Friday, September 14, 2012

Scaleable "Solutions" vs. Local Responses

Yesterday, I participated in a forum with educators, administrators, and business leaders who are all interested in the use of technology in learning settings (Accelerating Innovation:  Personalizing the learning environment--thanks to k12, BYU's Center for Teaching and Learning, and TD Ameritrade Investools for making it free to attend).  It was clear that everyone there was passionate about learning and excited about what learning might look like in the future, particularly in schools.  In that way, I felt like I was with kindred spirits and appreciated having the opportunity to connect with and dialogue around important issues.  However, I always feel a bit like a fraud in these settings because I tend to be skeptical whenever I hear people talking about technology "revolutionizing" or "transforming" learning.  Further, the conversations at gatherings like the one I attended yesterday often focus on finding "innovative solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a massive scale (this seemed to be the only thing the representatives from the USDOE wanted to talk about yesterday).

Clearly, there are technological advances that have this impact upon learners and the learning process, but I think the list is much shorter than many technologists would believe.  More typical is the new "tool" that is developed in a particular setting, touted as "transformational," and then adopted only in the setting where it was developed and a few others where the challenges are similar.  That isn't a criticism of these "tools" as much as it is a criticism of the rhetoric of many educational technologists which is, in short, "we're going to change the world with this new idea."

At the core of these issues is an interesting tension that I saw playing out in yesterday's forum.  And, the tension is framed by two fundamental perspectives on educational reform.  The first is what I'll call the grand solution paradigm which seems to be concerned with finding universal solutions to big problems.  Consequently, their focus is on identifying problems that manifest themselves in virtually every educational setting and sector and then developing "solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a widespread basis.  

The second perspective operates from a local response paradigm.  Those who align with this approach are very concerned with context in that they approach problems by, first, understanding the complexities and nuances of particular settings (e.g. local cultures, historical influences, individual personalities, and available resources).  Then, they work alongside local stakeholders to respond to the challenges presented by these unique educational landscapes.

There are stark difference across these perspectives.  The first seems to be concerned with "answers" to questions and believes that finding these answers will solve problems for all educators.  They seem concerned with what has sometimes been termed in research as the "grand narrative" and aim to provide new ideas and tools that everyone can use, in nearly the same way.  These are the folks that are much more likely to see themselves as "revolutionaries" and "reformers."  In contrast, localists aren't likely to make any claims at developing "solutions" or "answers," rather they approach educational policy and practice as a dynamic dance wherein teachers and administrators are in a continual state of responding to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.  Because this is slow and more "tribal" work, they may not see themselves as "revolutionizing" education, although their collective efforts may have that impact over the long-term.

Like most complex problems, the challenges we face in education aren't likely to be overcome if they are approached exclusively from one of these perspectives or the other.  Any sustainable changes are likely to come about in response to a coordinated effort that involves both a search for "scaleable" solutions and an openness to local innovation and responsiveness.  But, when I sit back and listen to the dialogue of the "reformers" I hear too much of the former and not enough of the latter.  Rather than spending inordinate amounts of time "innovating" in search of the holy grail of education (yesterday it was Open Educational Resources), we should be spending just as much time helping local practitioners and stakeholders join the grand dialogue, and then consider what "works" in their own place.  Innovation, while focused on outcomes, products, and ideas, should be just as concerned with processes that allow local innovation to thrive.

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