Friday, June 13, 2014

The theory of confluent innovations

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In education, innovations happen differently from those in business. In business, organizations are mortal: they go out of business. Education is dominated by public and publicly-subsidized organizations that rarely die. Immortality is not as good as it sounds: among organizations, like among species, death makes change possible. When educational systems grow in size, the massification itself creates drivers of innovation. Once the mass public schooling is established, things change very little. Just one example: the internet by all reckonings should have revolutionized education by now. After all, education is about knowledge, and the internet is the new, and radically better, infrastructure of knowledge. Yet its effect on teaching and learning practices is quite limited. At least, no noticeable spike in international test scores can be attributed to improvements, related to information technologies.

In education, innovations fail if they do not exhibit confluence of several factors: economic, cultural, social, technological, and perhaps others. For example, many technological innovations do not reduce the workload of a teacher, and rather tend to increase it. Even if such an innovation dramatically improves learning, it will not be adopted by teachers. The labor considerations will prevail. Innovations that may affect the power structure within schools – that is, undermine teacher authority – will also be rejected, because teachers operate within relatively weak and fragile power structures.

One key feature of education we tend to ignore is that it requires a lot of labor from the learner. To learn something more or less systematically and purposefully (which separates educational learning from other kinds), one must apply much effort. The labor cannot be delegated to a machine, because the effort itself does the trick. The division of labor is also not applicable to educational learning. And that’s the key difference in labor structure between education and production. All the tricks we use to make productive labor more efficient, do not work here. One can look up stuff on Google, and it is wonderful. But even to know what to look for, one still needs a cognitive map of concepts, domains, ideas. That takes much of old-fashioned reading or listening.

Another discovery about education is that the relational component of teaching seems to be irreplaceable. It is easy to delegate lecturing to MOOC’s, and I have to say, people knew that ever since radio was invented. But just like a horse cannot be milked without a foal present, most children cannot learn without a significant and respected adult being present – if not for lecture, then for help and encouragement. This is not true of all children, but of most. There are probably good evolutionary reasons for that. We evolved to be especially interested in things that are important for our significant adults. Of course, there is the open-ended curiosity, which children are blessed with, especially in the first ten or so years of their lives. But it does not get us to quadratic equations; it is just not enough. Children need external motivation to learn, and we are yet to invent a machine that can build a relation worthy of applying the effort to learn.

The framework for understanding innovations in education is needed. My proposal is (1) to consider student and teacher work as forms of labor. A successful innovation will change something significant about making either or both of the two more productive. (2), we need to look at the social organization of schooling from the point of view of power relations. A successful innovation will not destroy it, but will either strengthen, or at least remain neutral to it. (3), the innovation should be easy to understand; in other words, it has to match the cultural (semiotic) matrices of people involved – students, teachers, parents. In this sense, it should not appear to be an innovation at all. And only finally (4), it has to be technologically sound – cheap, available, easy to grasp.

It is very obvious, that this is just a hunch, not really a theory. To move it forward, I invite you all to be my co-authors. Take part in an experiment, crowd-sourcing of a scholarly paper.

Note: I use the definition of innovation found in the Oslo Manual. It defines innovation as “the implementation [or introduction] of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations” (P. 46).

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky my sons loved to learn and do homework.I'd have to read to them of course but they got excited about the new subjects as I did ..We both learned together and it was fun.I was the adult who got to feel like a learning kid with my favorite guys.Teddi just loved me to always read to him .And he learned half of the books as we read along.Clifford we started off with.Kids want to learn when you make learning interesting and fun and tackel head scratchers together without giving away the answer You have to ask them the right questions to get them to the answer .my son got A when he lived with me .Teddi was a savant/autism .I was an amazing mommie .Such a Good haapy kind funny adventureous family very protective of one another