Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Innovation Needed Now - Education

Braden Kelley occasionally posts requests for innovation bloggers to respond to questions or topics that his readers or bloggers submit.  His latest one was "what product or sector is in most need of innovation".  This question allows me to kill two or more birds with one stone.  My recommended area most in need of innovation is the education system, for several reasons.

First, the primary and secondary education system in this country is based on learning models from the 19th century.  While there has been significant change in almost all aspects of life, a 2nd grade teacher plucked from the late 19th century and returned to earth would be bewildered by most of what he or she encountered, except the pedagogy within the average classroom.  Sure we don't emphasize rote memorization anymore, but short of that the curriculum and teaching methods haven't changed.  One could argue that's because there's been so much success, but on any relative scale we can demonstrate that the educational system is failing miserably.  So we have a rigid educational program steeped in tradition that is demonstrably failing.  The educational system must innovate in order to be relevant.

Second, regardless of the tradition, we aren't teaching kids how to learn, or teaching them relevant skills, and are often channeling all of the kids in an educational system into a collegiate experience.  This one size fits all educational outcome, where in some schools over 90% of students have college aspirations, neglects the fact that many won't complete college and will require other skills to generate income.  Why do we continue to prepare the students for "knowledge worker" jobs when clearly there are many demands and opportunities, and proclivities for other skills?  We need to resurrect the concept of apprenticeship and place more emphasis and value on learning skills beyond the classroom.  We need better definitions about what kids need to know, and more importantly, we need to teach them how to learn and how to teach themselves and others.

Third, the disrupters are out in force. Since most educational systems are government monopolies rather than private enterprises, there's little innovation and little incentive for new entrants.  As it is, many states have begun to experiment with charter schools, for-profit schools and many parents are turning to home schooling.  Given the difficulty of starting alternative educational programs, and the rigidity of the existing educational bureaucracy, these experiments are too little and may be too late.  We are at risk of losing a generation of students who have been taught inadequately and are unprepared for many of the roles and responsibilities they must take on.  The state governments and localities must act to allow much more experimentation, and universities must require more from people who want to teach, and must create new teaching and educational paradigms.  If we aren't careful, businesses will go back to the beginning and create their own schools, to ensure a consistent flow of knowledgeable students with excellent experience.  If you can't get the right raw materials, you create or purchase your own sources.  At one point it was argued that home schoolers were the nut cases who for behavior or religious reasons kept their kids at home.  Since home schooled kids have proven very adept at getting entry to prestigious colleges, more and more people are pulling their kids out of primary and secondary programs and teaching them at home.  This runs the risk of weakening the social fabric, if we don't have shared educational experiences, but these home schoolers are merely demonstrating that they believe they can innovate the educational model.

The educational system in the US is clearly failing - failing the students, failing the teachers and failing to create people who can join the workforce or create their own companies.  In most factors the US ranks well down the list in terms of educational achievement.  Only greater demand and political pressure will encourage more experimentation and more innovation.  At this point we need disruptive innovation - a complete rethinking of the pedagogy, curriculum, technology and intent of education, followed by a restructing of how education is offered and consumed.  If we can completely rework the health care system in the US in just over six months, with the right focus we can rework the educational system and create a more powerful, relevant educational experience for our children and grandchildren.  We need to do this NOW.

Recently there was an argument about whether or not a school voucher program in Washington DC should continue as a pilot program.  Only 1700 kids were receiving vouchers to go to private schools, and by most accounts were doing very well.  That program was threatened with termination, not because the funds were lacking or because the students were doing poorly, but because the program threatened the educational monopoly.  For those of us who care about better education for everyone, in every program at every level, we need more innovation, faster than ever, in order to overcome the entrenched bureaucracy.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:40 PM


Anonymous Tim Kastelle said...

Nice post Jeffrey, and I fully agree. I had considered writing on the same topic for Braden, but I switched this morning.

We need more innovation at the University level too, even though this is a relatively more competitive market.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Very insightful and relevant post. Thank you for much to think about.

re: Tim's comment: in grad school I once asked a professor (in an ed psych course) what was stopping innovation in the US public school system. His response was the US university system - especially elite private schools that dictate to the high schools what so-called standards they want students to achieve before admission. Because the high schools are so afraid of parents knocking on their doors, demanding to know why they aren't preparing their children for college, innovation is the last thing on anyone's mind.

This professor also believed that the reason you typically see more innovation in the lower grades (K-3) is because the university system has a tough time reaching that low.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Tim Kastelle said...

That's an interesting perspective Jason - thanks for sharing it!

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Firisen said...

Jeffrey, I write about the fundamental disconnect between the skills that are increasingly being valued in the workplace and beyond and how we are educating our children from kindergarten up. I'd be interested in your thoughts

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Jean said...

Innovation in education is at the top of the policy agenda this year with the Race to the Top and Innovation Funds programs. Lots of interesting work being done in charter and reform movements like KIPP and TFA, and to foster data-informed education using formative assessments (the kind that inFORM instruction).

Forward 2010 is a conference that will bring together leading researchers and policy makers to explore the topic. Learn more at nwea.org/forward.

Jean Fleming
director of marketing, NWEA

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:40 AM  

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