Technology Won’t Save Our Schools

Education technology has seen a record $3+ billion of venture capital investment in the last two years. A corresponding rise in education outcomes, however, has been much more elusive. But why?

As a former teacher, I can attest that educational attainment is a complicated thing. The social, economic, and political factors that contribute to educational outcomes are complex and the role that technology plays is only one part of a very complicated equation. But if the prevailing myths of Silicon Valley — which profoundly shape the motivations and rhetoric of the ed tech community — are to be believed, then technology should be a boon for reinventing student learning. So far, though, ed tech has only contributed small improvements rather than the large, scalable, systemic disruption to which it might aspire. In fact, large-scale attempts to implement technology at scale through 1-to-1 tablet initiatives in major school districts have proven more frustrating than fruitful.

Schools across the country, with a few notable exceptions, operate largely the same way. Teaching is cleanly organized by subject, student behavior and movement is tightly controlled, and the learning process unfolds along familiar pedagogical lines — all of which is intended to ensure that students leave school knowing what’s required to be “productive citizens.” Against this backdrop, even the most ambitious technologies fail to transform the student experience. In reality, the best most tools can do is to provide improvements to teaching and administrative functions, streamlining workflows in hopes of creating space for more interesting educational activities.

The experiences of many educators underscore the reality that schools have yet to provide the right cultural and organizational structures that would be fertile soil for technological innovation to substantially change the learning process. In a recent survey, 96% of teachers reported that technology “plays a significant role in the classroom” yet only 33% reported “that technology lets students learn content in a different way.” This raises the question: If technology isn’t helping students learn differently, how can we call its role significant? It appears that while teachers have access to a lot of technology, it has so far failed to shape the art of teaching and learning in new and meaningful ways.

If technology isn’t helping students learn differently, how can we call its role significant?

How, then, can we refocus our attempts at innovation in a way that leads to a transformation of the learning process?

A New Focus for Innovation

There are a number of interesting frameworks for thinking about different types of innovation.

Product vs. process

Non-technological vs. technological

Revolutionary vs. evolutionary

Radical vs. incremental

Disruptive vs. sustaining

To date, the education sector has seen an over-focus on process and technological change that has led to evolutionary, incremental, and sustaining improvements to teaching and learning. It seems we don’t exactly know what to do with all these new tools. In a 2008 op-ed, Clay Christensen and Michael Horn wrote on this very topic:

“…That schools have gotten so little back from their investment [in technology] comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical — and perfectly wrong.

Education leaders have worked hard to avoid this pitfall. In the seven years since this was written, a key focus for educators has been on personalizing learning — that is, using technology to teach students in ways that are tailored to their unique intelligences, learning styles, and aptitudes.

While a focus on personalizing learning has certainly been a welcome change from the one-size-fits all model of education, it has not been — and won’t be — enough. This innovation in the content delivery process still operates within a school system that, among other things:

  • Assumes the primary goal of an education is the acquisition of knowledge
  • Arranges learning into rigid subject areas
  • Groups students primarily by age
  • Assesses knowledge through standardized testing
  • Lays out the learning space in neatly organized classrooms and learning areas.

If our goal is to see revolutionary, radical and disruptive innovation affect our methods of schooling we need to stop thinking about technology first, and instead focus on non-technical and product innovations (by product here, I mean what the process of education is actually delivering to students as opposed to the process for delivering it).

Our technology-enamored society has led to an over-focus on creating new technologies for schools and insufficient attention being paid developing wholly new models of schooling. To add to the complexity, our current education system is incredibly path dependent. The leaders pushing education forward are themselves products of the very system they are trying to evolve, making it difficult for them to see truly unique paths forward. The same is true from an education policy perspective.

In order for breakthrough change to be realized, the focus in education must be on changing the aim of schooling along with its operations, human capital structures, internal systems and physical environments. By creating room for schools to approach innovation in non-technical ways, we can create new opportunities for as-yet-unseen technologies to expand the scale and impact of teaching and learning. Our students will be better off for it.

Seeing the Groundswell

The good news is that people are starting to pay more attention to the school itself instead of the technologies that have thus far under-delivered. A recent discussion over at Bright highlights the increasing attention being paid to rethinking the school environment, and points out that these experiments are difficult to do given the risk involved. 4.0 Schools, for example, has been a champion for tiny schools — small experiments with new school models that take place outside of the normal school day. The hope is that these experiments will reveal new ways of thinking about our approach to school.

This focus on school model innovation is what’s needed, and will enable technology to play a more significant role in learning. There are a number of schools across the country that have started rethinking the learning process for their students. These schools are using project based learning to engage students in meaningful work; thinking outside of the block schedule to structure learning time; moving students efficiently between various types of learning; focusing less on knowledge acquisition and more on skill and mindset development; and giving students ownership in school leadership.

More recently, XQ: The Super School Project has issued a grand challenge to redesign high schools. The focus of this challenge, though, is telling about how much work there is left to do. The scroll on the landing page asks participants to “Rethink the bell, repetition, desk time, knowledge…,” and give their attention to these mainstays of the school experience that are tying students down. Despite years of focus reform and innovation, these ubiquitous structures remain the biggest barrier between where we are and where we could be.

Amidst all this focus on rethinking and experimenting with school models, there is still much to be done.

Questions to Unlock New Thinking

To support the the conversation, about what the school of the future might look like, we need new questions to reframe our thinking. Here are a few we hope will get you started:

The Purpose of Education

  • In a world where knowledge is easily acquired via the internet, how do we shift the focus from subject-based teaching to an education aimed at building the capacity to express knowledge in creative ways?
  • What if in addition to IQ we gave equal attention to EQ (emotional intelligence) and CQ (creative intelligence)?
  • How can we break down barriers between intellectual competencies and manual competencies to create a more integrated, holistic education experience?

School Operations

  • Why do we need the current scheduling structure? Is it to corral bored kids? If so, could breaking down boredom obfuscate the need for such rigid school days?
  • What if school days looked more like regular days — balancing head-down work, time for personal development, learning and collaboration, and opportunities for creative expression?
  • How can we facilitate creative chaos by breaking out of neatly organized learning categories and allowing students to set their own academic agendas?

Learning Environment

  • What does it look like to combine labs, break out rooms, lecture halls, studio spaces, and outdoor venues to create ever-changing backdrops for learning?
  • How can we make learning spaces more comfortable and beautiful as of way of encouraging individual autonomy as opposed to limiting it?
  • How can we pause to have fun — and how does physical space enable more spontaneity?
  • Can we reframe the concept of student success as we change our approach to teaching and learning?

Human Capital

  • How might we flatten leadership structures in schools so that every adult is both a teacher/guide and administrative decision maker? How would this improve school leadership and create more hands-on instructors?
  • What would it look like to form deep partnerships with local leaders and businesses so that local schools are a part of their value chain, not their CSR work?
  • How can we blur the lines between teacher education and in-school teacher training, tapping into networks of emerging educators sooner to create better student-teacher ratios?
  • What role can students play in managing and evolving the school environment?

What’s Next

For our schools to evolve in much-needed ways, we need to give equal attention the our approach to schooling and the technology that enables that approach. At present, we’re focusing too much on the technological side of the equation. Instead, we need to create room for schools to experiment with the basic tenants of our education system that we have clung too for decades and discover new ways of teaching and learning. I suspect, like many leaders in the education sector, that this shift in focus will lead to innovations that will better prepare students for the uncertainties that lie ahead — and create a better ecosystem for new technologies to make a more profound impact.

Let us know if you find these questions helpful. Please share with us the questions you think will help unlock our thinking about the purpose of education, the focus of operations, the nature of the learning environment, and the organization of human capital. Our goal is to add to this important conversation and continue to push non-technical innovation in parallel with the development of ed tech. We’ll look to update these questions in the future. Be sure to share with us other bright spots of non-technical innovation in education that you’ve come across.