innovating education

Note: This represents my written narration for a TEDx talk I gave at Weber State University on February 28, 2014.

The words that come out of my mouth and the words that come out of my fingers are often different, but the development of the talk was helped by writing this out. The presentation was really fun, and it might not take you any longer to watch to video than it takes you to read the essay.  My perspectives on goals for education have derived over time and from multiple sources.  A previous piece on “best practice” fills in a few other details on this.  


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I have the privilege of being a teacher. I teach physics courses to college students. I get to plan science programs for kids and their families. And, I’m often teaching teachers how to teach — a bizarre, high stakes teaching gig.

My unique qualification for all this is that I’m confident that I don’t know what I’m doing. So, I’m always questioning myself and looking for something else that I could be doing. And that’s what this talk is about, my dreams and my ongoing search for the great educational innovations of our time that I can put to use.

I’ll start by introducing you to a somewhat old tool that you’re probably familiar with — in fact I’m using it right now — but it turns out that it is even older than I’d originally thought:


This is the original PowerPoint slide, a place called Newspaper Rock. It’s a wall of sedimentary rock with this black mineral varnish that’s been etched into in order to convey meaning. I’ve always imagined that some guy named “Pedro” — “Pedro Glyph” — wanted to tell a story and he just started crafting this first slide. Sure, there are some subtle differences between this panel and the PowerPoint slides we’re accustomed to, but their purpose and presentation is still basically the same, relaying some information on a flat surface. And, this particular slide does a great job of demonstrating the same features we love about PowerPoint slides today: it’s a ridiculous amount of information all squeezed into one space; no one understands what it’s really supposed to mean unless Pedro is there to describe it to us; and in spite of all this people still write down all this stuff verbatim. In this case, we see the same images carved out all over the desert southwest, presumably by some of Pedro’s best students.

Newspaper Rock makes me realize that there are lots of origins of our modern educational tools. For example:


This is one of the first TED talks. Here, some “ideas worth spreading” are being distributed among the folks down in the audience, just like what we have here today. The medieval version looks a lot like the 21st century, complete with that guy on the third row who seems to be taking a necessary rest from this grueling 15-minute presentation.

Another, even more recent innovation in education is the notion of “flipped classrooms.” The idea of these is that we can leverage technology to get students to get some background information on their own time, before they come to class, so that we can then use class for modes other than the traditional lecture or TED talk. This innovation is only a few years old, but it’s become a tempting fruit for educators looking to change things up. However, back not too long ago, we had a way of flipping our classrooms with background material. We called these “books.”


Books, of course, have completely changed education and our world ever since the printing press. Flipped classrooms, no doubt, are a clever variation on this theme, with perhaps just the same benefits and challenges that our textbooks have.

Similarly, the delivery of coursework to the masses is now often done through “Massively Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs. These are instructional units available to thousands of people at the same time, all delivered over the internet. This is a brand new idea … at least, as of the 1950s:


The television, by “vastly extend[ing] the reach of the nation’s best teachers,” was also viewed as a way to distribute education in massive, equitable ways. And yet, even after decades of trying, the television has always been only an ancillary tool for education, rather than a primary mode for delivering instruction.

Embedded within the idea of MOOCs and many other innovations is the promise of “open” educational resources — materials that are freely available and widely distributed for free. But, of course, this isn’t a new idea either. This goes back in Western culture even further than the 1960s:


Jesus Christ didn’t sell books about “doing unto others” — even though it would have been the beginnings of the self-help genre. Instead, he literally spread that word — another one of those “ideas worth spreading” — from the mountain top. And today those messages of being kind, blessing the meek, feeding the poor, loving your neighbor, etc., are found in hotel room drawers and freely distributed books all over the country. The problem hasn’t been that the information isn’t readily available, but that we just don’t seem to understand how to put it into practice, even after 2000 years.

My favorite educational innovation of all time, however, hit its stride in the late 1950s. In 1956, a science teaching textbook would say, “science education is a nice thing for us to do.” But by the end of 1957, a science education textbook would have to express a panicked expletive, wondering aloud what are we going to do now that the Russians have launched a satellite. And what was our innovative response to our Sputnik moment, the beginnings of the Space Race, and the buildup of our defenses against nuclear annihilation?


The first interactive whiteboard or Smartboard, also known as the overhead projector. Back in their day, teaching methods texts actually showed science teachers how to build their own as well as all of the uses for them. I admit, I get excited about a Smartboard. I can move things around, annotate, manipulate text and move it around, save my notes. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t do anything more than the overhead projector did. The only difference is that we laugh at the old and covet the new.

It’s interesting to note that we even designed our classrooms around the use of these tools:


You’ll notice a diverse student body: left-handed and right-handed, short-haired and long-haired. Moreover, it probably looks like a pretty familiar setup. In fact:


Here’s the layout of a recent conference presentation. This one happens to be on education reform, without even a hint of the irony at hand. To be fair, the screen is on the other side. And there aren’t any windows.

So… Why do I bring this all up? Am I just a jerk? Probably. But more importantly, I’m trying to figure out for myself what it is that we mean by “innovative,” or maybe what we even mean by education in the first place if we keep rehashing the same tools. We just polish them with new semiconductors, but the actual innovations are decades or centuries old. Why aren’t we proposing anything that’s actually new? Why aren’t any of our innovations all that innovative?

I thought about all these innovations and then about what my own images of learning are, and I went back to my own scrapbook of images that represent, to me, really “learningful” situations. I wanted to see how these could be characterized and what I could learn from them.

For example:


These kids are playing in a pool of “oobleck,” a mix of corn starch and water, in a program I run called Science in the Parks. They’ve mixed the material together, and now they’re feeling the goo ooze through their fingers when they pour it, but feel hard when they quickly compress or hit it.


This is some hands-on experience with a gyroscope. If you’ve never felt the magic of a gyroscope leaving your hand and taking on its own balance, or have never tried to wrestle the spinning wheel from one place to another, I don’t think you can really understand what rotational momentum is all about.


This young scientist was so obsessed with looking through lenses at one of our tables that I suggested he could take a lens out into the lawn. Here he’s peering into a jungle within the grass and dirt and its local residents. He and I both spent a good portion of our lunch time lying face first in the grass.


These are teachers walking into a “road closed” area to get closer to the formations of Capital Reef National Park and work with a geologist there, while others are scrambling out of the Fiery Furnace of Arches National Park.


Here, a group of teachers has been tracing the shadow of a mop handle and recording its path over the course of a day with a jumprope and some chalk. From this, they’re learning a little something about how the Earth spins, how it relates to the Sun, and where they themselves are located on this big globe right now.


These are researchers at a meeting we’ve named Science Education at the Crossroads. There’s no overhead projector because they don’t have any answers to present. Instead, they’re talking to each other to work on problems they’re focusing on. They’re wearing name tags written on by first graders so that they are reminded of why they’re at this meeting.


These moms and daughters are learning about the centers of mass of astronomical systems — by figuring out how to balance themselves.


And this is me after one of our Physics Open House events, when the groupies gather around as their parents stand aside. There’s a dewar of liquid nitrogen, hundreds of degrees below freezing, in between my legs, and I’ve chosen the questionable precaution of wearing a safety vest. These kids were still wondering about what a balloon looks like when it’s in a bath of liquid nitrogen, and how this changes, and …. well, you just should have been there. These kids just watched a bunch of physics demonstrations, but they wanted to come up close to see and feel what was really going on.

In all these images from my scrapbook of learningful moments, you could decide to take away lots of meanings. For me, there are two things. First, in all of these interactions there’s a different goal for learning than what we get from the other innovations. These people are all learning a process or about an experience. This reminds me that “to learn” doesn’t just mean transferring some idea from one person to another — although that could be part of it — but so many other things. In fact, when we think about what we probably want most from any learning situation, be it in schools or in a museum or in an apprenticeship or anywhere else, we probably have much loftier goals than just copying some information from one place — a powerpoint slide or an overhead projector, for example — to our heads.


We learn to become or to make a change or to do something. But, when we frame education in terms of the “content” and “coverage” and “delivery” and “storage” and “absorbing” we create a much more narrow view. For some kinds of learning, where we need to take some idea worth spreading and set it directly into someone’s psyche, the modes of petroglyphs, overheads, and TED talks are all appropriate. We need the educational equivalent of a shovel, moving knowledge from one hole to another. But if we want learning to be more than just delivery, then we need to create situations that are much more deliberate and interactive.

The problem is that the tools and innovations we describe predicate this narrow kind of learning. And if we want to imagine any other kind of learning we find ourselves stuck. The tools and innovations that we develop are determining our very notion of learning, maybe without our even knowing it.

The second thing I learn from the scrapbook is that I think that asking “how” to innovate education is simply the wrong question. If we walk into this question thinking about transmitting information from one place to another, the innovations are going to naturally be limited. So, I think we should ask a different question altogether.


The SmartBoards and the Open Textbooks make us think about the what and how. But we need to ask “why” we’re educating and innovating in the first place. Our answers to “why” are not the information that’s displayed by a projector. When we’re really pressed to describe what we mean by learning, we talk not about the dates and the names, but what we’ll be able to do, how we’ll be able to relate, and even who we’ll be able to become.

Personally, here are my answers to “why”:


You may have a different “why” for education, but if you would like to borrow my reasons you’re welcome to. These are my daughters; and they represent, of course, themselves. But they’re also representative of everyone I teach, students and teachers. For me, they and their generation and the world that they inherit are all the “why” of education. These are our reasons. And when I think of these answers to “why,” the kinds of innovations I want to imagine are much different than they would be otherwise.

Look them in the eye. Tell them that the innovation of an overhead projector or a MOOC or an interactive whiteboard or an iPad is good enough for them.

I can’t do it.

For me, the innovation in education that helps us to think about how we deliver content, material, information, and the like has already come and gone many times. The education that we need in this century is that which helps us to enhance relationships with one another and the place in which we live. My sense for what we need in education is not easier access to information, but a better sense of who we are, how we relate to one another and our environment, and where we’re going.


We’re faced with the prospect of innovating education, but the point is that this isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be. The iPads and overhead projectors sent down from above won’t save us. Instead, we have the choice to save ourselves. We just have to be brave enough to get our hands messy and make it so. We can’t afford to do anything less.