I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators conference in Kingston this past week. I plan on blogging in detail about my time there, which was amazing! At one point the #OAME and #OAME2017 hashtags were trending in Canada. Lots of great sharing was happening, conversations were deep and rich, it was food for the mathematical soul.
Of course, as with all things social media, there were some unhappy voices. These weighed on me, mostly because I can’t understand why an individual would be called out for mentioning a point that resonated with them. Our institutions of education grow by sharing, not by shaming.
So this troubled me on the way home Friday night. It stuck with me Saturday morning until I decided to cut my overgrown lawn. Distractions are helpful, right? I wasn’t prepared for my backyard, it was overrun with dandelions and other prickly weeds. My kids couldn’t play on it without getting bothered. I had to do something about it. Out come my weeding tools and after an hour I had a nice pile of compost for the brown bag and I was ready for the lawnmower. As I was mowing, I was noticing that there were even more weeds hiding under the surface of the grass, waiting to explode onto the scene. Back to weeding! Attack, attack, attack!
Clearly adding value to the discussion here
It was then I realized I was doing it all wrong. I was spending so much time worried about the weeds, pulling them up today only to see a bunch more sprout tomorrow, that I forgot about tending to the lawn. There was another way. I could nurture the grass, water it, feed it, so that it would grow so healthy that it would crowd out any prickly weeds that tried to grow. Of course a few might take root, but if I ignored them and focused on the lawn itself, they would spread much more slowly. This is, I think, the essence of the OAME community and even the much larger #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-o-sphere). Together, we are a lush, healthy lawn. We value opinions, we encourage discussion, we seek to help those who need it, we offer advice, we nurture, grow and thrive together. We are the grass of a healthy lawn. Sure, from time to time there are weeds that like to prick us when we walk on the lawn. We could spend all of our time attacking those weeds or we can recognize them for what they really are, a pointless distraction.
We are nice people...
So the next time the implication is made that my membership in the OAME means I don’t care about the welfare of the next generation, or that my teaching style "dumbs" down learning standards I’ll just turn away from the weeds and water my lawn.
Matt and I dove headfirst into this pilot project. We had goals; highlight innovative practices in education; get more people sharing what they do; publish our observations. We had a vision on how to share; blogging, videos, podcasts. We knew these things would take time to establish.
What we didn’t have was a clear idea about what innovation is. Thankfully, we had experts we could rely on. Cindy Cosentino, IPL of Science for the Halton District School Board, provided us with a great foundation of what it means to be an innovative person. Add to that our participation in the Innovator's Mindset online course and we were ready to roll!
So here is what we’ve come to understand about Innovation:
1) Innovation is a process that improves something
Innovation is a process
Let’s be clear on this, if something is labelled “Innovation” but it isn’t improving something, it isn’t innovative. Innovation is needed to improve products by making them more efficient, or compact, or aesthetically pleasing. Innovation drives improvements to processes that make them more inclusive, or less hazardous, or more sustainable in the long term. Innovation increases understanding by making it more precise or deeper. Trying something new and different that doesn’t result in an overall improvement is just extra noise. If we want to be innovative educators who in turn raise innovative students, we need to make sure the ideas we try with our classes are targeted specifically to make improvements. Teaching with an Interactive Whiteboard is not innovative, but having a Smart Board available for students to work on might be…
2) Innovation requires a specific set of skills
The skills of an innovative person
It takes a special person to look at a classroom or school and say “If I try this, I bet I can improve that”. These leaders possess skills that not everyone has. They question the common wisdom, asking questions like “What would happen if we tried this…?”. They experiment and tinker; intellectually and physically. They pay attention and are able to notice everything. They network and look for knowledge everywhere. Finally, and this is the biggest one, they are able to associate unrelated questions, ideas and problems in a way that drives their innovation.
3) Teaching innovation needs to be done in a specific environment
What's good for the student is good for the teacher!
Teaching students to be successful in the 21st Century requires teaching them the skills identified above. This won’t happen on its own, rather it will require learning in a classroom that has a specific environment. The classroom must be one that is safe and inclusive. Students must be encouraged to try and fail and then learn from their mistakes. Risk taking is the norm as it promotes self reflection. Problems posed in this classroom are authentic and promote inquiry. The learning uses technology as the tool to drive deeper experiences. Finally, the classroom (and teacher) is grounded in the course content, but not driven by curriculum. Oddly enough, these same conditions should be what educators experience in their workplace. The learning conditions for good student development are the same as the conditions for good teacher development.
4) Innovation demands creativity
Creativity is always at the core
Finally, to allow innovation to thrive we must answer three questions; what, why and how? What refers to the expertise we bring to the classroom. Teachers need to know their stuff and to ensure that students know it too. This can be driven through the why; what is the purpose of the learning, how does it engage the students? How can we do this? Be engaging with our students critical and creative thinking skills. If educators can address the what, why and how of teaching, they we will create the creative students who will be successful in the 21st century.
Still unsure about what innovation is?
Find a problem, adjust to try and solve that problem. That’s innovation. It isn’t a huge thing and it’s probably easier than you thought.
So without further ado, here is our Case For Innovation.