Earlier this month, deep in the Canadian Rockies, delegations from 19 countries and a mixture of research institutions, foundations, and professional education organizations attended the International Conference on Innovative Learning Environments in Banff, Alberta.
As a teacher, I was excited to lend voice to a policy dialogue that intimately addresses what’s going on in my classroom. Participants highlighted exemplars of innovation in extraordinary circumstances. I also appreciated prominent policymakers noting the danger of continually showcasing the “shiny examples,” given the resource challenges many educators face.
Several significant concerns also were discussed during the conference. In a climate of cutbacks and acute testing scrutiny, policymakers are concerned that school improvement agendas are perceived safer than innovation agendas. It’s simply a tough time to take risks.
As a teacher on the ground, the conference raised for me two questions: How do we highlight, tap into, and scale up the innovations that are already going on? I have seen many very low-income schools successfully innovate to meet their needs in an economically taxing climate.
Further, how do we decrease judgment around new practices so that more school leaders are willing to take the risks necessary to support the innovative ideas?
In the end, delegates walked away understanding that innovation is not just about technology products, but could and should also be about process. It’s not about more resources. It’s about designing systems that are more efficient so that we foster stronger learning environments, period.
There is no question that innovation is a critical focus of President Obama’s education agenda. In his State of the Union, where he said that education is “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the President invokes the word “innovation” nine times. In his recent American Jobs Act proposal, he alludes to modernizing 35,000 schools, and installing science labs and high-speed Internet in classrooms all across the country. The Investment in Innovation Fund (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods are powerful examples of initiatives that reward innovation in learning.
I believe that this truly is our “Sputnik moment.” Education has captured a front seat in national and international dialogue. I hope we seize this opportunity to welcome ideas around meaningful change.
Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.