Innovation in Education

I walked into a classroom that was modeling the story structure process. The teacher had provided one-word sentence starters as a guide. The students were using this structure to organize a personal narrative in their writing journals.

There is little doubt the world has changed with the advent of technology and globalization. It is hard to imagine some of the jobs people have today existing even twenty years ago. Schools are, like any large enterprise, challenged to keep up.

But does that mean we are “behind the times”? What if some of the practices we have utilized in the past are, in fact, timeless? Consider the story structure I saw in the classroom. It is very similar to what Pixar Animation uses when they plan out a movie:

Once upon a time there was ___.

Every day, ___.

One day ___.

Because of that, ___.

Because of that, ___.

Until finally ___.

Pretty innovative, right? Pixar uses a tried and true structure to create some of the most technologically advanced media today. This company has one toe in the 21st century and the other in an abiding idea. Pixar knows it works due to their success both financially and in the awards and the accolades they have received.

Of course, some ideas in education do need to be relegated to the past. That goes for every complex profession. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that continued to use mercury to treat health issues. So we do have an obligation to be critical consumers of instructional approaches, both tried and new. That’s why reflecting on our beliefs and discussing the impact of our practice on student learning with colleagues is important. 

Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.