This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the September 2012 Issue of School Administrator.
It’s impossible to attend an education event today without someone on stage passionately calling out for more innovation. It’s probably the most widely used word in my blog posts as well.
Discussions about innovation permeate much of what I have been addressing in our school district. The innovation label applies to all manner of things — ideas, methods, programs — and pretty much anything that differs from current practice.
Yet the challenge is that, for every new program we add to the K-12 system, we also must shed an existing program. As it is, the general public and the educators point out that we are trying to do too much, to cover too much ground. In many U.S. jurisdictions and in British Columbia where I reside, in order to provide a competitive slate, we try to meet the expectations of parents by offering a curriculum jammed full of options. At the same time, we struggle to address the standards established by our ministries of education. Putting the two together, we create a curriculum too full, one bursting at the seams.
Unfortunately, we are better at initiating programs than we are at ending them, even when they have outgrown their usefulness.
The Test of Time
In the resulting litmus test, it has become apparent that some ideas, interventions, courses or programs have a shelf life after which effectiveness disintegrates. The world is constantly changing, and we need to reflect that process of ongoing change in all that we do.
This is particularly true of initiatives intended to encourage the use of technology and digital literacy. I’ve watched a steady evolution away from the “learning with technology” approach toward a broad-based integration of information technologies into our learning systems. We no longer need to teach K-12 students how to use computers, but we find our curricula so overburdened that it is difficult to make room for programs that would encourage that integration.
The problem is that we are much better at starting initiatives than ending them. Even when existing programs no longer connect with students, we often protect them because our investment of resources, in one way or another, into some of these programs dissuades us from abandoning them. On the other hand, holding on to these programs limits the development of new programs and learning experiences for students.
It’s something of a Catch 22 because we know new innovations need time to take root and grow. We have tried running all the courses from the previous year along with the new ones proposed (to the same students), but sign-up is fragmented, and many courses are cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.
So what’s the answer? Well, I believe we need to take a cue from the private
sector, which fully understands that it is necessary to let go of the old and make room for the new. When innovations no longer work, they are abandoned, or the company goes under. The concept provides us with a direction forward.
A case in point: Diane Nelson, who nurtures our school district’s sports academy programs, proposed and launched a field hockey academy.
It didn’t work out; so, instead of trying to force the field hockey academy to work, she dropped the idea and now has started a baseball academy, which drew sufficiently high registration to launch this fall. She knew to walk away from one and to reinvest in another, continuing the search to find programs to
meet the needs of our students and their families.
When someone says that our kids should be doing more “X,” it is usually
difficult to disagree, whether that might be financial literacy, cross-curricular
experiences, physical activity, workplace experience, self-directed
inquiry or some other wonderful, innovative program. To keep on adding
“X” will eventually work against us, covering more superficially, and preventing students from digging deeper in their learning.
When courses disappear or school rituals retire, it should not be seen
as negative. It represents progress. Many ideas have a shelf life. So, while
we are really good at celebrating all the new notions in education today,
we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull innovations
along the way.
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