Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is Innovation?

The new administration talks frequently of innovation as being one of the key ingredients to recovery and future success. It sounds great, but what is innovation?

Would you consider it innovative to add a PDF export button to your word processing program, for example? I wouldn't. Yet, we often see just such sorts of incremental changes being touted as "innovative" or even "groundbreaking." The dictionary definitions (there are many) seem rather bland and run to something like: "a new invention or way of doing something." This sort of definition tends to equate change with innovation, an invalid equation.

I prefer to measure whether some change is an innovation by its impact. Does it make a fundamental difference in the way that things are done? Microwave ovens began as a curiosity that was used at a post office where I worked over holidays to heat vending machine sandwiches. Ultimately, they have really changed how we handle food both at home and in restaurants. The microwave oven is an innovation.

Going way back in time, you will find that the invention of the wheel was innovative. The issue here is moving things. The change was from being able to carry relatively small masses by hand from here to there to being able to move much larger masses more rapidly.

The first step must have been using rollers. You had to constantly pick up the rear roller as it came free and carry it to the front. Someone must have noticed that rollers with smaller middles moved stuff farther before having to more the roller from the back to the front. At some time, the idea of smaller middle was replaced with the idea of larger ends. Once the tools were available to do so, wheels were fashioned and added to the roller, which became the axle. Only one more step of adding a platform with the wheel-axle assembly permanently attached was required to reach the true innovation.

The wheel and axle not only allowed people to move larger masses, they allowed people and goods to move about more rapidly and over longer distances. Commerce was transformed.

In education, we see few innovations. Most classes are still taught as they were 200 years ago. We have books and teachers. Students read books, listen to teachers, do homework, and take tests. The ability to play films in classrooms basically added motion and sound to the textbook (and made it easier to fall asleep in class), but did not innovate. Some films were just better lectures by better lecturers than the teacher, although without being able to interact with the lecturer.

The role of computers has mostly been to make typing, charting, and presenting take less time. These effects are not transformations of learning.

Online learning looks like it may truly be an innovation. Students can learn at their own pace and at convenient times. It's possible to track student progress and success and intervene as necessary. We've passed through the "curiosity" phase of online learning but have not yet reached the full potential of this new mode of learning.

Science labs in secondary education began in the second half of the 19th century. Their emphasis was on practical skills: equipment manipulation, safe lab practices, making observations, collecting data, presenting data clearly, and so on. Still, this approach was an innovative step forward from the previous lecture and read only mode of learning science. Students could, for the first time, experience a part of the life of a scientist instead of just reading and hearing about it. This innovation also paved the way for the next step.

Around the end of the 19th century, science educators such as Frederick W. Westaway and Prof. Edwin H. Hall began to use science labs to help students understand the nature of science and to develop scientific reasoning skills. With this simple change in emphasis, science classes with their labs became a valuable experience for all students, not just those who planned a life in science or affiliated fields. John Dewey recognized this point in the 1920s.

Thus, science education was transformed from a specialty to a core discipline for all students.  Today, we accept that science labs are a necessary part of science learning.  Too few truly scrutinized this assumption.  In 2005, the National Research Council published "America's Lab Report" examining the role of science lab investigations in high school science.  They called for change: more and better labs.

However, shortening instruction time and dwindling budgets have pushed us in the opposite direction.  We can respond with innovation, and I have.  Now, students can run real lab investigations on their own and at their own pace.  I claim that the technology of prerecorded real experiments (PRE) with interactive data collection is a revolution in science education and represents its future.  It's a real innovation in science education that allows teachers to "flip" the science lab.

Support this innovative new idea.  Leave a comment or go to for contact information and to learn more.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

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