A Proposal for Thoughtful Impatience
Richard Culatta

Regarding Education Innovation

This has been an interesting exchange of letters. As a Silicon Valley high-school teacher I think about the question of innovation almost constantly. The schools where I have worked have excellent technology resources. My first classroom was a well-equipped computer media arts lab, collaborative learning, interdisciplinary environment. My current classroom is much the same, with the additional benefit that all students have iPads. The network is speedy and students have access to many useful apps. Needless to say, I have been lucky to work in such well equipped schools, I realize this is sadly not the norm for all students in the country.

What I might add to the discussion is my own experience and reaction to the topic of education innovation. I write from the perspective of teacher, mom of two kids (teen, tween), and someone with a deep background in tech design from my former career (life before teaching).

Intrinsic motivation is key to learning. If we innovate in ways that help surface student motivation we can begin the process. You can have a wild sage on the stage, or put the student in the middle of their own learning with a great personalized LMS system, or stack them up with Khan Academy videos, or any number of alternatives, but if the kid is not engaged in the subject it might not make a difference. You have to explain to students why it is important they learn about the subject at hand, and help them identify what’s in it for them. As teacher, you need to know the answer to the ‘why should they care’ question. When we care about their motivation we empathize with the kid. There is a role for tech to play at this stage of the learning for both student and teacher, and it should come early in the semester or year. This is a practical and precise innovation target. Most will say the grade is enough motivation, but it is not the thing that creates sparkle and life in the classroom.

Next, from my point of view (and many others), the emphasis on AP coursework has many students sitting in AP classes that are too challenging for them, overloading their schedules, impacting their sleep patterns and increasing their stress. It is hard to find intrinsic motivation, or unlock your passion for learning when you are just surviving a demanding schedule that is likely too much for a teen. The AP pressure I have observed creates apathy and anxiety among teens. They care about the grade, their GPA, but sadly, the subject matter often is less important. As a teacher and parent in one of the most competitive places in the world, I would encourage innovation in terms of college admissions and how changes in attitudes may have a particularly positive trickle-down effect. I am most encouraged by a report from Harvard’s School of Education, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admission, which highlights the reform work of a broad coalition of college admissions officers.

As for the classroom, if we can unlock motivation and have a student open to the learning, it is important for the student to ‘own’ the learning. It is further important for the student to show what they know in some concrete way other than just filling in a bubble (often an educated guess or process of elimination). I think the key to this kind of responsible learning is through an LMS that allows for personalization and a healthy set of interactive tools that emulate what we find in entertainment environments. I have yet to find the perfect LMS, but there are many available and I am optimistic about the future of the LMS for personalization.

My oldest son has learned more about history, government, poverty, the 1%, finance, culture, current events and the world through movies, games and Jon Stewart. My youngest son I think could be unschooled as he simply goes online and finds a YouTube video to teach himself all variety of things, from writing Java to modeling a 3D vehicle with Maya. I am not a fan of the unschooled movement, but I get the point that if the motivation is there, there is little you can do to stop the learner. The issue here is how do we make learning modules more akin to the aspects of gaming and entertainment that engage the audience. What many educational apps miss is that we may not want corny time-consuming games, but we may want those aspects of games that keep the user tuned in and working. These concepts are not new to educators, reward, recognition, moving up and affiliation all are reasons to stay in the game.

With the Digital Native Student teachers are teaching kids who have been wired in a different way due to the way they engage with technology, for better or worse. I think the role of the teacher moving forward will be to manage technology, but also to become a facilitator of collaborative group work and pull students into face-to-face meetings and discussions with each other in meaningful ways. An area of innovation or study should question what human qualities both physical, psychological and emotional, will impact digital natives as a result of their reliance on technology. I encourage face-to-face collaboration, require formation of groups that actually pull away from computers and face each other. It is surprising in a lab environment how students become isolated. I also sense when students have been sitting too long and get them moving. I am witnessing for the first time ever a couple of students with carpel tunnel due to computer and mobile use.

So where does innovation come from? Everyone. The next generation belongs to all of us. They are deserving of our care, attention and best efforts to innovate. We will rely on them as part of our future.

We should all be able to contribute to the content standards, but a governing body of experts needs to be accountable for holding the list. We need to look at those content standards from the perspective of the whole child. It could very well be that for the health of the country that we want to expand (rather than reduce) PE as our digital natives are just too sedentary and may have hidden dormant health problems that will surface beyond high school.

Students should heavily influence innovation as test cases in usability studies for new personalized learning platforms. This should be done systematically and be data-driven along with observation and interview follow-up. They should have choices in how to respond to the learning goals. Again, personalization can provide such opportunities.

Teachers should influence innovation. There is nothing like watching a seasoned teacher in a classroom who really connects with a group of 24–32 kids. It’s an art form I assure you.

Tech education companies should have a stake in education innovation but should gather the requirements carefully and listen before they leap. Over the course of attending CUE conferences for a couple of years I would suggest that vendors hire great teachers to help design their products. There are times when I look at education apps and almost laugh at how ridiculous or tedious their use would be in a classroom. Other times it is obvious that teachers and students have not been part of a usability process in that the product lacks a universal feature.

Finally, the biggest innovation in education should start with practical ways to pay for what needs to be provided the next generation of learners. Do we need brick and mortars as we know now, or a different kind of building? Do we need a different kind of adult leadership rather than the current subject matter expert? How do we pay for personalization? How do we equalize and normalize so that all children have access to a quality educational experience? An innovative approach would be to create a straw-man budget of the school of the future using current district funding and see the results. I have seen some very creative concepts on Bright and other resources. What would be useful would be evaluate these concepts against their financial reality.

Innovative ideas also need to be grounded. Some of the ideas I have read are kind of silly. Floating chairs by the way makes for a great illustration, but I’d rather encourage a group of 6th graders to go out and kick a ball around and touch the ground. They won’t need a floating chair if they have just expended recess energy outside and have a real PE class.

Thank you for the conversation. You both brought up excellent points and I look forward to reading more.

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