Invigorating Innovation in Education

Author Fran Lebowitz once noted that “an extremely discerning audience” is essential to an artist because it makes the artist better. She also noted that if people leap up into standing ovations to every person who walks on the stage, the artist and the culture are worse off.

In education, the process of discerning what constitutes good teaching is often a process of reverse engineering that makes it difficult to recognize what is good. Twenty-first century audiences face new challenges in knowing when teachers deserve standing ovations because definitions of “success” or “failure” are not singular or static. To complicate matters further, forces like globalization and its progeny, data deluge, have both empowered and debilitated education because there are that many more factors to consider when identifying good teaching in our schools. So, instead of arguing about what constitutes good teaching, perhaps we should consider what constitutes good learning and use that knowledge to inform the process of teaching.

In terms of student deportment, good learning is rooted in engagement and relevance. This relevance itself is often rooted in innovation because it allows educators to set lessons in new and diverse contexts that make them more meaningful to students. Unfortunately, many of the standardized metrics used to measure “good learning” are narrow and myopic and thereby allow for complacency in the development of teaching practices.

With more understanding that there are different types of learners present in any classroom, teaching practices need to be more innovative. This presents some intricate complexities for teachers – it is easier if there is only one correct answer for all learners and therefore one lesson to plan. For example, if a teacher explains that 2 + 2 = 4, students will know the answer to the question but that does not mean that the teacher has done good work. In the 21st century, a good teacher using innovative thinking will acknowledge that diversity and context must inform how you answer the question, what does 2 + 2 equal?

2 + 2 = 3 + 1

2 + 2 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

2 + 2 = 7 – 3

2 + 2 = 2 squared

2 + 2 = 24 divided by 6

2 + 2 = IV

2 + 2 = cuatro

This is a perspective similar to creativity expert Ken Robinson’s analysis about how people lose their ability to ponder the potential uses of a paper clip as they grow older, because they stop asking questions about the nature of a paper clip. Most people can list about one dozen uses for a paper clip but apparently, someone who is good at this way of thinking can use inquiry to list 200 potential uses.

On the varied paths that lead students to success, teachers may mistake or dismiss innovations as passing trends in education. But the reality is that innovative teaching is good precisely because it allows teachers to adapt their efforts to the “trends” or “prevailing tendencies” in students. The following represent examples of innovation in good teaching in different arenas.

Teaching + Intuition + Innovation

The 2010 winner of the Academy Award for best picture, The King’s Speech, is the story of an innovative teacher. Lionel Logue, Prince Albert’s speech therapist, is an unorthodox teacher without formal training in speech therapy. Nevertheless, he successfully treats the stuttering man who became King George the VI, by utilizing age-old teaching tools – humor, humility, patience, and deep breathing – in an innovative manner.

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Our Senses

“When we start looking at things really critically or even very simply, we realize that there’s more than one way to actually get the same results… You’re deconstructing the components of a course and putting them back together.”ii

Grant Achatz is not an education pundit or teacher, but these are his words. He is a top chef who designs and creates 23-course meals at the 2005 best restaurant in America, Chicago’s Alinea. Achatz, who lost his ability to taste in 2007 because of tongue cancer (he eventually regained it), runs his kitchen like a laboratory. He actually uses lab tools to cook and his team never really says “no to an idea.” Of his three-hour meals, Achatz says, “We like to think that the food is, in a lot of ways, an intellectual exercise.” To accomplish this, he has adapted lessons that he has learned about the synergy of flavor and fragrance to confuse and enhance the palate based on the molecular relationships of ingredients. For example, Achatz serves some dishes on top of a pillowcase with tiny holes in it that are designed to release specific scents with meals. Undoubtedly, Achatz’s meals must be an innovative educational experience derived from innovative lessons and practices.

Big Problems, Creative Solutions

Tiger Woods has faced some problems in his storied career, but he won three golf tournaments this past season. Although there are still some issues to sort out for the former #1 golfer, it is safe to say that his latest golf instructor is innovative. In late 2010, Woods enlisted the services of Sean Foley, a teacher who believes: “Teaching is really more a function of how people best learn. If you have a feel player who has kind of an auditory sense to him, maybe you get him hitting balls wearing a blindfold in barefoot, listening to Chopin. Whatever instills the lesson best.”iii

Signaling Innovation, Changing the Game

Chip Kelly, the head football coach at the University of Oregon, uses ideas adapted from the Navy Seals and business guru Jim Collins to inform his lessons. His success on the field has earned him the title: the reigning innovator of offensive football.iv

As a teacher, Kelly uses complex signs and a variety of motivational techniques to help his players make smarter decisions as they adapt to the many moving parts within a football game. Some analysts have suggested that Oregon’s innovative offense, which is based on speed, is particularly relevant right now, because speed will help to reduce some of the violent hits that have become a concern in football.

Historiography + Design Thinking

In my own efforts to bring innovation to the classroom, I redesigned a World History curriculum into a course called Global Perspectives in the 21st Century, which is based on design thinking.vi Using design thinking, students are learning how to ask better questions, how to focus their analyses, how to be more creative, and how to develop different types of answers to a question. More importantly, design thinking is proving to be a tool that helps my students engage in projects based on their own unique interests while adding value to discussions based on their own unique abilities. Although the results of this course redesign are not in yet, there are some early indications that students are cultivating a richer understanding of historiography and a more nuanced awareness of their world. They are also having more fun.

As we continue to foster student achievement in education under a banner of ever-changing slogans, it would serve us to remember that each generation and each student is predisposed to a unique learning style. And if effectively tailoring lessons to students in a particular learning context is the key to winning standing ovations from more discerning audiences, then it is innovation that will help teachers develop more meaningful lessons in the 21st century.