How do we find tools that help us manage those exceptions–do we have a grab bag of innovative ideas handy? Can we think outside of the box? Can we allow for bottom up innovation?
About two years ago, I was frustrated in my efforts to show a ten-minute movie clip. I could find one of the school’s roving carts with a TV, but the VCR had been cannibalized for some other cart. I found another cart with a VCR and a broken TV. So, I assembled the VCR with the TV, only to have the whole assembly whisked away from me by a colleague with a prior reservation for that period. In response, I did what seemed like a sensible thing at the time. I went to Wal-Mart just down the street, bought a cheap DVD-VCR combo and a cheap TV, and assembled them on the cart with a broken TV. I turned in the receipts to the school’s development office, and got tax credit for the donation instead of trying to wrangle re-payment from the school. That’s bottom-up innovation, but it’s usually not sustainable, partly because of what teachers are paid — but also partly to the response that I got, which was that it wasn’t the right way to do things. We had three broken TVs in the storage closets — apparently that’s the right way to do it.
Also, how can we help/get/encourage teachers to be part of the innovation and building? Do we ask them seriously what would work for them, what their “dream” software application is, what their dream of a better classroom for their students would look like, what they waste their time on that could be done better? Do we involve them in making the choices of what’s selected to solve issues? Do we collaborate with them on assignments to truly find the optimal tools online or for purchase?
I don’t think teachers know what their dream software looks like, because most teachers are wedded to certain cultures and practices in their classroom. The unhappy teachers are looking for a way out, while the happy teachers are satisfied with their classrooms as they are. To plagiarize Chekov, “Happy teachers are all alike; unhappy teachers are each unhappy in their own way.”
But the software, desirable dreams or not, are each disruptive in their own way. Blogging increases a student’s ability to write and reach an audience greater than the one-to-one audience of the traditional essay. Podcasts allow for a different modality of expression. Film-making, once the province of studios and ‘indie film makers’ with access to a trust fund or $15,000 of their friends’ money, now belongs to the masses in the long run. And the institutions which used to make schools function — newspapers, textbook publishers, school boards — are all coping with challenges of their own which are indirectly joined to the technology revolution, but which are not directly attributable to it.
The truth is, the ‘dream software’ is out there in nascent form now — something that combines e-mails, blogs, wikis, image and video creation and editing, and a broad-based swath of content — call it the Digital Canon, based in primary sources and secondary guided learning experiences — which will transform/destroy public and private schools, and replace them with highly personalized and tribal learning processes. We’re moving to the age of the storefront classroom, where the class opens directly into the world, and the world flows in and out of the classroom on a daily basis. The notion of “on campus” and “off campus” is going to cease to matter, because no nation is going to be able to afford to keep its talent locked up behind a chain-link fence for eight to ten hours a day. That’s what the Technology Revolution means: that a child in an Oklahoman ninth grade ‘class’ is just as capable of producing an awe-inspiring film as a master who’s been working with a camera for forty years in Hollywood.
And you don’t need fancy infrastructure like school boards or even school buildings to support that kind of learning. You need teachers prepared to give just-in-time learning in person, by video, or chat; or asynchronized answers via podcast, video, wiki, or blog. Are those teachers going to be continuing guides, one-offs, or provide education to a vast cloud of witnesses? I have no idea. But the students are going to have to be the ones motivated to learn in this new style. To plagiarize again, this time from a 1970’s button: “Lead me not into learning; I can find it myself.”