Cast your mind back to 2003. As an eager, fresh faced young teacher I was offered one of those new-fangled Interactive Whiteboard things that were all the rage at the time.
“Do you want it on the left or the right of your whiteboard?”
“No, just get rid of the whiteboard and put it there”
Cue sceptical looks from the technicians and a conversation with the leadership team about how I would proceed without an “analogue” whiteboard in the room. It was 13 years before I picked up another whiteboard marker. Today, I give thanks for that early dip into the world of classroom “hacks and innovations”.
Bowing to Pressure
Don’t get me wrong here. I bowed to popular pressure often in my development. I pulled out flashy “interactive lessons”, with students moving things around on the board, for observations (because the buzz was that IWB’s were best used when students interacted with them) but in day to day life I played around with what was possible. I saved group specific versions of annotated texts evolving from individual lessons for future use. I taped a webcam to the end of a metre ruler I “borrowed” (must get that back to them at some point) from the Maths department and secured it to the edge of a desk to display students work in books live on screen. I even got a group of students in at lunchtime to see what they could make the IWB do and incorporated their ideas into my lessons to try them out (I still use some of them today).
In short I innovated. I tried new things, experimented with old things in new ways and looked for solutions to problems I faced in the classroom in unlikely places. How could I enhance the learning of X? We all do it on a daily basis (hopefully). We look for solutions to overcome problems, break down barriers and enhance the learning we offer to our students so that they may better understand or at least “make it stick”. We invent songs, mnemonics and acronyms for the most mundane of things in an attempt to make learning memorable. We innovate in order to educate and I am thankful to my teachers that they did. Remember this?
Innovation has been on my mind this week following this article in The Times (paywall alert) featuring the work of Ray Chambers using Minecraft in his Computer Science lessons as well as comments from Tom Bennett about the state of the “EdTech” market. Ray’s incredible work using Minecraft as part of a broad and varied curriculum in his classroom (and even his message that the game is never the focus of the learning) was completely overshadowed by the call to “drain the swamp of gimmicks” in education by Tom. My thoughts on the article are simply that it presented a balanced set of opinions without ever touching on evidence from either side but I will spare you my dissection of the article here. What I did find most alarming was the affect it would have on potential innovators in the classroom. Without trying new things, in the absence of evidence but in the presence of need, we risk the stagnation of progress
I have seen some incredible learning happen with a sheet of flip chart paper and a marker pen. I have also seen some pretty shoddy stuff as well (usually delivered as part of an “advisor’s” whole school CPD but that’s a different issue). I have used text books written by experts that break subjects down into clearly defined manageable purposeful learning sequences. But I have also seen some pretty woolly tasks involving little demonstrable learning. No problem I hear you say, don’t buy the crap ones! Problem solved. But then, why employ talented, passionate and individual teachers in classrooms? Simply agree a textbook and stock our classrooms with “Education Enforcers”.
The same can be said for APP’s, courses, training, software and all manner of gadgets and gizmos that are currently doing the rounds in the education field. Each one claiming a different outcome, purporting to address certain curriculum areas better than its rivals or just plain flashing its CEO’s pearly whites from the awkward confines of a studio shot bio pic, or even worse an “action shot” grabbed from footage of XedConference.
Minecraft in Education
I discovered Minecraft in Education, not via a conference, TeachMeet or press coverage of a new product (I actually participated in my first experience of all three) but via a success story. My own son. I identified a need (engaging and motivating reluctant readers and writers), identified a possible solution (Minecraft) and set to work. I experienced problems and setbacks which I worked hard to iron out in my delivery of learning. I kept the learning outcomes in mind at every stage of my evolution with Minecraft in Education and dismissed the “flashy” in favour of “what works”.
The Bottom Line
Evidence of success is absolutely needed to demonstrate the benefits of something new before it can be accepted in mainstream education. But without innovators taking bold new steps, and the time needed to gather the evidence, innovation will stagnate. To anyone looking at something new and thinking “should I?”, I say “why not?”. It may fail, it may be difficult, it may not be right for you and your learners (and only you can judge that) but aren’t we all trying to create that resilience in our learners. Try something new, evaluate the outcomes and move forward. Never let innovation in your classroom be a dictated ethos. You know your students’ needs better than any advisor, consultant or corporate marketing machine on Earth! Today I give thanks for that and remember it always in everything I do.