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Posts Tagged ‘change

Ask ten people to define “innovation” and you will likely get ten different definitions. Like creativity, innovation is difficult to define. But you know it when you see it.

I like to define innovation as “creativity in action”, but that does not make the definition any clearer.

Before I gave an interactive talk on educational innovation two days ago, the organizers mentioned how innovation could be defined as “doing different things” or “doing the same things differently”. They preferred the latter stance.

I get what they mean by doing the same things differently if by different they mean better, more efficient, or more effective.

But I wonder if they have considered how doing the same thing, however different, eventually leads back to the same thing.

Take flipped classrooms for example. Most teachers have the impression that flipping their classrooms is different because they must prepare videos (instead of teaching ‘live’) and that their students learn outside class. How exactly is this different?

What if the teachers are still teaching didactically? What if the videos are as long and boring as ‘live’ teaching? What if the videos are worse due to lack of interactivity?

In other words, what if teachers are merely changing the medium, but not the mindset and method?

Kids are already learning outside classrooms when they ask their parents at home, tuition teachers at a centre, or their peers on social media.

Doing things differently is a matter of degree. Just how different is your difference from the status quo? Is it a marginal shift or a paradigm shift? The latter, or doing very different things, are more likely to be attempts at being innovative.


Imagine a satellite orbiting a planet and how it is kept on its path due to the planet’s gravitational pull. As long as it orbits, it is maintaining its path and the status quo. Updating the satellite, adding new bits to it, or even replacing it are not really changing or innovating. There is no change to its purpose.

But imagine how this craft might break from orbit and be sent to intercept an asteroid or to explore space. It has a very different purpose and must be redesigned on the run, refitted to do this, or ideally be redesigned from the ground up.

It is a lot tougher to do the latter, just as it is a lot tougher to really innovate instead of just making marginal improvements. Innovation is a commitment to do something different, not just to do the same thing differently.

There are two parts of my reflection today.

First, I use word clouds to illustrate what participants thought at the end of an interactive talk I gave yesterday on educational innovation. Then I answer two questions that participants asked in a Google Form.

I asked participants to complete an exit ticket. Among the tasks were two questions:

  1. What is your main takeaway from the talk?
  2. What might you do differently to innovate?

I collected the responses in a Google Form and Spreadsheet, and then used Tagxedo to generate a word cloud.

Here is one for the first question.


It is no surprise that “creativity” and “innovation” featured prominently since these were the foci of the talk. But I am glad that some of the key points like unleashing pupils, unboxing them, failing forward, and (not waiting to be fully) prepared stuck with participants.

The actionable items were varied.

tagxedo-actionReading their individual statements in full and in context, the largest words are actually less meaningful because they were necessary fillers about the main topic. The mid-sized concepts like needing to unlearn and relearn, outwitting obstacles, exciting (students), and (leveraging on) emotions are key to teachers unboxing themselves.

I would also like to address two questions teachers asked in the exit form.

The first question was: Since space and time is needed, how do teachers innovate as they need to finish a given syllabus?

The second was: In the context of our education scene where so much time and emphasis is placed on results, where and how do we find time to innovate n let our minds go free?

The questions, while phrased differently, have exactly the same roots. They deal with the issue of time and view the problem of balancing classroom innovation and completing a syllabus or getting good results as a zero-sum game.

The thinking is that something old must give way for something new to move in. I imagine that teachers feel like they are balancing a full glass of acid above their heads and want to know how much is going to be removed before more acid is poured in. Pouring in without taking out is going to burn them.

After consulting a few educators at #edsg chat last night, I have concluded that you can play a different zero-sum game or break out of that paradigm altogether.

In lay speak, pour in something that neutralizes the acid or stop playing the acid-balancing game.

1. Zero-sum game 1: Modular curriculum design
In this approach, teachers do not teach every topic over the whole year. They only focus on specific topics that they prepare all materials for: Teaching, learning, practice, assessment, etc. Teachers might work in teams if they have larger cohorts.

The result is that the curriculum race still gets run while teachers get creative with the topic(s) they are assigned and do less (or even no) work for non-assigned topics. Teachers get more time to think of innovative approaches and get to observe and critique their colleagues when they are not teaching.

2. Zero-sum game 2: Integrated or overlapping curriculum design
The main idea of this approach is to identify redundancies or commonalities in subject silos and attempt to teach them at the same time. Volume is both a Math and Science concept, so why teach it twice? There is reading comprehension in complex Math problems and report writing in Science, so why not combine it with Language? The stories and examples in Language can be Math or Science in nature.

An ideal outcome of such an approach is a more holistic and interdisciplinary curriculum. Even if that is not the goal of curricular redesign, more porous silos create better communication and understanding between teachers of different content areas. If such conversations go beyond “What do you teach?” to “How to you teach it?” teachers might discover new ways of doing old things.

3. Play a new game
Compared to changing high-stakes testing, curricular redesign is easy. Exams and tests are not likely to be de-emphasized in our system any time soon even though there is less focus on just getting good grades.

Teachers have to ask themselves which of these they value the most: A) the test of schools, B) the test of life, or C) both.

Most teachers are already in mode A. Progressive teachers and change agents prefer to look beyond the temporary road hump that is the exam and prefer to prepare kids for more important things in life.

A few teachers want both good results and well-adjusted kids. This is a tall order, but not outside their reach. The main strategy is not to hot-house and prepare students for exams hoping that this will teach resilience.

Quite the opposite. Kids should be given opportunities to think creatively and critically first, possibly with the help of curricula that is modular, overlapping, or integrated. It is their capacity to think first instead of regurgitating content that will help them operate outside subject silos and to transfer knowledge and skills from one domain to another.

This is a rant.

Educational vendors and leaders may know how to talk, but they often struggle to walk a plan or policy down the road.

Over the last few months, I have met several people who fall in these categories. They hear about “educational innovation” and “disruption” and talk about MOOCs, whole school approaches, or other flavourful processes and products.

Their knowledge of such changes in the educational landscape tends to be superficial. They use buzzwords and that is all they remain in terms of implementation because they do not connect cognitively and emotionally with teachers or educators.

If the implementation does no harm to teachers and learners, I would be fine with it. But when they bring in experts and “experts” at high financial cost, with low contextual awareness, and zero follow up, I object.

I liken such moves to hit-and-run road accidents. The difference is that implementations like conferences, seminars, and workshops are purposeful.

I wonder why some schooling outfits will throw money at someone overseas to buy acronyms like AfL, DI, DT, LS, TfU, and UbD when there is perfectly good (or even better) self help or local expertise. WTF?

The problem used to be that vendors did not speak the language of schools and educational institutions. Now they do some basic research, latch on to buzzwords, and target policymakers and administrators.

The policymakers and administrators may or may not have been teachers before. Those that were teachers may not have been good ones or they actually prefer not to teach. They are not averse to building ivory towers and learn to play the policy and administration game well.

Plans built on poor pedagogical foundations and a lack of ownership are very expensive. They waste money, time, and effort. They demoralize and disillusion. They create change apathy in the long run.

This might sound harsh. But informed and reflective leaders, middle managers, and teachers will probably nod their heads in agreement.

I would rather they remove their heads from the clouds and learn to shake their heads at people who do not bother about context or pedagogy.

This is a moving ad by Sainsbury’s that features the temporary truce that soldiers initiated in World War I on Christmas Eve.

Video source

This is the story behind the ad.

Video source

I reflect on this as I listen to discontent on our schooling system and read about what various people are recommending for change.

One key change is in assessment. The rationale is that assessment is a leverage point. Change that and everything else changes. While that may be true, there are other ways.

Changes in assessment are typically driven by a central or higher authority. I have noticed several fledgling and ground-up efforts in Singapore to bring change from the outside in.

The soldiers created a moment of peace in a senseless war initiated and sustained by their leaders. Likewise, passionate educators here can also initiate and sustain change without the permission of authority figures.

When it comes to change and change agents, there has been a lot said and less done about actual change.

There are inspiring speakers; motivational posters and quotations; books, workshops, and courses; white papers and case studies; and enacted policies.

How about the non-change agents and what drives them?

There are the people in high places who are not informed. They are not driven by ignorance, but they might be held back by inertia.

There are the people who do not realize that they are retardants or barriers. Their view might be obscured by administrivia, policy, and the next group of people.

These are the people who relish their role as non-change agents. They are the incumbents who know the rules and shape the rules. They can hide behind these rules and bend them to suit the circumstances.

The good news is that there might only be as many aggressive non-change agents as there are passionate change agents. The bad news is that the non-change agents hold the higher ground in a militaristic sense.


How might change agents respond? They must:

  • be aware who the non-change agents are and what they are held back by
  • know or create the moral higher ground
  • choose their battles
  • fight together instead of going it alone
  • recruit because there will be heavy attrition

They must keep at it like waves crashing on rocks. Eventually the water wears the rock down or shapes the coastline.

Scour the Internet for “21st century learning” and you are more likely to find examples of 18th century teaching instead. Some of these examples slap technology skins over old content delivery bodies.

leap of faith by neil1877, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  neil1877 

I found a good example of what 21st century learning might look like from an unexpected source: LifeHacker.

The main points of the article were:

  • Focusing on just-in-time (JIT) learning
  • Determining your minimum effective dose (MED)
  • Prioritizing depth over breadth
  • Connecting with experienced others
  • Making learning authentic
  • Creating your own opportunities

While these examples were described in an adult learning context*, there is no reason not to apply these to other forms of learning and levels of learners.

After all, we have social, open, and mobile technologies that already allow us to do all these things. The preparatory, just-in-case schooling kids receive can be compressed or shortened to allow actual 21st century learning to happen.

*Those that prefer a K-12 perspective should read this MindShift article. Spoiler: The 21st century learning is not about futuristic technology or even pedagogy on steroids. It is about trust and digital citizenship.

This reflection is a response to a slow chat question on #asiaED about the role of assessment in systematic change.

The question was:

My response was:

The layperson’s likely view of assessement is summative tests and exams, typically of the high stakes variety, because that is what they have experienced. As its name implies, summative assessment is perceived and practiced as a terminal or downstream activity.

Informed educators might point out that formative assessment (on-going feedback) is more important for learning. Educated instructional designers will tell you that assessment or evalutation should be developed before content. Wise educational consultants and leaders will tell you that assessment is a key leverage point in systemic change.

Assessment is actually an upstream component. Change that and you affect processes downstream like teaching, learning support, learning environment design, and policy making.

Imagine for a moment that exams were removed and replaced with learner portfolios. Now imagine how teaching, teacher expectations, teaching philosophies, teacher professional development, and teacher evaluation might change.

I would like to answer a question directed at me:

I cannot say for sure how assessment should change and I do not think that data collected from such assessment only serve as leverage.

Consider an example of a change-in-progress and my suggestions on how to implement change and avoid pitfalls in the process.

There are at least two significant assessment-related changes in Singapore now. One is an emphasis on values-based education (instead of focusing on just grades) and the other is evaluating of the importance of a degree.

Added after initial posting, a timely tweet from a local rag:

These changes were a result of:

  • parental feedback on the unnecessary stress of high stakes testing (particularly of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)
  • the recognition of grade inflation (particularly at the GCE A Levels)
  • the mismatch between what employers need and what universities produce
  • new and visionary leadership at the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore

All these placed pressures on what we understand and value as traditional, summative assessment.

That said, MOE is not going to sacrifice the sacred cows of tests and exams. But it has started emphasizing other processes and measures.

Values-based lessons are being integrated into previously content-only lessons [news article after its announcement in 2011]. Primary school students can get into Secondary schools of their choice based on non-academic talents with the Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme.

Experts of systemic change might label these efforts as piecemeal change. They do not profoundly disrupt existing processes and are instead implemented in periodically and strategically in an attempt to create overall change.

However, critical observers might also note that significant and sustained change tends to happen with disruptive interventions. Examples might include:

  • the impact of antibiotics and anaesthesia on medical practice
  • the effect of the printing press on schooling and the spread of information
  • the influence of smartphones on banking, commerce, education, entertainment and gaming, information consumption, content creation, and socialization.

I predict that e-portfolios will rise in importance as a means of recording and evaluating (not just assessing) both the processes and products of learning.

e-Portfolios are a systemic and disruptive change in that they:

  • start and end with the learner
  • belong to the learner
  • emphasize processes and not just products of learning
  • showcase holistic or other attributes (not just academic ability)
  • promote lifelong, career wide learning

The battle to create acceptance, buy-in, and hopefully ownership of what we now label as alternative assessment will probably last a decade or more. During this time, it might be tempting to try to collect evidence during a trial or a full blown implementation of the effectiveness of e-portfolios to convince stakeholders that the change is making a difference.

However, this is not a wise move. Efforts to do this would repeat the mistakes of the slew of early educational and action research comparing the effects of intervention A (for example, traditional instruction) and intervention B (technology-assisted instruction). There are far too many factors that influence learning outcomes, attitudes, values, etc.

If data on newer forms of assessment need to be collected, analyzed, and presented, I suggest that they be part of a much larger plan. Such a plan could include:

  • having regular conversations with stakeholders
  • creating a shared vision among stakeholders
  • relating success stories to create buy-in
  • developing informed, forward-thinking, and informal leadership
  • providing financial and implementation leeway for unforeseen obstacles

In summary, assessment is an important leverage point and an upstream component for changing educational systems. Data on disruptive changes like the adoption of e-portfolios for assessment and evaluation can be leveraged on to convince stakeholders. However, such data should only be part of a larger and sustainable plan.

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