So many education leaders and politicians interested in education are urging that educators innovate. My reaction typically is to question just what such exhortations are supposed to accomplish. When in a pessimistic mood, I am likely to note that this is what politicians say when they do not want to provide resources and want to appear to be doing something. For education leaders, urging innovation can be a way to encourage without offering a direction. When I feel more positive, the “it is time to innovate” message could be a willingness to admit you don’t know what should be done, but want to encourage practitioners to take risks with the reassurance that failures will be tolerated.
Let me propose something a little different. I think I can begin with an obvious, but neglected issue and suggest a remedy. The remedy may require some resources because I am not a believer in magic.
I would argue that the most ignored variable in education practice is time. In fact, actions taken often seem to work in contradiction to the reality that learning takes time. For example, a current recommendation is that we abandon home work. Without home work, students could have more time for themselves and teachers would have less content to review. Without getting into the issue of what is assigned as home work, note that getting rid of out of school assigned activities reduces the time devoted to learning. Adding new topics to be learned is another way to reduce the time available for existing expectations. Coding, information literacy, money management and other worthwhile recommendations abound. Additions are often made without precise recommendations for what should be deleted. Deletions are the hard part because there are always folks who promote the arts, physical education, etc. as essential to a well-rounded education. Watering everything down is a solution when deletions are difficult.
A well-documented education issue is the summer slide. This term describes the decline in previously learned knowledge and skills that occurs while students are out of school over the summer. In addition, it is established that the magnitude of the slide is not a constant across certain groups; e.g., those students from lower income homes lose more. This makes sense as wealthier families can provide more opportunities for their children when the children are out of school. Some solutions are fairly obvious. For example, reading is a great way to develop knowledge and maintain or improve reading skills. Take your kids to the library.
The variable of time in education can have other meanings. Across my career I have been interested in the challenge of individual differences in time required to learn. Those learners with less aptitude and poorer backgrounds for specific skills require more time to acquire those skills. These differences in time required are difficult to address in group-based instruction, but failures to adjust to the needs of individuals increases time required for those who cannot keep up and bores the learners who must mark time while waiting for peers. Variability within a group increases continually increasing the instructional challenge. Practices such as ability grouping seem an adaptation on the surface but we know that such practices are far from ideal with known issues such as labeling impacts learners in ways that reduce motivation. Individualizing time to learn is one of those things we largely conveniently ignore.
I think real innovation begins with the precise identification of major challenges. My suggestion for the precise identification of a major challenge would be finding a way to increase the time available for learning.
So, here is something innovative to consider. Why not consider how to use the time available over the summer in a productive way? Visits to the library are great, but why not also take advantage of technology? If your school provides laptops, chromebooks, or ipads, are students allowed to take these devices home over the summer? If so and even if students must UYOD (use your own device), do educators take the time to offer suggestions or formally engage learners in the productive use of these devices? There is a lot of talk regarding the value of student-guided learning and passion projects. Why not create some curriculum units, donate a couple of hours a week, and find ways to engage parents with their kids in productive summer projects? The summer is a perfect time for technology-facilitated innovation. Why not increase the time committed to learning?