Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler have just released a call to action for innovative school design that is worth a look. Among other compelling points, they make the case that we just aren't investing deeply enough or long enough in the up-front R&D process to build out truly innovative, technology-enhanced, learning-science-enabled new approaches to student learning and development.
Yet a key point they make out of all this innovative experience is that we are not investing enough in the earliest stages of innovation to get to our goals. It's not only a matter of raw cash (although that's part of it). It's just not enough any more to have a few great, motivated, educators come together and create their own personal vision of a school and run with it. That can work out “fine,” as they put it, but it is going to be rare that such models systematically incorporate insights from across a wide array of disciplines to push repeated longer-term student success at scale.
What's known about learning (including interventions and measures around complex cognitive work as well as motivation, beyond simplistic approaches to skill building and testing), about professional-grade design processes, about schools themselves, and about how technologies best implement good learning practices (not merely repeat bad practices at lower cost), is reflected in the need to make this much more of a team sport than it has been in the past. The team needs to include specialists, to ensure the best current thinking is applied to each new innovation, and augmented over time, in the same way that other teams draw on various specialists as they build new electronics, new medical devices/interventions, even new consumer products.
Consider the effort and investment that goes into the modern diaper. Teams of people, including materials scientists, consumer behavior specialists, manufacturing specialists, purchasing professionals, and more, are all engaged to produce the next revolutionary bottom wrap. This mix of specialized folks takes time to look at what's come before, both within the company and outside, what new materials/technologies/manufacturing make possible, and (if working at their best) take considerable time to watch parents and babies try to use new ideas in as close to real conditions as possible, so they can identify (not merely imagine) and fix every “wrinkle.” (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Surely, surely, we should consider putting as much effort and skill into up-front school innovation and improvement? How can it be that conventional wisdom talks about needing hundreds of millions of dollars to generate a new successful medical or pharmaceutical intervention, or to build the tooling for a new car line, yet we often shy away from substantial up-front investment in complete learning models?
The authors recognize we have to walk before we run – they are in no way suggesting consumer-product-sized investments before solving systematic problems of human development. (Eventually our industry may evolve the way so many others have, once better up-front thinking proves to add more value, as it has in so many other industries.) What they are proposing is that we start down the track – that we turn this into a more systematic, team-driven innovation activity, using the ideas and expertise from other industries, following innovator and early-adopter models that have worked so well elsewhere.
Even with stumbles (as happens with innovation), once this starts to work, as it has in so many other industries, we'll be off to the races, with innovations building on innovations, rather than being isolated efforts. Students, their families, and their teachers, will be all the better off for the intensity of focus up-front on the challenges and opportunities revealed.