Against the Wheel

Since the pandemic began, I have been hyping it as an opportunity to make systemic change, to shake free—for now and forever—of the shortcomings of our current education system, and to embrace best practices. Generally, that idea has been met with hesitation at best, fear and overwhelm at worst: “Yes,” colleagues say, “we’d love to. In theory. But everybody is working so hard just to keep going right now. Where will we find the energy for fresh, new, innovative ideas?”

What if I told you that innovation doesn’t have to be fresh or new? That perhaps one of the most innovative things we can do right now, to benefit ourselves, our students, and education in general, is look back?

Hyperbole and a Half visual reference for millennials.

Skeptical? Sure. I mean, just look at the word innovation, that “nov” in the middle suggesting all things novel i.e. new. But, etymologically, we can trace the word’s roots to innovacion (restoration, renewal) and innovare (change, renew), and it is in this original sense of restoration where I propose there is room for systemic change, best practice, and teacher well-being. Bluntly: #allthethings

We’re frequently caught up in this idea that in order to become better, we need to be on the cutting edge of things. But better does not always mean new, and new doesn’t always even mean different: frequently, it is just a repackaging of what came before, bedecked in shiny new buzzwords that let us feel like we’re part of something fresh and modern, when in actuality we are just spending valuable time reinventing the wheel.

That is not to say that we should avoid all things new, Like scientists, we—as educators—should embrace the inherent fallibility in the world, and be prepared to adapt to our ever-changing circumstances. But, also like scientists, we should be comfortable relying on established truths and laws, without feeling the need to revamp them unnecessarily. Gravity, for instance, has stood the test of time… pretty darn well, I’d say. Let us draw on pedagogy that has done the same.

Newton in an outdoor learning space. From:

As Maria Montessori wrote: “Education should not limit itself to seeking new methods for a mostly arid transmission of knowledge: its aim must be to give the necessary aid to human development.” (in From Childhood to Adolescence) How might we support our students to be critical thinkers, creatives, problem solvers, and good humans? Perhaps it’s easier than we think. Perhaps with some good old fashioned discourse, observation, and lived experience, we can restore the roots of the truly educative experience, that which allows us to leave our subject silos and understand the relationship between ourselves, our world, and one another. Perhaps by stepping back and making room for students, teachers, and the world around us to guide learning—rather than getting bogged down by what standardised curricula or new-fangled tricks and tools suggest we should do—we can also make more room for authentic learning experiences and everyone’s well-being. God only knows we need that right now!

This won’t look the same in every classroom. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. But in these challenging times, and beyond them, perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves and our students is set aside our detailed lesson plans and interminable curriculum documents, and think about how to facilitate relevant, in-depth learning experiences—through tried-and-true methods, and by drawing on our observations, relationships, and insights—and then take a deep breath in and a big step back, and get the heck out of the way.

We don’t have to be early adopters or on the cutting edge to create meaningful systemic change. Sometimes all we need to do is go against the grain—or in this case shall we say “against the wheel”: its reinvention, anyway.

The perils of early adoption. “The Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson.




3 Replies to “Against the Wheel”

  1. I love your image captions!

    And yes – innovation doesn’t need to be new; it just needs to bring new value,.

  2. @jsheppard, great reminder that sometimes reuse and recycle is the best way forward and that implementation/process isn’t one size fits all.

    I’m also reminded of Gunpei Yokoi’s philosophy of “lateral thinking with withered technology.” In David Epstein’s book Range, he explains how Yokoi intentionally designed Gameboy to be simple and low-tech. He didn’t go cutting-edge, but found creative uses for readily available and well-known tech.

    Thanks for all these great thoughts!

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