The Courage to Innovate

by Beth Derry
Peoria County Regional Office of Education

An off-the-cuff remark I heard at a conference many years ago has stuck with me. The speaker said something like, “If George Washington came back to life today, he would be most comfortable in an American high school.” Ouch! Upon further reflection, I could see subject matter taught in isolation, hour by hour, on a school calendar tied to farming, and disconnected from real-world learning.

Why the lack of innovation in education? Why does real change in education move so slowly?

Call to Action
When you stop to think about it, one thing most of us have in common is that we went to a school. Public or private, that school probably had a similar look and feel. We look back on our days playing on the playground, eating in a lunchroom and studying at our desks with fondness and some nostalgia. But there are practices and policies from quite some time ago that have persisted over the years.

With a critical eye, we need to take a hard look at the answers to some very important questions. Why do we grade based on averages? Why do we attend school for only nine months of each year? Why do students not get exposed to careers at an early age? Why do we teach high school based on a subject an hour?

These can be tough questions to wrestle with, and the passionate viewpoints from all sides add to an already-difficult discussion. Our call to action is to ask these tough questions and ensure that we are not defending past practices simply because they reflect our own experiences, how we were taught, what we understand and what is comfortable to us. We need the courage to innovate!

When communities are willing to ask the tough questions, schools can truly begin to be creative. As George Couros proposes in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, schools have forgotten their “why.” A quality education has been reduced to simple letters and numbers that result in a test score. “I believe education’s ‘why’ is to develop learners and leaders who will create a better present and future,” he states. “Anyone in any job or position—students, teachers and administrators—can be a learner and leader. But to develop these traits in our people, we must empower them; we must inspire the innovation, rather than demand compliance.”

Innovation in Peoria County
So what does innovation look like in Peoria County schools? First, our high schools are partnering with Illinois Central College to examine opportunities for early college credit. The possibility for students to earn 15 hours of credit before graduating can help jumpstart their post-high school lives. In addition, because getting to campus can be challenging for some, schools are exploring the creative use of technology to provide virtual courses for high schools. This early start may build confidence in students that they can be successful in college, reduce debt by getting prerequisites, or help build a career in a technical field.

Second, Peoria County schools are shifting what it means to be “college- and career-ready.” Not all jobs in the new economy will require a four-year degree, but they will require something! Students should be looking at certificates, licenses, competencies and credentials that are portable and usable for good middle-class jobs.

According to the video, “Success in the New Economy,” the new ratio is 1:2:7. For every one job that requires work beyond a bachelor’s degree (think doctor), two jobs will require a bachelor’s degree (think nurses) and seven jobs will require a post-high school credential or license (think CNA or phlebotomist). Peoria County high school students are being exposed to pathways that encourage them to think of their career as a continuum on which to build. Many of these credentials can be earned in high school, which also serves as a link to real-world learning.

One last way our schools are innovating is through the use of technology. However, simply replacing chalkboards with smartboards and passing out laptops is not innovation. Instead, educators are revolutionizing teaching through the use of Google Classroom, apps and makerspaces, while libraries are adding robot labs, green screens and 3D printers. Such technology encourages collaboration and the integration of subject matter as students complete projects, rather than worksheets.

Last year, the Peoria Regional Office of Education hosted the first-ever “Googlepalooza” to highlight the powerful impact of technology on learning. The feedback from this event was overwhelmingly positive, and we look forward to hosting it again this year for a teachers’ institute. This year’s “Peoriapalooza” will provide a collaborative time to foster risk-taking with fellow educators to learn more about how technology can truly help innovate teaching practices.

Envision the Transformation
There are many more examples of Peoria County educators working to be innovative, creating a positive learning environment that encourages students to be the next generation of risk-takers and innovators. Communicating to all of our stakeholders (parents, the business community, taxpayers and nonprofits) the message that this is a group effort is a critical part of the process.

We all play a role in encouraging this transformation in education. The key is to begin to dream what it could look like. George Couros puts it best, “Take the statement: School promotes starting by looking for answers. Learning promotes starting with questions... and change it to this: School promotes developing your own questions and finding answers. Imagine what school would look like if we really focused on empowering learners.” iBi

Beth Derry is Regional Superintendent in the Peoria County Regional Office of Education.

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