Breaking the Cycle of Failed Innovation

I recently sold my house and started packing last weekend. As I was going through my books I found one from 2008 called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” It started me thinking about the reactions I have witnessed in many of my teacher friends when I talk about the potential of technology to enhance the learning process. To be fair, I do understand much of the resistance. When I was in the classroom it seemed like the administration was always jumping on the latest educational fad bandwagon. One year it was Multiple Intelligences and writing across the curriculum. The next year those initiatives seemed to vanish, and we all had to focus on Differentiated Instruction and how to use the state test score data to raise math and ELA scores. All of these initiatives may have merit, but it was never clear how each fit into a bigger vision for learning, or within the curricular areas outside of math and ELA.

The biggest issue for me in adopting any of these so called innovations was that I felt like they were being done to me, not with me. I was a successful teacher with exceptional student outcomes, and awards to prove it. I thought at the time, “Why am I being forced to figure out how to retrofit my curriculum to be compliant with the district mandates, especially when the mandates didn’t even make pedagogical sense within the learning I was facilitating?” What incensed me even more, though, were the hours and hours I had to sit with the entire staff going over the analysis of our school’s state math test data, even though there was no middle or high school level math in my curriculum.

I was fortunate that I was befriended by a 35 year veteran teacher shortly after I started my first assignment. He was great at sensing my frustration, and would say with a big smile, “This too shall pass, Michael, this too shall pass.” He was right. All of the experienced teachers in my building knew that if they didn’t make waves, and just looked compliant for a year, the winds would change, and the district would be blown onto the next greatest educational innovation.

Adopting technology, for me, was different. In my 6th year of teaching, the district gave each staff member a desktop computer. Teachers who needed basic training were able to sign up for classes like “Compact Basic Operation,” or “How to use Word and PowerPoint,” but that was about the extent of the support. The district did not demand we use the computers at all. When, after two years, teachers were still not using the computers, principals tried strategies, like only communicating about meetings through email, to force teachers to use them.

Only a few early adopters experimented with ways to use the device to benefit learners. I appreciated the district not forcing the usual compliance. I was excited to have found a remediation app and was working on an efficient way to circulate struggling students through the program. Four years later, students were using computers on a regular basis in the visual arts, in a website design class, and in journalism/yearbook, but there were many teachers that still didn’t even know how to use their email.

Looking back, I can see several change leadership strategies the district and principal could have used to engage teachers and change behaviors, but why were teachers so reluctant to change?

There is an old saying that is attributed to Confucius that “No man can be rightly taught until he feels a real need in his life or in his work.” When I think about how I manage my personal and professional life now, it seems unimaginable that I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until 2001. Today all of my work is done through a laptop or smartphone. I no longer have a conventional workplace I go to each morning. Everyone I worked with during the past year, outside of school district personnel, had similar circumstances. In the corporate world we definitely feel a real need to use technology in our work. We couldn’t function without it. The efficiencies experienced in my work, as well as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and create, led me to start using the technology in my personal life.

My 9th grade daughter was born in 2001, just after I purchased that first cell phone.  For her, technology has always been “ubiquitous.” When she was around 3 years old, I remember waking up one Saturday morning, and wondering where she was. I found her in my office. She had booted up my old desktop computer, loaded one of the CD-Rom educational games I was asked to review, had set her achievement goal, and was monitoring her progress. When I asked her what she was doing she said she had seen her older sister play this game and had to try it. In Sophia’s mind, she felt a real need in her life.

Today Sophia has her own YouTube DIY Channel. She uses Facetime to gather her study group, and to collaborate with friends on a variety of personal projects. She communicates with her soccer coaches and receives automated schedule reminders through TeamSnap, and uses iPhone, iPad, Chromebook, and Windows apps to communicate, collaborate, and create in dozens of other ways. Sophia has never had any formal technology training. She simply has something she wants to do – like share the cool DIY things she comes up with – and looks for the best tools she has at her disposal to do so. In effect, she takes a DIY approach to share her DIY approach.

As the available tools change, or the popularity of certain apps dwindles, Sophia seems to migrate to new apps seamlessly. The device doesn’t seem to matter much to her, nor do the apps. It is as if she knows the technology will change, and that other companies will come up with better solutions that address issues her and her friends had with the old technology. This phenomenon is not unique to Sophia. All of her close friends have the same attitude toward technology and use it flexibly…at home.

Sophia’s flexible use of technology versus the rigid perception and usage I see in most schools is often labelled as digital natives versus digital immigrants. I don’t dispute that there is some of this going on, but there is something else at play. I’m noticing that a person’s attitude and approach to change seems to align with his/her perception of the world, and that these perceptions fall into two categories:

  1. People who view life as continuously evolving; and
  2. People who view the world as static.

In education we call these growth mindset and fixed mindset. Carol Dweck has done important work on mindset psychology traits if you want to learn more about this topic. Growth mindset, unfortunately, seems to be one of the latest buzz words in education. It is not that I think growth mindset is unimportant. To the contrary. The issue I have is that schools are trying to address growth mindset within a fixed mindset environment. Almost everything in secondary schools across the country reinforce a fixed mindset view of the world:

  • The command and control leadership style
  • The importance we place on standardized tests
  • Teachers feeling like they just need to get through the curriculum
  • The value placed on right and wrong answers
  • The amount of memorization teachers require of their students
  • The predominance of direct instruction used in classrooms

This seems to be the never-ending story in education. We try to retrofit our traditional system with a new innovation, it inevitably fails, and then we move on to the next hot innovation. Ask any 20 year veteran teacher and they will provide you with a laundry list of initiatives they have seen come and go during their career. Until we stop applying new programs like Band-Aides to fix education, and fundamentally change the way we do schooling, we will continue on this treadmill of failed innovations.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Check back in May for my next blog on the importance of teaching and how to embrace change as a core principle in schools.

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