Innovation in Schools

What Can We Learn from the Printing Press?

Why do we need innovation in schools? Well, for one, the current state of the US education system is a frequent subject of critique. Sir Ken Robinson for one has called it a factory model and he is not wrong. Most US high schools were developed at the end of the 19th century when rising industrialization required a new generation of employed individuals. The high school was invented to meet that need. Also, the rapid formation of numerous high schools across the nation meant that management and control were central to their operation and ethos. Creativity and innovative ideas were not at the center nor attributed much value. These guiding principles that drove the formation of our school system still exist today. So it stands to reason that we need to make changes to the status quo. The word disruption coming out of the tech industry has received a lot of attention as a path forward. The push for innovation is often framed in terms of teachers doing something new or at least different in their classrooms. Of course, changing and ultimately improving teacher practice is critical and should be an ongoing and sustained part of every school. However, I would argue that our focus on disruption might not be the best place to start.

Educational change is complex and nuanced. We need to first understand the process of teaching and learning more deeply before we can find useful interventions. More importantly, the success of interventions will largely be based on the teacher’s depth of knowledge about the change that is being made. The most meaningful innovations come from a place of deep understanding, and educators are the ones best situated to identify these opportunities. We therefore should focus on supporting teachers in deepening their understanding of the learning environments as they exist. Teachers may need tools and new ways of thinking to unpack the value that is already there. Once we support teacher understanding, we should be listening to teachers about what changes are needed. We also need to foster connections between teachers so that they can share key insights, collaborate, and build on each other’s knowledge. Deep understanding and making connections are the two fundamental requirements for innovation to grow and thrive. This is true for innovation in all spaces not just in education. Interestingly, I came across these requirements for innovation while investigating one of the most fundamental components of the traditional school, literacy. As it happens the invention that precipitated the rise of literacy in the West is considered one of the most innovative moments in human history, it is also one of the defining elements of the school.

In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing press in Europe. In order to accomplish this, he built upon many ideas and technologies that already existed. For one, China invented a printing press about 150 years earlier. Also, Gutenberg’s press required technologies involving metallurgy and ink development that he could not have accomplished by himself. Additionally, he took advantage of a sophisticated pressing apparatus that had been developed for the production of wine. The point here is that his innovation was closely connected to other innovations that predated him and the fabric of innovation culture that existed at that time. Steven Johnson presents this story in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From — The Natural History of Innovation. In the book, Johnson argues that innovations arise from the connection of important ideas and are therefore dependent on the existence of people who make connections and a culture that cultivates ideas and connections.

Gutenberg’s press has been credited as a key human invention that made possible the current system of education and the global sharing of knowledge. In our current school system texts and text-based literacy could be considered its most highly valued commodity. We teach students to read in Kindergarten or even earlier. Text-based information drives most of the learning experienced throughout school. Given how central literacy is to the educational establishment it is hard to think of it today as an innovation. Yet at its inception literacy was the most innovative idea of its time. I think that we can learn what types of innovation are needed today by better understanding the innovation of text. This includes the process of innovation that allowed Gutenberg to build the printing press in the first place. But also consider how the printed text was an innovation for the human mind. Andrea diSessa’s book Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy, provides insights into literacy and its role in school that help elucidate this point. In the book, diSessa describes three pillars of text-based literacy.

The first pillar he calls material. The material of literacy begins with the structures: the alphabet, the construction of words, the grammatical system that forms sentences and paragraphs, and the structures of meaning that lead to a wide range of textual artifacts. The elaborate structure of literacy is a powerful framework to communicate thoughts and record them permanently. These structures have been leveraged throughout human history and in particular after the invention of printing. Think about the extensive role of writing in our lives. Think about the many human accomplishments that were made possible by the invention of writing.

Beyond the structure of language, there are the materials that store our reading matter and written records. The papers, books, magazines, newspapers, and now a range of digital media are all literacy materials. The printing press would be counted in this category. It is no accident that writing implements are readily available in our schools and in everyday life as the availability of this resource contributes to its value.

In 1981 Bard College founded the Language and Thinking program, a three-week orientation for newly admitted students to learn and practice the power of writing. The underlying idea behind the program is that through the practice of writing, thinking is clarified and developed. Bard believes strongly in the importance of teaching its students to write well and has a strong reputation for developing writing skills through its program. Writing is a valuable and important skill for many career paths. Literacy is so fundamental to our experience that we sometimes don’t see it for the powerful innovative idea that it is. It is like the oxygen we breathe. It extends the capabilities of humans by allowing us to explore new ways of thinking and new areas of inquiry. It has also sparked many other innovations.

The second pillar is described by diSessan which he calls the mental/cognitive. Literacy is powerful because of the vast network of ideas, structures, and materials that promote thinking and expression. Yet, that system is only useful to the extent that we have adapted our brains to take advantage of it. A person who cannot read gains little benefit from the literacy infrastructure. Perhaps that is why we spend so much time in school orienting ourselves to text-based literacy. We start by teaching decoding and then work our way up to support students in wielding a wide range of literacy tools in their learning and thinking. What makes literacy powerful and innovative is dependent on how well we can take advantage of it. I think we sometimes undervalue the importance of human knowledge and learning in the leveraging of innovation. Part of the power of literacy is how thoroughly we have adopted it in our schools so that the students can continue to leverage this innovation throughout their lives.

The third pillar of literacy that diSessa presents is social. Text literacy has transformed the way humans interact with each other. The fabric of human connection is critical to understanding the nature of literacy and how it can be leveraged. Also, literacy is a powerful way to understand the current state of human connection in the world.

In the book, diSessa lays out the framework of text literacy to advance his arguments about computational literacy. I am sharing them to highlight the features of text literacy innovation so that we can apply that to innovating our schools. The way forward for innovation in schools is not simply disrupting what is currently in place. Instead useful innovations come from deep understanding, the connection of ideas, and cultivating a culture of sharing ideas.

The process of learning that takes place in a classroom is incredibly complex. As humans, we struggle to grasp complexity because our intuition can fail us. To find useful innovations we need to double down on understanding the nuances of learning and the history that has brought us to this place. We need to break down the silos that divide teachers in schools to allow them to connect with colleagues, share ideas and develop insights. We need to focus on building a culture of curiosity and innovation. What teachers need is to be supported and valued not disrupted. That is the key to innovation in our schools.



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Greg Benedis-Grab

Greg Benedis-Grab


exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge