Cultivating 5 Perspectives on Educational Change & Innovation

5 Perspectives on Educational Innovation

We are in an era of educational experimentation, and it is hard to argue against the fact that the digital revolution fuels much of this experimentation.  Many aspects of traditional schooling are being questioned, some abandoned in search of new possibilities for student-centered, customized, high-impact learning experiences with the hope of equipping students for the unique challenges and opportunities of the contemporary world.  Some, like myself, get excited about this experimentation.  Others are skeptical, exhausted by the seemingly constant influx of new educational trends.  Just when you get comfortable with one, another arrives to replace it.

Wherever one is in this spectrum of emotional or intellectual responses, I am confident that the educational systems of today will not return to the dominant models and metaphors of the recent past.  There have always been educational experimentations, but they have been in the minority for the past seventy years.  Today, educational experimentation is becoming mainstream.

Regardless of where each of us stand on the topic of today’s educational experiments, I suggest that there are six perspectives that have much insight to offer us, insights that will help us to avoid the warnings of William Inge when he wrote, “He who marries the spirit of the age will find himself a widower in the next.”  These are not perspectives intended to slow educational innovation, but ones that have great promise to help us shape the innovations that we choose to embrace.  They may even help us decide which ones to embrace, or inspire us to come up with innovations of our own.

The Historical Perspective

Looking at the history of education allows us to gain new insight into changes and innovations of the past.  Things that we consider central attributes of schooling might turn out to be relatively new when we look at the broader historical perspective.  Grade-based classes, bells, letter grades…these are relatively new.  People still learned before letter grades and traditional schools existed.  They are not the essence of an education.  Similarly, looking at the history of education, we find that today’s innovations are sometimes similar to models and methods of the past.  We also discover that certain aspects of contemporary education do not seem to have an historical equal.  In addition, looking at the history of educational change and innovation, we can learn about why things changed.  We may discover that the changes that we now embrace did not occur to improve student learning.  They may well be innovations of necessity or efforts to increase scale or efficiency.

When I talk about the historical perspective, I am not referring to some broad introduction to the history of education.  For this to have value, it requires historical thinking, asking specific questions and exploring what history can teach us about them.  What is the history of letter grades and report cards? What is the history of distance education (including forms that existed before the Internet)? What about the history of childhood?  Has childhood always existed or is our contemporary notion more of a social construct?  What about the history of grade-based learning, where students study alongside people of their own age?  How old is that? What about the history of the book?  How did that change education?  What other educational models existed in the past?  Asking historical questions give us a depth of insight from which we can experiment or resist certain experiments today, but only if we do this deeply and honestly.  This is not about finding historical ammunition to win our personal educational battles.  For this perspective to help us, it requires us to strive for insight, even if the insights challenge our positions or educational preferences.

The Global Perspective

While some have opportunity to experience different educational systems around the world, many do not.  And yet, reading about, networking with, and visiting educational systems around the world provides us with rich insights into diverse educational models, metaphors, and methods.  Striving to understand these different perspectives offers us a renewed appreciation for some of our own educational traditions as well as those from other parts of the world. We can ask what “education” and “learning” looks like in different parts of the world. Looking beyond school buildings, we can gain new insights into the role of family, community, geography, and culture in education.

The Ethnographic Perspective

Ethnography is a research method that we sometimes use to study cultures, communities and people groups.  It involves cultural artifacts, interviews, and lots of observation…even participant observation.  Ethnographic research is experiential, collecting data with one’s own senses, but also testing one’s perceptions when possible.  Whatever the case, the ethnographic approach to studying education requires that we get out and do some interviewing and observing, asking ourselves and others questions that will allow us to have a deeper understanding of different types of learning communities.  This is the approach that I use to study innovative schools, and I can personally attest to the joy of learning that is possible through these experiences.  It is a great way to get informed about the diverse models of education at work today.  Charter schools are a great place to start, given that many of them have clear and distinct differences (e.g. project-based learning or game-based learning) from other schools.  Of course, not all of us have the time and resources to visit these schools in person, but the digital world gives almost all of us remote access to these people and places. Simply browsing YouTube videos and schools web sites give us a taste of this “ethnographic” learning experience.

The Autobiographical Perspective

Each of us has a learning history (it started with our conception), and exploring that will help us to better understand our own beliefs, biases, values, and perspectives.  Exploring educational change and innovation in view of these learning histories allows us to gain new perspective on some of our moral, emotional and intellectual reactions to the changes around us. This is does not mean that we always need to change our beliefs or values.  It may well be that this perspective grounds us and gives us a sense of where we will and will not budge.  Nonetheless, the examined life of learning has much to offer.

The Scientific Perspective

Biological, psychological, and sociological research today is exciting.  Consider the educational possibilities that emerge from the recent developments in brain research, positive psychology, organizational psychology, and the sociology of education.  These findings give us an opportunity to examine and re-examine schools and education with new understanding.

To what extent do our current systems, structures and methods align with what we know about how people learn?  This perspective invites us to ask new questions.  How can we design schools and learning organizations that respect and/or maximize the design features of our brains and bodies?  How can we cultivate positive strength-based learning communities? How can we use current research in psychology and sociology to create safe schools?  Of course, it is important to remember that research findings are tentative, and premature efforts to apply scientific findings to educational design are dangerous and misplaced.  At the same time, ignoring the blessings of such research is equally mistaken.  That is where comparing and contrasting scientific findings has great promise for shaping educational innovation.  This is no easy task, and the scientific perspective is inadequate on its own.

The Philosophical Perspective

Questions about ethics, truth, and the nature of reality may seem esoteric, but they matter when it comes to education (and pretty much all of life).  There are philosophies that inform the many methods and models at work in education, and ignoring them does not reduce their influence. Ignoring them does risk minimizing both our influence and our understanding of why things are happening the way that they are.

The philosophical lens helps us to develop an understanding of things like homeschooling, religious education, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, direct instruction, differentiated instruction, the concept of the community public school, the classical education movement, the open learning movement, distance education, and much more. There are philosophies at work in each of these, and simply analyzing educational movements by the sum of their observable parts would leave us with a flawed and incomplete understanding.  Like it or not, we can’t avoid exploring the philosophical side of things.  However, like the historical perspective, it is easy to abuse this, philosophizing to prove our pre-existing positions or educational ideologies.  Instead, consider the benefits of using this perspective in the genuine pursuit of truth.

I’m sure that there are many more perspectives that could benefit our experimentation and discourse about education today, but these are a good start, and I contend that many are critical to pursuing educational innovation of substance and long-term significance. In an age of for-profit education, edtech startups, constant innovation and unprecedented educational experimentation; the field of education desperately needs people who are more than technicians.  We need thinkers and designers who embrace the importance of these five perspectives.

Note: For those of you who come from a faith tradition (I, for example, am deeply proud of the Lutheran distinctives that inform my educational thought), for the sake of this initial proposal, I put that in the category of philosophical perspectives, although I appreciate the argument that a “theological perspective” would be an appropriate and worthwhile addition to the list.