A really intriguing read today in the Atlantic, which cites Bill Gates, sparked my thinking about innovation in education. To really get traction with something new, is it important that some things stay constant? As with Chinese philosophy, seemingly contrary forces may actually be interconnected and interdependent, both contributing to something greater, something “whole”, when they coexist.
Mr. Gates uses the topic du jour (or conflict du jour, depending on how one sees it) of common learning standards as the yin- to innovation’s yang. Consider his thinking about the current Common Core rollout: “States may choose to deviate, but they should make sure first that they have high standards and quality standards, and that they have a really good reason not to share the same analysis and tools that are being created because of the scale advantage that lets innovators come in, do a piece of work once, and have it applied to a very large number of students.”
That was absolutely the sentiment of many developers showing, describing, and discussing their ideas last week at SXSWedu, particularly at The Playground, where participating companies, mostly small and new start-ups, provided participants the opportunity to learn about innovative pursuits in maker, STEM education, gaming, the arts and more. Contrary to the argument that the Common Core is all about commerce and big business (we’d link to articles, but there are so many. Googling “common core criticism big business” provides one with ample reading), these developers found it an opportunity to allocate their time, thinking, efforts, and scarce resources to the research and development of better, more useful products for educators instead of to multiple modifications to ensure relevance from one state’s stakeholders to another. Common Core standards were seen as not only helpful to small business looking to innovate in the education sector, but also as important to bringing good products to scale.
We’re not here to take a position on the Common Core, on Big Business, on Small Business, or even on SXSWedu. We’re about innovation: Knowing what’s happening, matching good ideas to genuine needs, helping folks implement, and eventually, understanding how innovations with promise can spread and do more good for more people. Since scaling change is generally challenging, it behooves us to pay attention to one man that did it well. Let’s consider how balance may contribute to our work and better understand what variables in the complex equation that is education change might stay constant so that innovative change may thrive.