“What these two projects have in common is that they are amazing whiz-bang technical achievements pitched as educational
breakthroughs whose creators have no education background.”
What these two projects really have in common is that they’re solutions seeking problems. You can just imagine people sitting around a table and saying, “What could we do in augmented reality for education. How about the Periodic Table? That was a real problem for me as a student.” Or, “Gee, we should be teaching software at an earlier age. How about programming robots. Kids will love that. And we have this really cool visual interface.”
Neither of these projects begins with a real need, some serious pain. They’re putting icing on a cake that doesn’t exist.
To innovate in education, first find a serious problem. The lack of good science labs as outlined in the NRC’s “America’s Lab Report” is one example. Overcrowded classrooms has become a serious problem in the United States. Converting from memorizing to understanding is a problem for learning science in a great many countries. This article or this one, both by Richard Feynman go to the heart of this problem.
Next, remind yourself that technology is supposed to be “better, faster, cheaper.” Keep on reminding yourself of that simple premise. It’s not supposed to be better, faster, and lots more expensive. It’s no coincidence that NASA under Daniel Goldin adopted this motto. NASA is one of the premier users of technology.
Consider the invention of the typewriter, which became ubiquitous in short order. It clearly was better because you could read anyone’s “writing.” No longer did you have to decipher the scratchings (literally because they used steel-tipped pens dipped in ink) of those with poor handwriting. It was faster. No one disputes that you can type faster than you can write if you’re an accomplished typist. Shorthand and steno machines require later translations and so are not truly faster. The cheaper might be disputed because typewriters cost much more than pens and ink. However, typists are not much different in cost from scriveners and can produce many more pages for the same wage. The cost of the typewriter was recaptured in a month of two.
Now that you’ve grounded yourself, do the research in libraries and online to find out how this problem has been solved in the past. Every problem in education has been solved. Only, the solutions often were not practical because they required too much human capital or too much time or too much expensive equipment or something else the prevented scaling. This is a very important consideration, that someone has figured it out but could not implement it. Your best sources will be small experimental education ideas that never went anywhere.
In science, you can read books written in the period of 1890 to 1930 that tell you everything you must know about how to teach it well. The ideas are not exactly monumental. It’s relatively simple. For example, provide enough guided practical investigations to give students a real understanding of science. Avoid directed inquiry, except as introductory material. Avoid open inquiry because it will go nowhere and take lots of time. The teachers must be expert in their field, not just book-smart. They must also understand all science along with the philosophy and history of science well. Classes, at least the practical parts of them, should have no more than twelve students. I think that you can see how meeting these requirements is difficult within typical school budgets.
Keep scaling in mind too. Your solution must scale, not to make money but to make a difference in learning for those most in need. Watch out here because a great many good education ideas have foundered on this issue. I’ve seen great professional development programs touted as the answer, but professional development takes time and money. You can do it in one region with 30 or 40 teachers, but can you do in across a 100,000 teachers without raising huge amounts of money? Always ask, “What if I’d like to reach one million students?”
Once you find the solution, with you playing the creative role, you have to translate the solution into reality, and that reality must be scalable, better, faster, and cheaper. This will be a huge challenge, but one that dedication and creativity can solve. If you can do this, you will make a difference in the world. You’ll be doing real innovation in education, not toy blocks with augmented something or other