Early Adopter? Innovator? Or Something Else?


“Doubt thou the stars are fire
Doubt thou that the sun doth move
Doubt thou the truth to be a liar”
Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 5

My favorite novel, probably, is Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. In it the lead character, Paul Pennyfeather, gets swept up in high society as a result of bizarre coincidences. Toward the end he meets his downfall and Waugh uses a wonderful metaphor to describe life.

Using comparisons to a Big Wheel that tosses people off as they attempt to cling on, or work their way tirelessly to the center, Waugh suggests there are two sorts of people dynamic and static. He wonderfully and astutely analyzes the mad dash that makes up life declaring that:

“People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to write and in large part that’s because of the above metaphor. In some respects the wild ride of the Education Innovation Fellowship last year seems a long time ago.

I’m not being pushed, or exposed, or compelled to move my ideas forward. I’m bogged down in the sticky moments of trying new things. When you realize you’re not sure what is new for new’s sake and what is valuable change. When you question whether you’ve really just slightly adjusted the definition instead of tearing up the new script.

Paradoxically I am burdened with the concern that I’m treading water once more just drifting along. I wonder whether the new has become just as staid as the past model. I consider whether I am really invested in this work and believe in Personalized Learning as revolutionary.

On a wider scale I notice the world racing by. I am not connected to the same community. I jealously watch the progress of the new Education Innovation Fellows. I see articles posted on Twitter but have little compulsion to be engaged with the wider Blended community.

In short to paraphrase the great PG Wodehouse: “if not actually disgruntled I am far from being gruntled”.

Now on a short-term personal level this is worrisome, on a larger scale it is deeply concerning. If, and it is an if, Personalized Learning is the route to push education forward two questions must be addressed:

1. Do teachers have enough energy to push innovation in this area in all schools? I’m returning to a theme here but this is hard work.
2. How can we support the work of teachers and give them the community they need.

If we take the theory of diffusion of innovation that we have early adopters before a product goes mass market, it would seem that teachers engaged in Personalized Learning currently are early adopters. To make Personalized Learning possible in every classroom we need to make the push that allows the innovation to go to mass market. We need something that disrupts the model.

Personalized learning cannot do that when it’s harder than the existing model. The Model T Ford may have been faster than the horse and cart but it also needed to be cheap and easy to use.

In practice I would argue that we are asking teachers to be innovators. This is like hoping that the Model T Ford would become dominant if you asked every user to design the engine of the car.

The technology increases the ability for teachers to reach every student, and the cost has been significantly reduced. However there is a long way to go if this innovation is to disrupt the whole of education.

Where does that leave me? Well my classroom tootles along quite swimmingly. My students are engaged and we’re having a lot of fun. And that’s the kicker- I don’t need to be involved in these discussions but I can’t help myself. I know that there’s something more that I’m missing.

And so like Paul I’m somewhere on the fence. Somewhere between the two places. Dynamic or static? Time will tell.

“But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone.

People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence, with its physiological implications of growth and organic change. They can’t escape that – even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too – the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle, and when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started.”
Evelyn Waugh