Will Innovation Save Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

X-Prize founder and unabashed optimist Peter Diamandis sets out in his new book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (2012) (co-authored with Steven Kotler) to convince us that the future is so bright we all outta wear shades. His arguments are compelling and the book provides an overall message of hope that the future of humankind is not as bleak as the popular media and our politicians would have us believe. The main reason behind Diamandis’ optimism is innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit which he sees continually improving the state of civilization. But can that same spirit help to salvage the outdated models of education that dominate our society?

Technology is the Key
In a February 29, 2012 interview with Tom Ashbrook for NPR’s On Point Diamandis made the point that current innovations in technology now provide access to communication, information, education, and economic opportunities to people as remote as Massai warriors in the heart of Africa, that elite politicians in the U.S. did not have 20 years ago. We live in a connected world and that connectivity and the abundance of free information that it provides represents an unprecedented opportunity for everyone on the planet to educate themselves and contribute to a globally connected economy.

Peter’s 2012 TED Talk from Abundance Book on Vimeo.

In the same interview he further explains that the rate of innovation is directly proportional to the number of individuals contributing to the exchange of information. Having such a large number of people working towards changing the future and creating innovation is an effective strategy for solving the world’s problems, whether they are economic, medical, environmental, or educational. Diamandis views individual empowerment through technology as the key to solving these issues and living in a future of abundance.

Education and Technology
The central idea of Diamandis’ book is abundance – innovation provides an abundance of opportunities. The opposite of abundance is, of course, scarcity, and scarcity of resources is the main issue confronting us as a society. But, according to Diamandis, scarcity is a contextual or perceptual issue. The key to overcoming scarcity and the perception that makes it problematic is technology. For example, he explains how the shortage of drinkable water on the planet has turned into an opportunity for one of his colleagues to invent a machine that produces 1,000 liters of clean drinking water a day from contaminated or salt water. There are many scarcities in education that could be potential sources of abundance if the right approach is taken to addressing each of them.

In American education today there are serious shortages of teachers, textbooks, resources, and technology, to name but a few. These are all significant challenges to large segments of our education system, particularly in a time of economic uncertainty and shrinking education budgets. Diamandis believes that innovation can overcome these shortages. An innovation like the Khan Academy, for example, begins to address the problem of over-large class size by helping teachers to "flip the classroom," thus allowing them to devote more time to individualized learning. Innovation really does seem to be a possible source for solving many of the physical scarcities of education. These physical scarcities are not, however, as significant as one glaring shortage in our education system – innovation itself. Innovation is, in my opinion the scarcest resource in education, and systemic resistance to innovation may effectively shield education from the very innovations that could save it.

Innovative thinking does allow people, as Diamandis claims, to change the world. In his recent TED talk, Diamandis explains how technology will allow three billion new voices to enter into the innovation discussion between 2010 and 2020. But simply having access to information and technology is not enough to make even a small percentage of these three billion become active contributors to the global economy. They need education. Specifically they need to be taught how to innovate, and as a rule, our factory model schools do not emphasize or teach innovation. In fact, they do quite the opposite by teaching standardization (Marquis, 2011).

On the Outside Pushing In
So, how can innovation save education if the education system itself is resistant to innovation? Seems like a Catch-22, but it is not, according to Diamandis and other innovators. Educational innovation, can and will come from outside of the system. Khan Academy is one example of a major educational innovation created by an education outsider that is having an impact within the system. While Khan does not directly teach students to innovate, it does free up teachers to focus on helping students to be creative thinkers. But in a system that relies on standardized assessment at all levels, is there really room for innovation?

The first step in allowing innovation to truly reach education in a way which sparks further creativity is to do away with both standardized tests and standardized curriculums. Certainly there is a need for a universal knowledge base and a strong foundation in core skills, but beyond that, teachers need to be allowed to have autonomy in determining student needs and the best ways to spark their imaginations and inspire them to think creatively. Implementing a system like the Khan Academy to teach foundational skills outside of the classroom should be a national priority. Such a focus would help teachers individualize their students’ education and develop innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

One final effect of innovation that Diamandis mentions is the increasingly real fact that entrepreneurial students are creating products and services that can, and do, touch billions of people around the world. The PBS special These Kids Mean Businesscontains many examples of children realizing the American dream by creating their own innovative businesses. Perhaps it is time to take a page out of John Dewey’s book, The Schools of Tomorrow and update it for the Information Age by engaging students in media design and production with a goal of having them create their own products to share with the world. In this way, they would learn to be innovators, learn real world technical skills, and possibly even contribute to saving education and the world – just like Diamandis predicts.

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