Beth Holland

Food for thought…

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Are We Innovating, or Just Digitizing Traditional Teaching?

I didn’t write this blog title. The editor at Edutopia changed mine before publishing my latest article. Originally, I thought that I wanted to discuss the promise and the peril of blended learning. However, I am thankful that he had a better idea.

Admittedly, this post began as a rant against blended learning. Not the effective version as described by the tremendous educators in Bellevue, Nebraska whom I feature in this post, but the “I regularly put digital versions of analog assignments on ___ (insert platform name) and then collected them back” kind.

True blended learning affords students not only the opportunity to gain both content and instruction via online as well as traditional classroom means, but also an element of authority over this process. With students freed from the confines of the school day, the walls of the classroom, the sole expertise of the teacher, and the pace of the rest of the class, blended learning could fundamentally change the system and structure of school.

And yet, as illustrated by the varying perspectives of what constitutes blended learning lies the issue that I am really wrestling with: how to create a vision for innovation. For my dissertation, I am looking at how to scale up change, more specifically, how to help districts expand the pockets of innovative teaching within classrooms and buildings to the rest of their ecosystem. As I think more and more about this, the real challenge may lie in first helping districts to recognize innovation versus digitization.


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To Ensure Success, First Define the Black Box of Innovation

In the readings for my Evaluation course, a concept struck me: when something fails, do you blame the theory or the implementation? I think that in education, great concepts often get abandoned because of poor execution and a lack of understanding about the implementation. Researchers Leviton and Lipsey describe this as not knowing the inner workings of the “black box.”

I first read about the notion of “the black box” in the context of the economics and education last fall. Economic researchers frequently write about inputs and outputs. They examine what goes into the black box of schools in terms of time, money, or resources and then measure what comes out – student test scores, teacher evaluations, etc.  However, economists rarely open that box.


The same thing happens with schools when they look to implement a new program. In their 2012 article, Theoretical Frameworks to Guide School Improvement, authors Evans, Thornton, and Usinger explain that most educational reform efforts occur absent a defined theory of change.  Instead, schools and districts implement new plans or programs without defining why they believe that these change efforts should work; what they hope to achieve; and how they might measure success. In other words, they often take a black box approach.

For my dissertation work, I have to define the theory of treatment for my intervention study so that if something goes wrong, I will know if the problem lies in the theory or the execution of my design. To do this, I have to define the logic behind my assumptions, the causal or correlational relationship between variables, and the literature to support my claims. This latest blog post at least helped me to wrap my head around the concept and the process.

>> Read the article on EdTech Researcher.

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Use Design Thinking to Create an Opportunity to Learn

From a constructivist perspective, learning is based on past experiences (Ertmer & Newby, 1983). So why do we expect educators to incorporate deeper learning and 21st-century skills — areas that few teachers have engaged in personally — without first providing those initial experiences on which to build new knowledge and understanding?

Last week at the EdTechTeacher Innovation Summit in San Diego, I had the opportunity to facilitate some hands-on, Design Thinking activities for teachers. Each one afforded participants with an experience on which they could build new understanding of what it “feels” like to be a student in a non-traditional classroom. Whether through littleBitsBreakoutEDU, or the Extraordinaires, educators engaged in the design thinking process so that they could formulate an idea of what it might look like in their classroom.

Whether the goal is design thinking, project based learning, deeper learning, 21st-century skills, or any other new form of instruction, what may be most critical is ensuring that all teachers and administrators can have that initial experience on which to base new knowledge.  If the goal is to transform education, then everyone needs an opportunity to learn.

>> Read the full article on EdTech Researcher.

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The Unintended Consequences of Innovation

I wrestled with this one for quite some time. According to diffusion scholar and author, Everett Rogers, innovations possess both intended and unintended consequences – some positive and some detrimental.  So what does it mean for students growing up in an age of rapid innovation?

By helping students develop empathy, it may be possible to recognize and prevent some of those negative, unintended consequences.

>> You can read my full article on EdTech Researcher.

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Reframing the Debate about Screen Time

In so many ways, I am tired of this debate. Screens aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they will only proliferate. In the past, I have really appreciated Lisa Guernsey’s approach.  She advocates that we have to consider the content, the context, and the child. I wrote a bit about this in a previous post; and if you have never watched her TEDxTalk, I would consider it a must-see and added it below.

However, Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge’s book, The Triple Focus, gave me a new lens through which to view the concept. You can read my new post – Reframing the Debate About Screen Time – on Edutopia. Instead of talking about the quantity of screen time, or even the quality, what if we instead look at how we can help our children and students develop the skills that they need to successfully navigate a world of increasingly ubiquitous technology.

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Design Thinking and PBL

While project-based learning has existed for decades, design thinking has recently entered the education lexicon, even though its history can be traced back to Herbert A. Simon‘s 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. So why the resurgence of these ideas?

Lately, I have heard teachers and school leaders express a common frustration: “We are _______ years into a _______ initiative, and nothing seems to have changed.” Despite redesigning learning spaces, adding technology, or even flipping instruction, they still struggle to innovate or positively change the classroom experience. Imagine innovation as a three-legged stool. Many schools have changed the environment leg, but not the other two legs: the behaviors and beliefs of the teachers, administrators, and students.

Consider this conundrum: much of what we know about teaching comes from 16+ years of observation as students. In no other profession do you spend that much time watching the previous generation before being told to change everything once you take control. Without the framework or scaffolding for that change, it’s truly unreasonable to tell educators, “OK, start innovating.”

If we look at the science of improvement, systematic change occurs between the contexts of justification (what we know) and discovery (the process of innovation). What if we view PBL and design thinking as possible bridges between those two contexts? What if these frameworks could serve as the justification for discovering new classroom practice?

>> Read the rest of this article on Edutopia.