March 12, 2019

Recently I spent time with a school district leadership team.  As I listened to the significant work they were doing within their schools to make learning better for students, I kept hearing things like, “Well, this is not that innovative” or “It (what they are doing) is not that big of a deal”.  I wanted to shout (and did tell them in a calm manner) “What you are doing is SIGNIFICANT!”  There is a fundamental problem in the way educators think about innovation that must be addressed.  Educators (and probably society as a whole) have had a mindset hoisted on to them that only “world changing” programs or products can be considered “innovations”.  Educators start to believe in the “IPhone” theory of innovation…only innovation that shifts a paradigm is worth pursuing.  (Never mind the fact that even the iPhone is built on a long series of smaller innovations dating back to the 1970’s!) Society as a whole, and educators specifically, have bought into the Silicon Valley pseudo-religious mantra that only “world changing” innovation should be pursued.  This is a dangerous mindset that prevents educators from creating innovative ideas. 

A few years ago I spent 4 days in Silicon Valley as a guest of a tech company that focuses on education software.  We toured a famous tech company headquarters and met with owners of start-ups and their venture capitalist backers.  I can safely tell you that four days was long enough…

My reaction during my visit with people working in Silicon Valley (and most assuredly afterward) is the same reaction I have when I engage with people in a conversation about religion.  In both cases, the people I am talking with have a blind faith in something they believe will “change the world”. It seems to me the companies in Silicon Valley are creating a cult of technology in which they believe all of the world’s problems can (and will) be solved through technology and the analytical use of data. 

I have a strong aversion to this type of thinking. A story will help explain.  I have a long commute to and from work every day. When I start my car for the trip to or from work, a notification appears on my phone from Google Maps telling me the traffic conditions on the road and how long it will take me to get to my destination.  I don’t even have to think about doing this or plug any information into the app.  I am sure that Google is proud of creating this “innovation” (as I am sure here are people that appreciate it).  After all, who wouldn’t want to know about local traffic?  ME!  Where I live (rural roads with no traffic) that information pushed to me by Google Maps is as useless as a screen door on a submarine.   Google does not understand that the world beyond the “technological worshipping” bubble of Silicon Valley is different. On paper a push notification for local traffic seems like a good idea, however to most of us, it is just noise because it has no relevance in the local context. I believe that the fundamental problem in the mindset of Silicon Valley is they are solving the wrong problems using the wrong mindset.  More technology services built to fix earlier technology “innovations”, or built on top of earlier “innovations” is not world changing.  The framework of what is considered innovative is flawed. 

Sure, some of the products produced by these tech companies are useful.  But as Elon Musk said, “We asked for flying cars and all we got was 140 characters”.  It is time to put our energy into solving local problems to help local people. Silicon Valley people talk about globalization and solving “global problems”.  I posit that we should solve local problems.  I suggest that we not worship at the alter of Thomas Friedman and other globalization enthusiasts and recognize that local is essential; that local is where problems are discovered; that local is where the capacity to change resides.  Until then, I am not interested in the “beauty” and “meaning” of data analytics and the promise of technology. 

By not thinking locally, we impose global solutions on local situations.  Even if a “solution” uses local data tailored to local people, the underlying assumption is that an outside entity must come into a locality and help solve problems. This is simply not true.  All you really need is locally courageous leadership willing to ask pertinent questions centered on the best interest of the local community.

The leadership team I introduced you to in the beginning of this blog post were engaged in innovation.  Maybe the innovation is a book study to discuss the role of public schools as our society shifts away from industrialization. It can also be creating a STEM team to embed STEM activities in an elementary school.  Innovation can also be the superintendent making a recommendation to the school board to create a position to help implement STEM initiatives.  No matter how an outsider may judge these innovations, the simple fact is that they are innovative for the school district in which they occur…and that, after all, is all that matters.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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