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Vail Daily column: Moving into the future

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

The term “innovation” is tossed around a lot in discussions on education reform. Indeed, it is difficult to argue with those who push for more innovation in education. The term conjures up images of industry pioneers, scribbling down seemingly crazy ideas and experimenting before that “Eureka!” moment, where the revolution occurs and everything changes from that beautiful moment forward.

Where can we find education’s Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs — who turns a paradigm on its head and alters the future for the better?

The reality is that innovation in education (and in most industries, if we are honest) comes at a slow deliberative pace, where iterative and small changes are made and honed over the course of years to arrive at a better and more stable positive outcome without a lot of fanfare.

Noted business writer Jim Collins observed this same effect in his book “Great by Choice” (with co-author Morton Hansen), looking at companies which out-performed their competitors by more than ten-fold during adverse economic conditions.

Collins and Hansen went into their business study believing that those companies which were the most innovative would be the most successful. Instead, what they found among the most successful companies was an incredibly disciplined approach to innovation.

These organizations had a continual focus on innovation, but made small scale tests and changes and sought “empirical validation” before making a bold move and betting the future on a different approach. Collins and Hansen’s metaphor is “bullets, then cannonballs.” Meaning — small, iterative tests before big moves.

The call for innovation in education is important and necessary. Our educators are continuously working to improve their craft, adapting and learning as they gain experience throughout their careers. The spirit of innovation in the classroom keeps teachers fresh and engaged. Their ability to adapt and customize the educational experience based on student needs exemplifies innovation in practice.

However, in education the term innovation is too often offered as a license for some carpet-bagging education profiteer to come in and do whatever they want, regardless of empirical scientific evidence to support the approach. Such an entrepreneurial environment might result in an education breakthrough — but at what costs in terms of the students who become part of the “experiment”?

Rather than an entrepreneurial approach to innovation, perhaps what is needed in education is something similar to innovation in the medical industry. If you needed some serious surgical procedure, would you wish to be part of some “innovative,” but still mostly untested approach? Or, would you seek to find a leading edge approach rooted in best practices which had a proven track record of success?

I would venture that most people would choose the second option when it comes to their health, considering the risk associated with failure. Yet when it comes to the education of our children, too often we toss aside this risk in order to try out something that sounds exciting and groundbreaking — after all, what harm could it do?

Noted international education thinkers Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves captured it well in their work Professional Capital, talking about educators working in an environment simultaneously steeped in best practices (approaches rooted in current evidence) and next practices (approaches grown from creativity and experimentation). We should seek a kind of balance — where the work of education is deeply rooted in proven practices, yet creates space for creativity and controlled experimentation.

Every field (including education) needs its share of visionaries and heretics to bring about game-changing breakthroughs and disruptive innovations. But let us not forget that, in the realm of education, these are children’s lives with which we are experimenting. So, leap forward we must — but not blindly.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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