The education innovation dilemma

by Sarah Firisen

Many years ago, I returned to my old high school for a visit with friends who were classmates back in the ’80s. Exploring the school and marveling over what had changed and what remained exactly the same, we ventured into the language lab. The room smelled exactly the same as it had in 1983, and it took me right back to those days of incredibly boring language lessons and sitting in that room with headphones on repeating monotonous phrases. 

I took French for seven years in middle and high school, Latin for five, and German for two. Language classes were always my educational Achilles heel. Those seven years enabled me to speak the most halting, grammatically painful, badly accented French when we visited on vacation, and I’ve always wished I spoke it better. 

I’m now planning to visit Paris in January with my daughters, Sasha, 18, Anya, 21, and Anya’s boyfriend, Liam. Growing up in the U.S., they all learned Spanish in school rather than the de rigor in the UK, French. My daughters never showed much more linguistic aptitude than I did in school. In preparation for our trip, Anya suggested that we all download Duolingo, a language learning app.

Apparently, during the early weeks of lockdown alone, 30 million used the app to start learning new languages. Duolingo does a great job of serving up bite-size learning units that contain a combination of speaking, writing, and translation with enough repetition to help even my middle-aged brain commit phrases to memory. The app leans heavily on gamification; I actively compete with the kids for badges and streaks. The app prompts me when one of them has passed me and encourages me to do more units to catch up. 

My oldest uses the app to learn French as she walks to class. My youngest seems to have replaced at least some of her online gaming with this far more educational gaming. Some quotes from them, “It’s fun!” “I took Spanish for 5 years and probably know more French in 3 days.”

When COVID-19 lockdown hit most of the world in February/March of 2020, and all schooling went virtual, no one had a chance to think out-of-the-box or to innovate. The only imperative was how to try to keep students learning with something as close to normalcy as possible. I think most people have a sense of how this worked out all around; it varied depending on the age of students and socioeconomic class, but generally wasn’t great. Socioeconomic class mattered in many ways, access to decent WIFI, enough space at home for privacy and quiet when learning, availability of sufficient appropriate devices for each child to connect to virtual education. 

While my introverted then 17-year old was all too happy to sleep in later each morning and then hole up in her bedroom with her laptop, younger students struggled, and their parents were harried trying to supervise them. And the teachers were rockstars, rising to the moment and doing the best they could under the most challenging situations. The difficulty of just trying to approximate normalcy didn’t give most schools the luxury of trying to innovate. 

The worst of the crisis seems to be behind us (we hope). But the possibility of future bursts of reverting to entirely virtual schooling remains very likely as variants continue to jolt us all out of our return to normal. It’s also true that virtual education can provide a great solution for snow days or any other reason a child can’t be in school in person. Some kids have thrived in virtual learning and don’t want to go back to it in person. Whatever the reason, it’s likely that hybrid learning is here to stay at every level of the education system. And, of course, we’ve had the tech to enable this for a while. But just because we have it doesn’t mean we’re using it as well as we could be,  “ online education has been around for a while. But developers have largely focused on making more education accessible to more people, rather than providing fresh products and services.” 

With virtual schooling, parents watched their young children struggle to sit still and engage with content for hours on end. And yet, for most children, their struggles to engage with the material virtually was just an exacerbated version of the issues in-person. Is it that much easier for the average 5-year old to sit still for hours on end and listen to a teacher talk in person than it is virtually? So should we be taking the opportunity to consider how we teach, whether in person or online? As I wrote early in lockdown, college classes seem prime for educational innovation utilizing augmented and virtual reality technology. But I don’t think anyone thinks that strapping headsets onto 5-year olds would be a good thing. 

My children attended an outstanding, small, private progressive school, Robert C. Parker School, with an integrated curriculum focused on the whole child. Back in 2009, when they still attended this school,  I wrote a piece about innovation and education. I wrote, “Over the last few decades the American (and I’m sure many European) education system’s response to the “threat” from globalization and the diminishing math skills of students next to those from India, China, etc, has been to focus more and more on rote memorization of facts and standardized tests – left-brained activities, usually at the expense of recess, music and art programs and social studies – right-brained activities.”

At the time, I could see how increasing automation in the workplace would displace human workers from many of their everyday tasks leaving the kinds of activities that humans did, and still do, better than computers: creativity, empathy, communication. If that was true 13 years ago, it’s even more true today. And my  overall point is even more valid now than then, “There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the skills that are increasingly being valued in the workplace and beyond and how we are educating our children from kindergarten up.”

A year later, I wrote, “there is some interesting experimental education taking place which seeks, in one form or another, to incorporate technology into education in fun and innovative ways.” At the time the New York City school system was experimenting with the use of video games in the classroom.” But more than 10 years on, what significant country-wide progress has been made?

There are schools that have been trying to innovate and rethink how education is delivered, “Chesapeake Bay Academy’s (CBA) mission is to serve students with learning differences. To that end, CBA has been utilizing many forms of assistive technology and electronic learning management systems for decades prior to COVID-19.”  Rather like my family’s experience with the enhanced learning with Duolingo, “CBA next began using Kindles and eBooks, allowing struggling readers to easily access speech-to-text technology. Learning-disabled students with weaknesses in reading comprehension and/or reading fluency are at risk for reading disengagement, but research has made clear that reading time is the best predictor of reading achievement. Introducing CBA students to e-readers enhanced students’ motivation, encouraging a newfound interest in reading. Struggling readers could opt to read printed text, but more often chose an e-reader, separating oral lessons in reading fluency from needed exposure to written content. Students used Kindle highlighting for note taking and were able to query text. Teachers were excited and motivated by students’ increased reading enthusiasm.”

But like my children’s school, CBA is a small independent school. Technology is expensive, and many school districts are already stretched financially. “Schools budget approximately 80–90% for salaries alone …With just that remaining 10–20%, administrators have to buy everything else. Books, buildings, and buses are only some of the expenses — schools also have to find a way to provide technology. Many times, the gap between the digital devices that schools would like to have and affordable technology can appear as wide as the gap between kindergarten and 12th grade.” And as this piece makes clear, even overcoming the barrier of the cost of tech devices and their I.T. support isn’t enough. Teachers have to understand the technology and accept its role in the classroom. Just having a device isn’t sufficient; there need to be educational apps available that keep pace with changing curriculums while being designed to be engaging enough to enhance learning. 

Of course, even if schools could afford to have sufficient devices, what does it mean to integrate these apps with virtual learning? Yes, many kids these days have devices at home, but this certainly can’t be assumed for every school-age child.

There are significant obstacles to overcome. But what could be more worthy of out-of-the-box thinking than our children’s education? Clearly, what we’re doing now isn’t sufficient, “despite the United States having the best-surveyed education system on the globe, U.S students consistently score lower in math and science than students from many other countries.“  

 “These low scores mean that U.S. students may not be as prepared to take high-paying computer and engineering jobs, which often go to foreign workers. While Silicon Valley is America’s high-tech innovation center, one reason for its success is the cultural diversity of its foreign-born software engineers. Many companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas. The result, however, is the same: There are fewer high-paying jobs going to American citizens because they may not be qualified.” So perhaps the question isn’t whether we can afford more disruptive tech innovation in education, but rather whether we can afford not to.