Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Educational Innovation

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
--Alvin Toffler

In the fascinating book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self by Alan Webber, there are 3 insightful "rules" that apply equally to schools undergoing innovative change as it does to business innovation.

Before I continue I need to explain that ALL schools need to change from the 20th century factory school model that supports standardization and conformity to a more flexible, student centered and technology infused model that supports 21st century skills.

Three of the 52 "Rules of Thumb" directly relate to what schools need to do to change from the comfortable, tradition filled schools that we all grew up in to schools that will better prepare students for life in a more mobile, global, and competitive world.


What is the business of Education? Preparing students for work, college, citizenship, lifelong learning??? Whatever the answer may be is actually dependent on the customer, which of course, are parents. The reality is there are more options for parents to educate their children in the way they wish than ever before. Is the American public school system of today the American automobile industry of yesterday? The American automobile industry was unwilling (not unable) to respond to events in the world and failed to see the need to reinvent itself to keep ahead of foreign competition. This is what I fear is happening too often in schools today. Too many schools block YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter because of the fear that students may see something inappropriate (not that they won't see it when they are not at school). So instead of opening up the world to students in a supervised, educational setting the traditional "block it so we don't get sued" mindset of many school leaders prevents students from accessing and contributing to the collective wisdom of learning networks where students interact with experts and other students from around the world. It's just safer to keep the students walled into their classroom with their teacher.

So, what business should schools be in? To reframe the picture schools should be like Southwest Airlines who, as Webber points out, is in the freedom business. "You are free to move around the country," is a Southwest Airlines slogan that reframes their company from being about transportation to a company about freedom due to their low prices. Schools need to be about freedom. Every student needs to be taught and allowed to practice the skills and habits of mind that are essential in a free society. For this to happen schools need to embrace and encourage every student's freedom to explore and experiment, and maybe even to fail. To structure a school around freedom would mean:
  • giving representative groups of students real say in various functions of the school
  • allowing students to have access to the learning tools that they will use in college and the workforce, and that they currently use when not in school
  • encouraging students to make contacts outside of the limiting world of the school (like they do when they play video games, socialize on Facebook, or text one another)
Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #1--Education is about Freedom


Just ask anyone who still works for a newspaper if they feel their jobs are secure. The newspaper industry is trying to reinvent itself because the marginal cost of producing news online is zero. The old game of news agencies monopolizing news coverage and distribution is gone forever. We now live in a world where free information is expected. Wired magazine's editor Chris Anderson's soon to be published book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, details how new realities are demanding new categories for doing business online, like providing previously paid content for free.

So what are the new realities for education?

  • Globalization coupled with technological advances has created a world more connected than ever before. American students today will be competing for the first time in history with students in India, China, and Ireland for jobs that do not currently exist.
  • Choice in education is here to stay. Homeschools, cyber-schools, and various private schools are not going away.
  • There is greater access to information online than ever before and this access will continue to grow.
So what should be the new categories for education in light of these new realities?
  • Every student needs a Personal Learning Network(PLN) so they can take advantage of the social aspect of the new technology for learning and not just for play. Plus, communicating with and learning from other students and experts from around the world is the best way to prepare students to become global citizens.
  • Schools need to become more experimental to encourage finding better ways to train teachers, schedule students, and ultimately, to teach students, so that schools are relevent in the 21st century reality.
  • Reading, Writing, and Arithmatic are not the only literacies anymore. Digital and Civic literacies are more important than ever due to student's access to information. Students need to know how to appropriately and effectivley use and organize digital information and media since they are all part of a global online web.
Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #2--Schools need to embrace the wider world


This rule is actually more personal than institutional. Basically, we all need to be open for new experiences and willing to say yes to proposals outside our comfort zone. However, the reason there is a need for this rule is that successful people rarely want to deviate from their normal routines because their routines are probably what got them success in the first place. Webber writes that, "Important, busy people live in bubbles. The more important and busy you are, the more time you spend in your own private world."

Recently, I was at a conference where Alan November provocatively asked if we were desperate. His point was that we are just too comfortable with our perceived successes and not willing to use technology as a disruptive tool, like many schools are doing outside the United States. School Change consultant Tony Wagner writes in his book The Global Achievement Gap, that even "successful" schools that offer a wide array of A.P. courses and send large percentages of students on to prestigious Universities fail to teach the skills wanted the most by employers. So what's up? Could it be that we are living in our own protective bubble of success?

We need to burst the bubble and be willing to say yes to educating students in the new reality of globalization, choice, and access to information. Instead of cosmetically changing to make it look good for press releases schools need to truly overhaul the system to ensure graduating students are prepared for a world more connected every passing day. Hopefully, we are willing to respond to the new reality of the world and change according to this new reality (unlike the automobile industry).

Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #3--Schools need to change for their very survival

Next Post--Rules of Thumb for Civic Education in the Classroom

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