create their definition of “active learning,” the authors collected definitions from 338 participants from biology seminars on active learning at numerous universities in the United States. They also conducted an extensive literature search of 642 papers and coded those papers as part of their meta-analysis. The literature focused on studies that compared lecture-based learning with pedagogies that encouraged more active strategies. According to this analysis, the students in active-learning courses performed almost half a standard deviation better than those in lecture courses. These students also benefitted in that failure rates decreased by 55% as compared to lecture based courses. This increase in learning potential occurred across STEM courses and had an even greater impact on student acquisition of higher cognitive skills. Other investigators discovered similar results in smaller studies to confirm this meta-analysis. The authors further compared these results to the K-12 setting and determined that a significant correlation exists.

While this study focuses specifically on the STEM disciplines, the magnitude of the analysis, as well as the connection to K-12 education, implies that active learning could present similar gains in all disciplines. Should this be the case, then empirical evidence exists to persuade teachers and administrators to move from more traditional, teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. As Shawn and I concluded, innovation begins with baby steps as teachers start to enact significant, positive change in environment, behavior, and beliefs. You can watch our entire talk in the video below.


Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59(2), 423-435. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.001

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Overbay, A., Patterson, A. S., & Vasu, E. S. (2010). Constructivism and technology use: Findings from the IMPACTing leadership project. Educational Media International, 47(2), 103-120. doi: 10.1080/09523987.2010.492675

Zhao, Y., & Frank, K. A. (2003). Factors affecting technology uses in schools: An ecological perspective. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 807-840. doi: 10.3102/00028312040004807

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