Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Week 5 - Innovation, 10/21

Innovation. This elusive quality is lionized in Western culture, but seldom is it effectively engendered in formative educational environments. Rather, innovation is typically described as a moment of grand insight, a reduction that belies the multitude of labors and failures that pave the way for enlightenment and advancement. A singular example is Newton's formalization of gravitational laws. What was once a veritable history of exploration has morphed into the pleasant mythology that the concepts literally fell from the sky (in the form of an apple) into (onto) his head! This fallacy is perpetuated in the structures of formal schooling, where science is presented as a system of facts rather than a series of evolving descriptive accounts that comprise the general and current understandings of natural phenomena. A truly innovative Science Curriculum, that would, in turn, foster a true understanding of the enthusing yet painstaking process of innovation, would allow students to actively explore phenomena within the context of an historical tradition, rather than memorize "facts". In this system, failure would necessarily be accepted, and would not necessarily negatively impact assessment. This would allow for legitimate scientific exploration in lieu of the contrived experiments currently presented that insincerely promulgate the concept of consistent positive results.

Of course, how is it that I have come to make this suggestion? By having participated in both formal-traditional and exploratory scientific environments. Simply put, these insights came as a result of action, not by sitting under a tree in hopes that inspiration would merely fall from the sky. This approach, aptly defined as "Learning by Doing", is at the core of Action Research as presented by Dr. Kim. Its nuances may be better understood in comparison with two similar theories:
  • Grounded Theory: Provides a formulaic method of qualitative research that seeks to produce universal conceptual theories by way of analyzing incidences. Grounded Theory is based entirely in empirical data and follows a perpetual cycle of coding data into ever more generalizable theories, which are evaluated in terms of fit, relevance, workability, and modifiability. See Grounded Theory.
  • Design Based Research: Describes a research method consisting of cyclical steps of Design (from a theory), Experiment, and Redesign. See Design Based Research.
Action Theory, in contrast, is practitioner-directed exploration inspired by a lack of knowledge. The process may be divided into the following iterative stages (per Dr. Kim):

generate new questions and hypotheses

involve new constituencies and supporting resources

strategize new actions and enhance system designs
apply new system changes or re-implement

re-provide system tutorial

add/remove peripheral stimuli
gather and analyze new qualitative and quantitative data

interviews, observations, diaries or video recordings

document and record new phenomena, patterns or differences
compare with early assumptions, hypotheses or findings

Identify (new) problems and opportunities

share findings

Action theory promotes the maxim that innovation must be contextualized according to the 6 Cultural Principles: Situation, Culture, Usability, Theory, Scalability, and Sustainability. Furthermore, successful projects require that, an incentive structure be in place for each person in the project! It is important to emphasize that Action Theory does not eschew existing theories or formal research methods. Rather, their importance and function are adjusted to allow more room for exploration. ABCD is still necessary as are prevalent theories in the field (e.g. motivational. self-regulatory/metacognitive, and multi-media Learning Theories), which are critical for providing guidance and rigor when exploring the target domain.

Fittingly, our course session on 10/21 offered a case study in innovation, as presented by guests from the online charter school division of Edison Learning. The presenters exuded passion for education, reaching marginalized students, and expanding technology. On the one hand, they are quite innovative, particularly in the way in which they have developed a large, modular system that can be rather flexibly adapted to meet the needs of unique educational communities. Their increasing audience and diminishing attrition rates indicate that they are ever more effectively reaching students in need of additional resources (bully victims, pregnant mothers, those suffering from developmental disorders, students from poor schools, etc.). On the other hand, their paradigm still appears mired in traditional formalisms, particularly in the core lessons, which offer little freedom to explore ideas, interact creatively, or deviate in any way from the prescribed information. There was a considerable irony in their defense of this approach (albeit, primarily, to satisfy traditional school requirements) while they excitedly jumped from topic to topic while doing so! It seems that their core lessons could be (optionally) expanded to provide fora for students to explore the relevance of the information to their lives and communities, in new and innovative ways. Furthermore, 21st Century Learning skills of collaboration and communication could be better enhanced. On a promising note, their interactive discussion lounge appears to be moving in a direction where it can meet these additional learning needs.

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