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“Nothing much at all is born of fear, least of all powerful knowledge. Experiments are not cultivated in times of dearth and struggle, which is the least propitious occasion for the fruitful play of hypotheses. Deliberate, curious, more or less methodical experiments presume the courage that accompanies mastery, security, realistic confidence about the future.” Barry Allen, Knowledge and Civilization 

The book chat about George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset – a mash-up of Clayton Christensen and Carol Dweck – often pops up in my Twitter timeline and I found this week’s prompt interesting food for thought:

Why is innovation in education so crucial today?

Maybe it’s not. If I had to place my bet, I’d say that the cultural and material conditions that allow innovation to happen are very important for schools, but innovation itself might not be.

What’s new and innovative in teaching English? An article from the NCTE explores several ideas: recreational reading, functional composition, self-assessment, a reduced grammar program, and the linking of literature with other subjects. These were “innovative” in 1935 when RL Lyman wrote the article, and I see many of these practices still show up as ‘new’ or contested ideas.1Lyman called self-assessment “precorrection procedures” and “self-appraisal standards” Even Lyman’s rationale for self-assessment – “to transfer from teacher to learner at least the initial responsibility for self-appraisal!” – might sound new and fresh depending on your context. Whether or not any of these practices is innovative now, or was innovative in 1935, matters less than the freedom and support that teachers are given to experiment with them. There. That’s my thesis.

We know less about the history of education than we should. We also know less about the brilliant practices in each other’s classrooms than we should. In the last year, I have used many strategies from Columbia’s Writer’s Workshop to improve the ways I teach writing. While the ideas I have implemented were new to me, they come with their own rich history that’s worth appreciating.

The idea of innovation comes with its own history, too. Benoit Godin traces how the word shifted from a pejorative to it’s current status as a term of praise. Interestingly, the concept was linked with social change before it came to be used alongside the word ‘technological’:

“Communism is the name given to the schemes of social innovation which have for their starting point the attempted overthrow of the institution of private property” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1888: 211).

After World War II, Godin writes, “international organizations and governments [began to] embrace innovation as a solution to economic problems and international competitiveness.” Innovation became closely linked with the ideal of the self-sufficient, risk-taking, plucky entrepreneur, which fits comfortably with the larger ideals of the American Dream. Near the same time, people also began to identify innovation with a whole sequence of processes. Godin quotes Jack Morton (1968) of Bell Laboratories:

Innovation is not a single action but a total  process of interrelated parts. It is not just the discovery of new knowledge, not just the development of a new product, manufacturing technique, or service, nor the creation of a new market. Rather, it is all these things: a process in which all of these creative acts, from research to service, are present, acting together in an integrated way toward a common goal. [Godin’s italics]2”Jack Morton, Engineer and Research Director at Bell Laboratories, who brought the transistor from invention to market, and who is the author ...continue

And it’s precisely these larger processes and contexts that we too often loose sight of. Jack Morton worked at Bell Labs, funded in part by “government-guaranteed telephone monopoly“, and Bell was pushed to spend their profits on R&D because of high tax rates, and the labs were also “highly co-financed by government agency budgets.”3Matthew Yglesias: “This created a dynamic where “earn a profit and pay the profits out as dividends to our richest and most influential ...continue The people who worked at Bell Labs “never had to worry about writing grants, or selling high-risk research ideas in PowerPoint slides to marketers.”

We are saddled with the old positivist idea that science comes from need, from a desire to plan and control, and to overcome fear. Barry Allen remarks on Nietzsche’s counter to positivism: “Nothing much at all is born of fear, least of all powerful knowledge. Experiments are not cultivated in times of dearth and struggle, which is the least propitious occasion for the fruitful play of hypotheses. Deliberate, curious, more or less methodical experiments presume the courage that accompanies mastery, security, realistic confidence about the future.” 4Barry Allen, Knowledge and Civilization, page 111

We won’t squeeze innovation out of schools and teachers by asking them to get by with less, by removing job security, by subjecting them to scripted PD, or by promoting Twitter chats. If the bottom line remains raising test scores, or if teachers lack prep time or are exhausted from meaningless administrative work, or lack a culture where it truly is ok to fail, then innovation won’t happen. The last few decades has witnessed a shift to “fundamentally conservative managerial elites”, according to David Graeber, “who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.”5Graeber writes: “The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, ...continue That sounds a lot like education.

Teachers need an abundance of time and resources, a mandate to experiment, and a safety-net to catch them when they fail more than they need a ‘mindset’. And of course, teachers need time to learn from other teachers. We also need to remember that teachers aren’t ever cut free from consequences like those scientists who worked at Bell Labs.

So why don’t today’s corporations like Apple run a 21st Century Bell Labs? As Mariana Mazzucato argues in The Entrepreneurial State, our ‘free market’ economy disincentivies the investment in R&D, instead generating welfare for the wealthy through the “socialization of risk, [and the] privatization of reward.”  As the economy became increasingly financialized through the neoliberal reforms, many corporations, such as those that work in clean energy, spend more money on buying back stocks than they do on R&D.6Mazzucato writes: “In 2010, the US American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC), an industry association, ask the US government to increase its ...continue What do we incentivise in education? How can we change that structure?

I’m all for purposeful experimentation driven by deeper values. If we really want our kids to love reading, then why not experiment and let kids choose their own books. Maybe try out graphic novels and assemble a more challenging and diverse collection of literature. There’s nothing innovative about giving a child a graphic novel, or letting them read an engrossing book that happens to have some sex and swear words, but it just might create a reader out of someone who had given up hope. And what’s better than that?

 

Markus Spiske

References   [ + ]

1. Lyman called self-assessment “precorrection procedures” and “self-appraisal standards”
2. ”Jack Morton, Engineer and Research Director at Bell Laboratories, who brought the transistor from invention to market, and who is the author of numerous articles and a book on innovation, suggests (Morton, 1968: 57)”
3. Matthew Yglesias: “This created a dynamic where “earn a profit and pay the profits out as dividends to our richest and most influential shareholders” was not a very high priority for managers. And for executives to give themselves a raise was tantamount to handing money over to the government. There was nothing left to do but spend it on something, and various high-tech research labs and skunkworks’ fit the bill. After all, if something really awesome emerged you’d get glory—and the government can’t tax glory.”
4. Barry Allen, Knowledge and Civilization, page 111
5. Graeber writes: “The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. While this might have helped somewhat in speeding up the creation of immediately marketable products – as this is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do – in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic. … Marketing and PR have thus come to engulf every aspect of university life. The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’, set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. … If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people that they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they already know that they are going to discover.”
6. Mazzucato writes: “In 2010, the US American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC), an industry association, ask the US government to increase its spending on clear technology by three time to $16 billion annually, with an additional $1 billion given to the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (Lazonick, 2011). On the other hand, companies in the council have together spent $237 billion on stock repurchases between 2001 and 2010.”
I footnotes