I recently attended a conference where keynote speakers and session presenters shared their definitions of good educational practices. I heard many wonderful things, but the shared information reminded me of the glaring contradiction educators are facing: administrators and teachers alike tout the importance of innovation within classrooms while at the same time stressing the importance of following pacing guides and keeping “fidelity” with all adopted curriculum and programs.

So how can both students and teachers be innovative while at the same time traveling lockstep through the school year?

That’s the million dollar question (literally). In trying to discuss it, we can easily get lost within a maze of opinions. Talking about what we think is the correct response works out OK at first, but talk too much, and eventually even the most knowledgeable people reach a point where they throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” (Try writing about how innovation and fidelity go together–it’s hard.) The resulting cognitive dissonance is extremely frustrating.

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and as the thoughts have been marinating, the books I’ve recently read have mixed with what I witnessed at the conference. Skin in the Game is one of the best books I’ve read over the last couple years, and in it author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the importance of the Latin phrase via negativiaVia negativia is the practice of describing something by stating what it is not. Taleb illuminates this idea by comparing the Golden Rule and the Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Silver Rule: Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.

Taleb writes that we know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good. The Golden Rule is nebulous because we aren’t always sure how we want people to “do unto us.” On the other hand, the Silver Rule is crystal clear because we definitely know the ways we don’t want people to treat us. In other words, it’s easier to say what we don’t like than what we do like.

In Skin in the Game’s Glossary, Taleb writes via negativia is “a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do–subtraction, not addition, works better in domains with multiplicative and unpredictable side effects.” This addition through subtraction can go a long way–especially in the complex system of a school or district standing at the intersection of innovation and fidelity.

Instead of saying what we should do when grappling with the cognitive dissonance of a pacing guide and innovative lesson plan, we should be stating what we shouldn’t do (à la via negativia style).

  • We shouldn’t disengage our students from their learning through ineffective lesson design.
  • We shouldn’t teach concepts that aren’t connected to the students’ lives.
  • We shouldn’t plan lessons in isolation.
  • We shouldn’t assess just to assess.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid to learn new things we can incorporate into the classroom.
  • We shouldn’t neglect to stay up-to-date on the latest effective educational practices.

Does this provide the reader with a clear guideline of how to rectify innovation and fidelity? NO. If I could do that, I’d be a millionaire. But I think the idea of via negativia can help guide educators as they teach in this messy 21st Century.

Welcome to uncomfortable

“I would like you to print everything the program does in a step-by-step format. This would make it easier to learn.”

Yes, it would be wonderful to be given linear, step-by-step directions for everything we must learn. When you’re given the answer, and not expected to wriggle for a while, new concepts, programs, and methodologies can be grasped with ease and comfort.

The reality, however, is that we aren’t living in comfortable times. If you want to stay up with the crazy, fast paced nature of technological progress, you have to be ready to tread in a sea where the waves are choppy, your arms are tired, and the water level is creeping dangerously high.

Fortunately, we become stronger in this tumultuous environment. We give up knowing, or even attempting to know, all the answers. Understanding that life is change helps us know that comfort is a thing of the past, and so is security–if security were even a reality at all.

And since change isn’t going anywhere, printed directions that delineate a program in a step-by-step fashion are useless, because once the directions are written, the program changes. Google and Apple don’t even attempt to write user manuals anymore. Information can be found piecemeal on the internet; this means the user won’t learn a product all at once. Instead, the user learns as he or she needs to learn. Necessity prompts knowledge–it’s the only possible way for progress to occur. The hypothetical directions that could arrive with innovations would actually be DOA because products change too quickly.

We can’t wait for everyone to be comfortable or “in the know.” When one thing is learned, we’re already behind on the next thing coming down the pike.

There’s no script

Continuing yesterday’s thread, it’s important that we teach young people how to ask the right questions and instill confidence to answer those questions. (Confidence is gained through continually encountering problems and then solving those problems.)

If you have time, scroll to the 9:53 mark in the following video:

Many people see themselves as “puzzle builders.” They need the pieces given to them in order to produce. But what if a piece or two is missing?

The above video posits that we must all be “quilt makers” to be truly innovative. We must leverage the materials that are readily available to be successful.

There’s no script. The future is not laid out neatly before us. To be successful in 2014 and beyond, students must be taught to answer questions without all the resources on a silver platter.

Welcome to change

For school districts across the country, there are a lot of changes happening right now.

Common Core

Curriculum adoptions

New technology

That last one incorporates a lot. The technology that teachers can use to enhance pedagogy is truly remarkable, and there’s never been another time in history that it’s being developed at such an incredible rate.

There are some educators who are up to the challenge and dive into the use of new apps and devices. Others may not try everything, but rather decide to curate best-practices.

There are also teachers who feel skeptical. “It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They’ve been teaching well for years, so technology is a disruption.

Then there are teachers who are afraid of technology. They’d like to be knowledgeable, but there’s just too much. Combine the many devices and websites with the implementation of Common Core this year, and it’s enough to send some people over the edge (or to an early happy hour).

Here’s what we need to keep in mind: Education is always in a state of flux. Change, disruption, uncertainty–these words will be used to describe schooling for many years to come. Teachers must embrace the unknown and set their minds on the fact that being uncomfortable is an ongoing reality. Is this a bad thing? Not really. Treading water makes a person stronger. As long as we can keep our heads above water, work hard to embrace innovation within the field of education, and learn how to teach rigorous courses at the high levels Common Core demands, the students will thrive.

Too comfortable?

Learning how to do new things can be difficult. Learning how to do the same thing you’ve always done in a new and different way is even more difficult.

Now that we’re on the near vertical portion of the technology j-curve, it’s helpful to remember that we must live in the midst of change. This is not the time to feel comfortable. Being comfortable–especially where technology is concerned–may be a thing of the past. I don’t see the speed of innovation and creativity leveling off anytime soon. I suppose it could, but there are too many possibilities–and possibilities often become realities.

A good way to tell if  you’re attempting to learn new technologies is if you find yourself intellectually lost at least once during the day (HT: Nassim N. Taleb). If you always know what you’re doing, then you’re never growing your skills.