I was watching television the other night and saw a special on all of the innovative work that is being done in the automotive industry around the idea of self driving cars. It was pretty amazing stuff and left me awe struck. The roads will be very different in the next 10 years. The idea of a driver on his/her laptop while cruising down the highway at 110 km/h is what I had envisioned but as I watched more and more of the show I realized that was a long way off yet. Both Google and BMW, the companies the show was focusing on, didn’t really see the idea of a driver being right out of the picture in the immediate future. Even in the highly robotic BMW, there was often times when the car would beep and have the driver take control. Unlike a human driver, the car could not necessarily deal with the erratic behavior of other drivers as well as the human driver could. Although the car was exceptionally safe and high performing, the car was not quite ready to roll out to the streets just yet. So what does this have to do with educational transformation?
I think we could really learn a lesson from the fine makers of high level technology and automotive innovation. The lesson is, don’t try to roll out innovative, transformative change until the change has been proven to work. Now, you may be thinking that there is not the danger involved in rolling out new educational pedagogy on a class as there would be in rolling out innovative automobiles. Automobiles could well kill someone if things did not go quite right. The worst that could happen with a new teaching technique would be that students don’t learn the lesson. There is some truth to that. That’s why car companies are so careful in using plenty of prototypes, and failing and fixing their issues in their test labs rather than simply trying their cars out on the Los Angeles freeways. They test, they fix, they test, they fix. The cycle goes on thousands of times with little failures and little fixes until the innovation is road worthy. Then they put it on the road but only a few. With the few on the road, they test, they fix, they test, the tweak. They release thoughtfully and purposefully. Education could learn a lesson here.
We’ve seen some innovative practice be introduced to the educational field in grand scales but we have to ask ourselves, was the testing done well first? Was the innovation tried in small pockets in various classrooms and tested thoroughly as a car would be tested in the automotive sector? Were the small failures of the transformative practices tweaked enough to ensure that the practice was really safe for the classroom? Admittingly, we are not risking a brutal car crash at high speeds and the potential deaths that go with it in education but we are risking the education of our youth, and that is no small risk.
So, are we ready to risk a child’s educational year to try whole school or whole classroom pedagogical shifts without ensuring these shifts are pretty solidly grounded in good learning first? We’ve done it in the past with some of the major changes and I read about schools doing it now. Schools take their entire staffs through enormous changes to programming, throwing out years of successful programming to “try something new”.
Instead of these whole hog changes, why not turn a few of your lessons into the educational equivalent of a automotive test lab? Keep doing the great work that you’ve always done in the classroom , but try something new using minimal time and resources to test the innovative practice. Let me use Project Based Learning as an example. First time to use it, don’t take an entire three month unit in Social Studies and jump in. Rather, take one outcome and plan a few lessons based around the principals of project based learning. Test them out for the week and see how the students fare. Was the learning successful according to your previous lessons? Was there places that seemed to go wrong? What went right? Is the strategy worth trying again with some changes? If so, take another outcome, reshape your lesson structure to accommodate the fixes and use it for a few lessons. How did that work? You’re now making incremental changes to your classroom to improve it while not throwing the baby out with the bath water in an all out change. Seems a little safer for the learning environment, doesn’t it?
We can learn a lot from the innovative practice of the industrial sector. Try changes to improve the performance of our classroom but do so safely with minimal investment and go from there. Try something small, evaluate it’s worth, tweak it if it’s worth the fix, throw it out if it isn’t. Seems like a smarter way to get to transform education than simply blowing everything up and starting fresh, doesn’t it?
Keep on learning,