Hey, Google: To Teach is To Innovate

October 9, 2012 — Leave a comment

An interviewer can ask a question to get the answer he or she wants to hear. That may have been the case on September 2, 2012 when   CBS’s 60 Minutes  framed a question on educators and education. The interview featured Google chairman Eric Schmidt who was responding to questions about Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. The educational enterprise Khan Academy began as a series of math video tutorials given by Khan for his nephew in 2004. Khan Academy expanded into its own YouTube channel to feature other disciplines including history, healthcare and medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, macroeconomics, microeconomics, and computer science. Schmidt was heaping praise on Sal Khan when he was asked, “He [Khan] was the guy to sort of make this happen? Why do you think it was him and not some person who was an educator, who had a background in this area?”

Schmidt’s response was incredibly disappointing:

“Innovation never comes from the established institutions. It’s always a graduate students or a crazy person or somebody with a great vision.”

With one sweeping over-generalization, Schmidt and the producers of 60 Minutes dismissed the efforts of our nation’s teachers as innovators inferring that outsiders, specifically outsiders from the business world, are better equipped to reform our education system.

Both Schmidt and the producers of 60 Minutes are wrong. Teachers are innovative.
Just look at the definition of “to innovate”:

1: to introduce as or as if new (as transitive verb)
2 (archaic) : to effect a change in
3: to make changes : do something in a new way

“To innovate” is conceptually connected to the verb “to teach”; teachers introduce content as new, effect a change in understanding, and encourage students to make changes in order to prepare for the future. Our nation’s public school system is an innovative effort; no other nation has so purposefully engaged in the enterprise of educating ALL children, regardless of ability or disability.

Apparently, Mr. Schmidt blanked on the relationship between his company and teachers who are familarizing students with Google’s mutiple applications. The Google Educator Academy is offered to teachers so they can better learn how to integrate Google products into classrooms. Of course, the Google Educator Academy also allows Google designers the opportunity to pick the brains of innovative educators as to what is needed in the classroom. For example, many teachers innovate with Google products in ways engineers did not anticipate. I doubt that when Google Maps programmers designed the software to provide directions on virtual maps that they anticipated teachers would use their program to create as virtual field trips to locations in literature. There are hundreds of these trips online including Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Christopher Curtis’s The Watsons Go To Birmingham, or David Wiesner’s Flotsam. My own Grade 12 students have created their “journeys of life” dropping their pins and explanations on their own Google Maps. Everyday, teachers use the available technologies in ways the creators never imagined.

Teachers are not in the business of developing technologies. Developing technologies are in the purview of engineers, graduate students, or a Schmidt put it, some “crazy person”. Instead teachers innovate with creativity and flexibility everyday in the classroom to promote understanding for diverse learning styles. At any moment, a change in schedule (fire drill, student emergency) could require an immediate shift in plans, a demand for innovation. An elementary teacher needs to be prepared to walk into a classroom at any grade level armed with little else than a picture book and innovate a writing lesson for pen and paper or for an open software program. Subject area teachers need to be innovative in content areas: to deliver a memorable lesson on percentages with pizza (virtual or otherwise), or to implement a lesson on measuring area using nothing but paper clips (virtual or otherwise), or to create a lesson on character development using paper bag puppets or animation software. Before accepting the premise that teachers are not innovative, consider how you might engage 24 fifth graders right after a recess period. If you are not innovative, I can assure you that 45 minute period will be memorably exhausting and/or uncomfortable..

While I certainly appreciate Sal Khan’s innovative contributions of providing video tutorials, I would also like to point out that his method of delivering content takes place some distance away from the classroom. His Khan Academy is a great supplement or complement to education, but the Khan Academy cannot replace the role of the teacher in the classroom. Khan’s methodology of taping lectures is also not entirely innovative. Eric Mazur at Harvard developed Peer Instruction in the 1990s, and the birth of YouTube in 2007 saw a plethora of teachers providing lessons for students. The Flipped Classroom Movement, started by teachers, is currently adopting the practices and offering variations to Khan Academy. What does bear remembering is that Khan’s position as a hedge fund manager provided him the time, financing, and connections to develop and market his Academy’s method to deliver content. Teachers do not have those resources so readily available.

Finally, I would suggest to Mr. Schmidt that innovation most certainly does come from established institution of education, and that he need only look around the offices and boardrooms of Google to see how traditional education has directly benefitted his company. Every single person in these rooms has had an education from an established institution, yet they are considered innovators. The people at Google, however, are not under the same kind of pressure to innovate at least five (5) hours a day for a minimum of 180 days a year.  That grueling pace is what innovative teachers keep.

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