Most Popular of 2015, No. five: These 6 questions determine if you’re technology rich, innovation poor

Think your school is innovative with tech? Answer these 6 questions and prepare to reassess

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. In addition to being one of the most popular stories we’ve published this year, this piece also has the distinction of being one of the most important. Alan November challenges educators to examine their lessons through a new lens — are they really demanding the most creative, innovative work from students through their lessons? It’s a good question, and as November points out: in the digital age, good questions are the new answers.

innovation-questionsAt the start of a webinar I recently conducted for school leaders, I asked attendees if they felt they were leading an innovative school as a result of the implementation of technology. More than 90 percent responded that they were. At the end of the webinar, when polled again, only one leader claimed to be leading an innovative school.

The complete reversal was due to a presentation on the six questions that you will read about in this article—a list of questions that were developed to help clarify for educators the unique added value of a digital learning environment, and whether their assignments were making the best use of this environment.

Want to test your own level of innovation? If you answer no to all six questions when evaluating the design of assignments and student work, then chances are that technology is not really being applied in the most innovative ways. The questions we ask to evaluate implementation and define innovation are critical.

(Beyond SAMR: Special note to those of you applying SAMR. Many educators who believed their assignment to be at the highest level of SAMR have discovered that the answer can be no to all six of the transformation questions.)

(Next page: the 6 questions and how to shape your lessons for innovation)

Transformational Six

1.    Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

2.    Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?

3.    Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?

4.    Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?

5.    Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?

6.    Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
The concept of the “digital native” knowing a lot more than the “digital immigrants” is largely a myth. If you have ever watched a student research on the web you will probably observe that they enter the exact title of their homework for their search query. They will only look at the front page of results (even out of millions). There is no thought to use a second or third search tool.

An example: a student types in the name of the assignment, “Iranian hostage crisis” into Google. The results list of this search will only yield search results with Western sources if the search is anywhere in North America. The reason for this is that Google knows the geographic location of your network. If you are searching from North America you will not see any sources from Iran in the top page of search results. (For a discussion on improving students’ search skills centered on this example, see my previous article on the subject.)

Critical thinking and careful evaluation of the reliability of sources is sorely lacking. Basically, we have a major mess on our hands. To make it worse, our students do not know that they do not know. If they knew their true ignorance, then they would ask their teachers for help in designing searches. But when was the last time any student asked a teacher for help in designing a search? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time a teacher offered to help? If our students fail at step one—selecting the right information—then they will automatically fail at critical analysis.

While it would be convenient to imagine that we can just teach students to learn about advanced search techniques and inquiry design in one orientation session in the library, as we do with the Dewey Decimal System, that will not be sufficient. Many students have a very difficult time of transferring knowledge from one setting to another. We need all of our teachers to recognize the critical and essential role they play in preparing students to be web literate. This needs to happen at the point of giving an assignment across the curriculum and beginning when we teach students to read.

2. Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
With access to massive amounts of information and different points of view and access to primary sources comes an opportunity to teach students to ask questions we could never ask in the limited world of paper.

In an interview I had with Stephan Wolfram, a chief designer of the knowledge engine, Wolframalpha, he explains that most of the answers asked by traditional assignments are on the web if you know how to find them. What is not on the web are the questions. One of the most important skills is to teach our students how to ask the creative, innovative and even impossible questions. “The new answers are the creative questions.”

3. Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
We now have tools that can reveal what students are thinking. Research shows that one of the most important skills to improve student achievement is to teach them to self assess their work. In the case of writing an analysis of the “Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Conquest of the American Spy Den” students can be required to use a digital recording tool such as Kaizena to provide a voice recording of an analysis of their own writing. In this way, a teacher can gain insight into what the student was thinking about the flow of ideas he or she tried to represent with their writing. Of course, a side benefit is that some students will improve the quality of their own work when they are required to review their writing before they hand it in.

4. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
While many teachers now have a website with forums for their own students to share their ideas, there are numerous blogs around the world and other publishing sites where we may want to encourage students to broaden and deepen their learning experience. For example, recently, I worked with a social studies teacher who was designing a lesson on immigration to the US. When she discovered that The Economist magazine blog had an ongoing discussion on immigration she realized that she could engage her students in a high level conversation with people around the world on this topic.

Many teachers have websites for students to share their work with the world. One of my favorites is the website of first grade teacher, Kathy Cassidy from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Her students continuously share their work with students around the world via her website and the official class twitter account (@mscassidysclass). Eric Marcos, 6th grade math teacher in Santa Monica, California supports his students to build tutorials in mathematics that they offer to the world.

Of course, one of the benefits of students publishing their work for a global audience is the opportunity to receive feedback for their work beyond the classroom. Many students can be more motivated to publish for a global audience than an audience of “one”—the  teacher.

5. Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
This one may be the most difficult qualities to build into our assignments. A colleague in Istanbul has her Geometry students designing the Geometry curriculum for blind students by visiting a local center for the blind and working with the students to understand how to build tactile activities to understand Geometry. When her students finish their project they will publish it to the web for global access.

When I interviewed these students in their classroom in Istanbul many shared with me that they chose to extend their required 40 hours of community service. Many have given more than 200 hours to this project with no extra credit. Some students even continue their work the year after their course has ended. Their commitment to their work does not depend on an external reward or punishment system such as grades, but an intrinsic drive based on making a contribution.

While many teachers with whom I speak worry about the decline of student focus, we can immediately address this decline by adding “purpose” to student work. (See Dan Pink, Drive, for research studies on purpose.)

6. Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?
Before the Internet it would have been impossible to show students examples across the curriculum of “best in the world” applications of knowledge and skills across the curriculum. Now we can.

One example comes from a science teacher who shared with me that one of his students was under motivated to work on the “egg drop” assignment. You may remember this is where you have to design a contraption surrounding a real egg and then drop the whole thing from a height to protect the raw egg from breaking. I suggested that he show the student a search of “award winning egg drop” sites to find videos from Singapore middle and high school students to motivate the young man to get to work. While this strategy does not work in every single instance, watch what happens when you show students “the best in the world examples” of what other students can accomplish. Students are often more motivated, inspired, and willing to work harder when they know what other students have accomplished. Sports coaches rely on this very same strategy to motive and inspire their athletes. Of course this kind of research can also help the teacher realize that they may want to recalibrate their expectations of acceptable student work to a higher level as well.


Attempting to frame a definition of innovation should lead to healthy debate.  If the litmus test revolves around the straight forward question about whether or not the technology functions, then yes, many schools can claim to be innovative.  However, if our aspirations extend to a new level of student achievement then too many of our schools are “technology rich and innovative poor.”

Clearly, we must move our focus beyond the device and toward the design of learning. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, as Neil Postman so eloquently described in 1985 when he titled his book about the impact of the media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. If he were alive today, he might say that we are amusing ourselves to death with a 1,000 apps.

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