What does it mean to be part of an innovative project? To innovate is to behave in ways that are contrary to the norm. Innovation is the creation of something new from experimentation and study. The Innovative Learning Designs Project is an opportunity for teachers to experiment with their teaching in the context of the 21st century. This project allows teams of teachers to explore new ways of teaching that take advantage of digital tools and the “screenager” mindset. How can we create the best teaching and learning experiences for students? What instructional innovations have the greatest impact on student engagement and learning? What conditions will allow students to take greater ownership of their own learning? As educators, where will our own learning be in this two-year journey?
I have to say I was particularly impressed with the applications we received for this project and the depth of thought invested in developing school action plans. I learned a great deal that I want to share here.
The most powerful tool we have is our brains. Scherer (2011) emphasizes, “Engagement isn’t a focus on entertainment; it is about brain activity. Is each student’s brain fully engaged?” Teachers were clear that the project was not about the regurgitation of facts but the opportunity for students (and teachers) to transform their thinking by creating new knowledge and understanding. We leverage technology on the digital highway to stretch student thinking. Technology, “…does not drive the learning—the learning intentions come first.” Technology enhances those learning intentions but it is the thinking that is central to improved learning.
It is not about the i-candy (ie, the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch). One school summed it up this way: “From the perspective of the school and the research team members, it is critically important that everyone understands what this research project with the integration of the iPads CANNOT become. The iPads will NOT be used as toys, entertainment devices or as distractions from the learning tasks in the classroom.” And the researchers could not have been more clear that their focus is on improving student learning. How will they do that? By engaging their learners in the four C’s of 21st century learning: communication, critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and collaboration.
Student thinking and learning has shifted. For example, “Students today are texting, emailing, tweeting, face booking, blogging, video chatting, and playing realistic games with others across the country or across the world for extended periods of time. They are familiar with receiving instant, real time action and updates.” Teachers in the project recognize they, “need to explore ways to use students’ digital knowledge to enhance learning, and to use these tools to motivate students.” When we understand their world, we can hijack their digital interests for our own learning objectives.
Finally, teachers make a fundamental difference in the lives of students. The work of teachers is critical. A good teacher can take an activity or lesson and make it a powerful learning experience. But it is not just about what a good teacher does with lesson design–it is also about the relationship between student and teacher. For those students that struggle and have disengaged from the system, a thoughtful, caring teacher that understands their world—in this case, a new digital world–can have a powerful impact. No matter how much we innovate in this project, when we keep students at the center of our work and in the centre of our hearts, it is then that we will make the difference.