5 big ideas for education innovation in 2019

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Jan 8, 2019

Over the last year, education innovators around the country continued to pursue expanded definitions of student success, personalized approaches, and wholly new models of school. For many, the very real challenges of change management and discovering ways to promote scale with quality dominated 2018. But for those conversations to go a level deeper, we can’t assume that these new measures and new models are fully baked or that everything deemed “new” is at it seems. Looking ahead, here are five big ideas I’ll be watching for in 2019:

1.    ‘Unbundle’ what we mean by SEL.

Social-emotional learning. Soft Skills. Habits of mind. These critical but sometimes elusive ideas have gotten their fair share of love over the past year. But pulling back the curtain on the research base, the paltry supply of reliable SEL assessments can make the current energy around SEL interventions feel anemic at best, and hollow at worst. Like personalized learning, “SEL” now connotes a bundle of concepts and aspirations that may need to get unbundled in order to be useful. In that vein, in 2019 I’m most excited to watch emerging SEL point solutions targeted at specific, narrow skills or dispositions. These innovations are focused on doing a few things really well. For example, GiveThx, the brainchild of Leadership Public Schools’ teacher-entrepreneur Mike Fauteaux, plucks off one particular emotion and skill: gratitude. In a similar vein, Kind Foundation’s effort, Empatico.org, focuses on experiences that inspire empathy across classrooms. I’ll be watching models like these that offer narrower on-ramps to more rigorous measurement and targeted interventions within the exceedingly broad SEL landscape.

2.    Commit to threading the coherent curriculum needle.

Speaking of the murky waters of personalized learning, rumblings (and occasional shouts) about the fragmented state of curriculum to support personalization have been building for years. One of the fundamental tensions we hear articulated is whether a coherent, evidence-based , off-the-shelf curriculum is better than a potpourri of lessons that teachers and leaders assemble—and in some cases build—themselves. Although these debates are not unique to personalized environments, personalization hinges on a commitment to tailor learning experiences to individual students. But the more varied those experiences and resources are, many worry the less rigorous and coherent curriculum becomes. Through the lens of our own Modularity theory, these tradeoffs aren’t unique to curriculum per se: across industries, a modular approach can be more affordable and flexible, while integrated solutions are pricier but better at pushing the frontier of performance. In 2019, I’ll be keeping an eye on how districts and schools manage to strike a balance between the tradeoffs of modular and flexible versus integrated and coherent approaches to curriculum.

3.    Pair disruptive business models and new content in teacher prep.

For years we’ve watched two different phenomena in teacher prep emerge on parallel, but stubbornly separate, paths. The first is the rise of disruptive business models throughout postsecondary education that leverage online, competency-based instructional models and student-centered business models to disrupt the traditional lockstep approach to 4-year degrees. These new models have the potential to radically reimagine all adult learning, but specifically could expand access to, and affordability of, teacher preparation programs. At the same time, players in the personalized learning space have begun to articulate discrete and distinct competencies that teachers of the future will require—ranging from data analysis to assessment literacy to facilitation. The discouraging fact is that these two phenomena have until recently remained fairly siloed. Disruptive players like WGU operate thriving teacher preparation programs but teach traditional content. More traditional players have begun to deliver content aimed at preparing teachers to teach in personalized environments, but maintain traditional business models. I’ll be following exciting work emerging at the cross section of disruptive delivery models and content tailored to what teachers need to know to teach in competency-based, personalized schools. This includes new work underway at the likes of 2Rev and Southern New Hampshire University, who are partnering to launch a new masters program for leading and learning in competency-based systems, Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College’s, where there are efforts afoot to rethink the one-teacher one-classroom model, and Relay Graduate School of Education, which is starting to build out its online enterprise.

4.    Build next-gen CTE models…or not?

2018 was a banner year for Career Technical Education (CTE), in large part due to the reauthorization of the Perkins Act in a rare bipartisan miracle on the Hill. These dollars are fueling the ongoing energy around reinventing approaches to CTE across schools, workforce development organizations, and postsecondary institutions. Most conversations about CTE bank on the promise of once and for all aligning education and employment. Yet time and again we’ve observed that traditional organizations struggle to disrupt from within. So-called “new” CTE models promulgated by traditional players who have occupied the space for decades could amount to a whole lot of old wine in new bottles. This year I’ll be looking for wholly new approaches to CTE, particularly those leveraging online learning or innovative staffing to break through traditional limitations in how students’ access coursework and who serves as CTE instructors. I remain personally most inspired by those CTE models like Blue Valley CAPS that are focusing not just on technical skills, but on diversifying professional connections for students who might otherwise be shut out of those networks.

5.    Put relationships at the center.

A few years ago I started chirping about the importance of students’ networks. That culminated in our latest book, Who You Know, out last August. In the course of that research, I’ve gotten to know a range of innovators and advocates in the space who are putting relationships at the center of their work, such as Search Institute, America’s Promise Alliance, MENTOR, and Big Picture Learning (to name a few!). Organizations like these are expanding our understanding of the webs of support and networks of opportunity that benefit young people. This year, I’m excited to watch school system leaders who are tackling the social side of opportunity through integrated student supports, real-world authentic feedback, near-peer mentoring programs, and place-based instructional approaches. I’m also excited to watch entrepreneurs who are building tools that put more relationships within reach for young people. Perhaps most crucial for these innovations to take hold is that technology and relationships not be seen as inherently at odds with one another. We’ll continue to be on the lookout for new tools that promise to transform dreaded screen time into precious face time—disrupting, in their wake, the limitations of inherited networks.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.