About 5 years ago I worked with a small team to set up a research and development facility known as ideasLab in a Western suburb of Melbourne. It was an exciting project, built around answering a simple question: What’s now possible?
The premise of the question followed a national initiative which meant that more than a million students across Australia had their own laptops, and with nearly all schools connected to reasonably high-speed broadband, anything was now possible…. or so we thought.
So in the months and years that followed we ran numerous workshops for school leaders and teacher from more than 1,000 schools, and in every one, I asked the same question: What’s now possible? The answers, for the most part were tentative, timid and at best modest.
So early on in the process I started digging deeper. While I understood that not everyone had enough experience with technology to be able to articulate radical ideas about what it made possible, I found it somewhat unsettling that so few were even slightly curious about the opportunities it might offer their faculty or students.
As time passed I became more and more aware that our biggest challenge in realising any genuine transformation in our schools is not about technology, or for that matter even pedagogy, but rather the extent to which we are captured, in fact almost imprisoned in our current context. While undoubtedly everyone is a party to their current environment, the uniqueness of teaching as a profession is the extent to which it is too often required to be compliant to political or bureaucratic whims, and that it functions within a hierarchy that appears to indenture legacy practice at a cost to any notion of innovation.
So what does all of this mean? Well in the first instance it offers us a different path to explore if we are to tap into the creative minds of those who are best placed to show us what is possible, our teachers. It also says that if we are to help educators and leaders break free of thinking of solutions that fit the current context, then we need to create substantial provocations to make that possible.
Some will respond to different environments, others to different social and professional groups, but for all of them we must imply a freedom to let go of what we know, so that they can explore what might be better. But it’s not all about best wishes and hope, its about investing in a long-term strategy that aligns with a vision for what schooling could and should be, and supporting that with a serious commitment to a shared language and methodology that is not about random, isolated instances of innovation, but rather one that continually iterates and challenges accepted norms and practice.
It starts by being curious and asking questions…
What should mathematics look like in a technology-rich learning environment?
How might ubiquitous access allow us to provoke curious minds to uncover the ‘magic’ of scientific discovery and a passion for STEM?
In what ways does our current practice, and context place limits on learning? What exactly do we mean when we say we should ‘expect more’?
How can we scale evidence-based assessment in ways that create more authentic learning experiences?
How might we rethink the way our students engage in music in our schools in a way that exposes all of them to potential for creation and composition?
..and many others, that often simply start with What if…?
All of this requires modern leadership to create a culture that is agile and above all one that embraces creativity in all of its forms, seeking to break down the contextual barriers that have locked away the opportunities for what technology might make possible for far too long.
While we might lament our timidity to date, it has been a direct function of our inability to describe the scope of possibility. We really only have ourselves to blame for the feeble manner in which we currently articulate what technology-richness can make possible for our students. Our profession contains thousands of the brightest and most creative minds in our society. These are the people whose thinking must be prodded, provoked but also pampered.
While the very idea of transformation can be both overwhelming and intimidating for many, the concept of radical incrementalism may not. This is about change, about small steps, with an end in mind, and a time for when that will be reached. It’s not the barely visible shifts that have been made to ‘accommodate” technology to date, but rather a much more focused larger scale long-term strategy that seeks to have significant impact through collective innovation over a defined time frame.
So while we have largely failed to shed the comfort and familiarity of our current context and really explore the possibilities of the unknown, let’s just hope that 2016 sees an explosion of bold and ambitious initiatives that resets everyone’s expectations about what is now possible.
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Michelangelo