Milton Chen would Head our Office of Innovation and Improvement . . .


Chen, M. (2010). Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Milton Chen was a director of research for Sesame Street and Electric Company in the 1970s and 80s, so that should be enough to immediately make you a fan. He is currently one of the people behind the awesome web site Edutopia.org that is one of the great clearinghouses out there for what works and where it is being done in real classrooms. The book introduces some challenging ideas for changing the ways we help kids learn, while maintaining an even-handed tone that never becomes absolute and divisive. None of these ideas are totally new; they are things we have been arguing about in grad classes for the last ten years. Chen’s contribution here is that he compiles all the big things we need to be doing in one place along with real, concrete examples of where they are being done in real life. He divides the book into the six categories of change we need to be tackling, which he calls “edges”. They are:
The Thinking Edge: “changing our thinking about the enterprise itself” (p.11)
The Curriculum Edge: “transforming what students are taught and how their learning is assessed” (p.35)
The Technology Edge:  putting digital tools in the hands of all students and utilizing them to improve learning (p.87)
The Time/place Edge – “destruction of the old view of education happening within the four walls of the classroom, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.” (p.139)
The Co-Teaching Edge – “teachers, experts, and parents as coeducators” (p.189)
The Youth Edge: Capitalizing on the abilities of “digital learners, carrying change in their pockets” (p.213)
The whole theme of the book is very positive, while still calling for pretty ambitious changes in the way we do business. The title of the book embodies this theme, as Chen calls for us to “Imagine an Education Nation, a learning society where the education of children and adults is the highest national priority, on par with a strong economy, high employment, and national security.” (p.1)
The proactive tone he takes throughout is what really attracted me and made it a really quick, light read.  One of my favorite sections of the book is where he calls out our profession at large for the either/or debates we get into over issues that are really not zero-sum black and white issues. He advises us to stop debating two good things as absolutes (i.e. basic skills v. higher order thinking) and stop the destructive process by which educators “dig in their heels, sharpen their opposing points of view, hone their debating skills, and publish their op-ed pieces.” (p.22)
This really captures one of my own personal pet peeves which is when you can see people dismiss an idea out of hand, before it is even fully explained, because they have decided it aligns too closely with some previous idea that they did not like. I really see the urgency in our work being our ability to respond to increasing expectations and demands from stakeholders outside of our field effectively as a unified profession. The last thing we need to be doing is arguing amongst ourselves.
I also enjoyed his celebration of “the death of the lecture as we know it” as, thanks to google, “students now know that there are multiple versions of knowledge about a topic with varying lengths, depths, points of view, and media.”(p.118-119) He then shares a story from Edutopia about a teacher who gives students video lectures to choose from prior to the lesson, then uses handhelds to assess mastery at the beginning of the next day’s class. The teacher then uses the feedback from this class-opening formative assessment to provide targeted instruction in support of the concepts and skills the students most struggled to understand.
This method has been labeled “flipping” by some schools that have adopted programs where they use online resources such as Kahn Academy to move away from the idea that the teacher is the sole source of information on a topic and towards the role of the teacher as the primary support to help students learn the information. After all, any cab driver who watches The History Channel can give you a lecture about Roosevelt’s programs during The New Deal. The true art of pedagogy that we all went to school for is to help students when they struggle to learn or aren’t motivated to learn. The cab driver can’t do that!
Chen also makes an impassioned plea for more Project Based Learning (PBL), because “in investigating open-ended questions, students must decide for themselves which sources of information are most valuable.” (p.41) This is again not a new idea, but Chen provides really great real-school examples, many chronicled on the Edutopia web site, of how these innovations can be put into action. One example that resonated with me as a former AP social studies teacher was a curriculum for AP U.S. Government and Politics in Bellevue, Washington that was wholly designed around Project Based Learning challenges (p.43-46). Not only was the curriculum outlined, but results from a quasi-experimental comparison study were presented as evidence of the curriculum’s impact.
In a perfect school, Milton Chen would be our Director of Innovation and Improvement because he would not allow us to pay lip service to innovative reform without actually supporting its implementation in real classrooms. He would stop letting us talk about teaching 21st Century Skills unless we were actually doing it.
Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Jeff Jarvis Would Be Our Ambassador To The Digital Natives . . .