Times of change or crisis are particularly ripe for innovation in education. In Europe, the Reformation in the 16th century initiated the move towards universal elementary schooling. Three centuries later, the effects of the industrial revolution on society hastened the extension and modernization of public education.

The communication age has introduced previously impossible methods of pedagogy piece-by-piece. Radio, TV, and videotapes have come and gone. We are only one generation into the internet: 30 years ago, there were no websites, no interactive whiteboards, no video conferences, and no podcasts.

But it is the coronavirus pandemic that may finally prompt a full-scale revolution in the way we teach. As of 21st April 2020, more than 1.5 billion learners were affected by school closure, with full school shutdown across 191 countries. Educators around the world have responded with a mix of ‘improvisation’ and ‘innovation’. Some educators have paired app usage with live videoconferencing. Others have united students through state-wide educational broadcasts.

The outcome isn’t always what was expected. In Lebanon, teachers asked students to video themselves doing physical education at home and send the videos to their teachers as homework -- and in doing so the students develop important tech skills. “[W]hile the sports exercise took a few minutes, my son spent three hours shooting, editing, and sending the video in the right format to his teacher," remarked one parent.

Another outcome of social distancing -- particularly as it coincides with 5G technology coming of age – will be a closer relationship between public bodies and the private companies that develop educational technologies (including learning environments, systems, and resources). 

What does innovation mean in today's digital age?

Teachers should never consider innovation to be synonymous with technology. An innovation solves a problem or reveals new possibilities -- and technology may be part of the outcome. But the problems and possibilities of the next few years -- especially after social distancing --will also involve finding new ways to work and play face-to-face.

All the same, education innovators need to meet students in their safety zone if they are to coax them out. And more and more, that means the digital realm. “Innovation, to me, means finding any way you can to reach all of your students,” as one teacher puts it. “This means being willing and flexible to adjust what you teach and how you teach. We have to keep our students engaged and excited to learn.”

Innovation is primarily a shift in mindset. You can think of it as ‘creative risk-taking’ (and creativity is fundamental to the learning process). Just like learning, creative risk-taking requires flexibility and openness. For example, teachers who ask their pupils open-ended questions (where a yes or no answer is impossible) and genuinely value the answers are more likely to continue on a profitable journey of exploration. And their students will be on that journey with them.

Digital technology is an expansion of the innovator’s toolkit. But it is a powerful tool and one where young minds have plenty to offer. Feed those minds (and your own) with inspiring resources and guest speakers to power collective lateral thinking in the classroom -- or in whatever environment you find yourself teaching!

The evolving classroom

Temporary safety measures aside, we won’t see the end of the physical classroom any time soon. But a closer integration of classroom and remote/virtual learning tools and techniques will permit exciting new ways of teaching. Remote schooling heightens the challenge of maintaining engagement, but it is also an opportunity to experiment with tried-and-tested methods. After all, homework is nothing new.

For example, project-based assignments are an effective way of bringing education closer to life; a means of ‘applied learning’ which adds meaning to a pupil’s study time. Projects can be physical, digital, or hybrid; best of all may be to teach students tools and processes, and let them pick the right ones for the job.

There are lots of new products that borrow the old-school “I teach, you learn” model, but promise to take it further. A system developed by Squirrel AI in China largely replaces human tutors with a machine-based “adaptive learning experience.” The system defeated rival human teachers in a televised contest by teaching a class “more math" over a period of a week. 

The Dutch AI learning product Symbaloo analyzes learners’ specific learning needs and responds with new materials and methods that best suit each individual. Pupils “learn faster” than when held to the pace of the teacher-and-textbook method. Faqta, another Dutch company, offers online teaching in niche subjects for schools that may not have a teacher for every specialism. “Teachers would also act more like a coach in these kinds of subjects,” says founder Anouk Binckhuysen.

There are always concerns when the results of education are quantified in terms of 'bigger, better, faster, more.' Still, as artificial intelligence grows more sophisticated, more qualitative results (such as resourcefulness, curiosity, social responsibility) will follow. However, this will require experienced and insightful flesh-and-blood teachers to give meaningful input to the ‘techpreneurs’ developing the systems. Parents, too, need to be part of the discussion. They know their kids best and are de facto coach, principal, and lunch lady during home learning sessions and stakeholders in the education of their child, wherever it takes place.

Innovation needn’t be just learning-oriented. It is also about relationships, attitudes, and equitability. These notions have always been essential to the classroom but are even more acute when it comes to distance or hybrid learning.

“We utilize trauma-responsive practices,” says principal Jennifer McCalley of Faubion School in Portland. “So instead of looking at negative student behavior as “doing something wrong,” we’re much more interested in understanding the factors -- outside of school and even inside of school -- that are creating those behaviors. We’re taking away the notion that it’s a student “problem”, and that has really helped.”

Studying teaching to become part of the solution

As the coronavirus pandemic set in and school doors began to close, veteran elementary school teacher Jes Ellis described the objective of teaching and its peculiarly human challenges: “The reality is that teachers do not teach content; we teach children. Specifically, we teach children how to connect: with one another, with themselves, with ideas, and with the world around them.

“On a good day, when we are all together in one room, about a third of my class is able to do the assignment independently after I teach a lesson. But nearly all of my students are average 10-year-olds who, if left to their own devices, would spend the entire day destroying school supplies, chatting with friends, and doing TikTok dances. It takes a delicate cocktail of charisma and consequences to compel them to do any schoolwork at all.”

To teach is to innovate, because no two days require identical solutions. A teacher spends much of the time improvising, and even the best tools -- from textbook to interactive whiteboard to home-schooling app -- exist to help them reign in the chaos and inspire young minds. Top teachers continue to push boundaries using techniques such as:

  • Questioning conventions. Schools are complex institutions, and their way of doing things may be based on outdated assumptions or conditions.

  • Innovating within self-determined limits. If your plan is to 'innovate new teaching methods', you'll likely spend hours staring into space, trying to figure where to start. Set parameters such as 'increase pupil's sense of responsibility towards the classroom environment' or 'boost book club attendance by 50%', and the ideas will flow more freely.

  • Collaborating and diversifying. It is difficult to generate new ideas in a closed system. Try working in different schools to observe how they do things, and create partnerships and teams to develop unique new alternatives.

  • Experimenting and moving on quickly. Testing new teaching methods on classes of young minds is a sensitive matter, but try things out, see what works, keep the good stuff, and value what you learn along the way.

The best way to become an innovative teacher is to master the fundamentals of the profession and then put yourself wholeheartedly in the field of play: the schools, colleges, and virtual learning forums of the 21st century.