Continuous Improvement ≠ Transformational Innovation (or, 5 Things We Must Do To Improve Education) – Introduction

I’ve succeed in finding something that does not exist in some computer coding languages – the “does not equal” sign.  ≠ needs to be found somewhere, then pasted in as a character.  There are suggestions in several coding forums regarding what can be used, such as -=, which is the negation of the equal sign, != , or even no=.  But all those “workarounds” are simply attempts at taking what already exists and trying to improve upon it.

We’ve seen such things happen in technology throughout the 20th century.  The typewriter was created in the 1860’s, but the concept was imagined as early as the 1700’s.  The idea was refined and continuously improved upon until the characters were placed in the arrangement we’re so familiar with for 3 reasons.  First, most of the most common letters are used by the left hand, so that the carriage return operation could be the main function of the right hand.  Second, the arrangement of the letters were done so that the key mechanisms which carried the print head to the roller wouldn’t get stuck to each other if the user became sufficiently expert at typing quickly.  Third, the letters of the word “typewriter” were all placed on the top row of keys so that sales people demonstrating the device would have an easy time remembering the locations of the letters.  Then came the IBM Selectrics (R), with interchangeable spinning steel font balls and an electronic carriage return.

Of course we all know that the computer revolutionized how we create correspondence…but notice that we still have the keyboard in the same layout so that the utilization learning curve would not be as steep for those learning to use the technology.

Therefore, even though alternate keyboard configurations exist today (like the Dvorak), the QWERTY is still the standard, from typewriters (which are, believe it or not, still used in parts of the world today) to iPads and tablet computers.

If you have an iPad, there’s an app you can download to change your keyboard to a Dvorak.  Why would you want to do this?  It’s been said that the fingers travel about 16 miles a day if one is continually working on a QWERTY keyboard.  If you’re using the touch keyboard on an iPad or iPhone, your eyes are actually moving to find the correct letters, and moving back and forth from the keys to the screen, which leads to significant eye fatigue.  When you’re at the computer, however, most of the time, you’re looking at the screen rather than your fingers, and can correct mistakes without looking at the keyboard.  Want to experiment?  Try it for a week.  You can always uninstall the app.

The learning:  Transformational innovation will be accepted if there’s still an element of familiarity contained within it.  Then it can be taken to the next level once the innovation has been accepted.  When that happens, the next step seems to be another innovation…even though it’s been planned for.

So let’s apply that to learning today, and our attempts at improving our educational system.  School districts want to improve student achievement.  However, if students are learning at a particular level that is sub-standard to what is the average year progress (AYP) expectation, and slightly move the achievement scores to a point that’s a little higher, but still sub-standard, is that usually considered acceptable?

If you said yes, then continuous improvement is going to take a VERY long time to have a positive effect that is newsworthy.  What seems to be demanded today is significant improvement in a very short period of time, with the short-term goal of moving from below the standard to either at or above the standard.

The other problem is that once achievement levels reach a particular level, it gets more and more difficult to move the needle higher because of the desire to maintain a consistent percentage increase.  Once you’re in the 90th percentile, it’s more challenging to move to a 93% than it is to move from a 70% to a 72.3% (both represent a 3.3% improvement).  A district may move it’s score consistently upward from a 70 to a 72%, then a 74% then a 76%, but the percentages calculate out to be a 2.9%, 2.8%, and 2.7% increase respectively, and that displays as a declining trend.

Over the next 5 weeks, five articles will be published that present suggestions as to how we can begin to innovatively transform education rather than continuously improve upon what we have.  The really cool thing is all of these elements do not require sophisticated technology to accomplish.  They could also be implemented “linearly,” (that is, one at a time), but the most impact would take place if they were done all at once.  The bad news is that it could take some time to get to the levels we’re expected to get to.  It’s not because we don’t have the ability; it’s because the brain of the 21st century student is wired differently than the brain of the 20th century student, and we need to have the infrastructure to capitalize not simply on the mindsets that currently exist in our classrooms, but, if we make changes, the infrastructure also needs to be able to accommodate the modifications we make.

Where do we make those changes?  As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.  That’s a very good place to start.”

Next week, part one, which, ironically, has to do with the sound of music.