5 Ways to Unleash Education Innovation

Edreform rock stars spend Thursday at the Harvard Graduate School of Education exploring the barriers to learning innovations.
Friday morning began with an exploration of student work with Scott Hartl, Expeditionary Learning, The group discussed a hundred pieces of evidence that appeared emblematic of the what we want young people to be able to produce.  We discussed the learning experiences and environments most likely to support development of high quality work products and real college and career readiness.
At several points the group grew impatient for action oriented strategies.  Brainstormed and outlined on Thursday and fully explored on Friday, the brain trust proposed five strategies to unleash innovation.  Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Disrupting Class commented on breakout reports.   The five strategies for unleashing innovation included:
1. Innovation zones. Todd Kern (2 Revolutions) made the case for room to innovate like the iZone in NYC.  The importance of district innovation zones has grown in importance; with the increase in focus on charter quality, many authorizers have inadvertently quashed innovation.  Clay thought the creation of innovation zones was an important idea, but warned that success in a zone would be a function of a large number of context variables (e.g., state policies, location,) and as a result, the innovations may be limited by hybrid characteristics (e.g., steamships with sails)
2. Proof points and will building.  Nelson Gonzalez, Stupski Foundation, reported on the importance of proof points (e.g. Rocketship) and demonstrations (e.g., School of One) and the central role they can play in building public and political will for policy change.  In response, Clay told a story about helping big companies come to grips with the Innovator’s Dilemma; he advised that a successful change process includes a lot learning experiences that framing challenges, explore analogies, and build shared understanding.
3. Public policy.  John Bailey outlined recommendations for changes to federal state policy starting with cutting red tape.  Clay acknowledged the benefits of reducing red tape but warned that going straight at this problem may not be as productive as creating alternative delivery, demonstrating success, and using that leverage to change policy.  Clay agreed that proposal for funding to follow the student to the course level was very disruptive and, if combined with multiple providers, would result in significant delivery innovation.
4. Technology infrastructure. Marie Bjerede, a Qualcomm trained technologist, reported for a group that considered tech standards and infrastructure.  The big idea that emerged was comprehensive student profiles, the foundation for smart recommendation engines—the likely ‘killer app in learning.  Clay saw the idea as disruptive and similar to health profile work he’s involved in.  Clay thought these profile should be developed outside the formal education system so that they are open to multiple inputs, portable, and managed by families.
5. Assessment.  Doug Levin, SETDA, reported out for the ‘How not to screw up the next decade with RttT assessments that limit innovation?” team.  A handful of policy wonks discussed the work of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the two state consortia developing new testing systems with $365m in stimulus funding.  The group raised important concerns about the design of the proposed assessment systems, the procurement process, and budget pressures—together, a serious potential threat to innovation.  The group plans to write an open letter to the consortia and promote forward leaning dynamic systems rather than inexpensive tests that lock in past practices.
The group was mostly nonprofit advocates and foundation officers.  The addition of a half a dozen more entrepreneurs would have made the meeting more productive and provocative.
There wasn’t much discussion of next gen learning platforms and the public-private partnerships that will be required to create big productive ecosystems (or maybe I missed it).  These platforms will take district and state leaders to aggregate demand, foundations to extract risk and set an equity-seeking agenda, and private companies to invest in innovation.  The Gates-Pearson announcement this week is a step in that direction.  The student profile discussion (#4) was headed this way.
Beth Dozoretz championed the gathering, the third and most action-oriented meeting in a series.  The next steps identified yesterday will make the U.S. a slightly more productive place to seeking innovations in learning.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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