EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Necessary Disruption (Part 1: Keeping Pace With Technical Innovation)

Surely there is no more oft-used or ill-defined slogan than “21st Century Learning.”  I suppose it evoked the notion of learning for the world as it was becoming when used in the 1990’s but now that we have traversed Y2K without incident and are 10% through the new century I am not sure why we still say it or what it is supposed to mean.  I do know, however, that there is good reason to feel some urgency about innovation in schooling practices.

Yes, Canada’s public schools are demonstrably excellent by international standards, and generally far removed from the sorry state of much of the American system, but the world is changing very rapidly and if schools don’t match that rate of evolution they will inevitably lose both relevance and effectiveness.  Outside of school we see things like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering that are true game changers.  Inside of school we see incremental improvements at best in curriculum, instruction and organization.  This won’t do.  Its not only that good can be the enemy of great, but that complacency can kill you in a rapidly evolving context.

The world’s best typewriters became antiques overnight when keyboards arrived and every draughtsman has had to go digital.  You can’t keep up with the kinds of changes that abound in society just by improving what you are already doing.  Sometimes you have to change in order to survive.  Henry Ford is reported to have said, “If I had asked what people wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Abrupt change, which Clayton Christensen has termed “disruptive innovation,” is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is that initially the innovation is more work and often less productive, and also because it upsets the prevalent social order in an organization, but unless one makes the change and suffers through the ensuing implementation dip in order to learn a new way, there is no possibility of significant improvement from the current plateau.  Eventually even “sharpening the saw” is not good enough – you have to trade the thing in for a chain saw.

So where might such disruptive innovation be necessary in public education?  The popular response, of course, is technology – and for good reason because there is a lot of potential there.  However, while a technology-infused future seems promising, a technologically-focussed future is not the answer.  Technology is the horse, not the cart – or perhaps I should say the booster not the payload – or, to be thoroughly modern, the codec not the video.  So, “technology” does not really answer the question since that conversation is primarily about means rather than ends. 

What is it about current structures and processes that needs to be disrupted in order for schools to free themselves from some of their current limitations and keep pace with the change that is occurring all around them? … to be continued

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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