Sunday, February 26, 2012

Equipoise in Education?

Recently, @mrmcgrann tweeted out that he had a question for Bill Gates. You can read his whole post here (and you should, I'll be here). Here's his question: To fuel innovation, we often need to take risks. Risks come with many rewards, but they also come with failure. How do you balance teacher accountability while supporting and promoting innovative teaching? This is an excellent question. Because if we take risks, we have to accept failure--it's an integral part of the process of growing to better practice. The only thing is---those are real kids and it is their learning with which we will be a risk. In Auburn Maine, some educators took an expensive and visible risk and did a randomized study with Kindergarteners and iPads. They found that using the devices with specific apps had a small but significant positive impact on literacy in just a few months.
The improvement they found leads to the question--when a benefit is observed, do those involved have an obligation to end the trial to give the benefit to all the children involved? In medical trials, the principle of equipoise means that the premise of a trial is that the researchers do not know whether a treatment or medication bestows a benefit. When the initial results of a trial are significantly positive, it means that the researchers are ethically required to stop the trial to treat all the participants. One example is early trials of AZT with AIDS patients. Does this mean that the district is now obligated to immediately provide iPads to all the kindergarteners? It's probably not that easy. So what about the opposite? What happens when a risk leads to a "nope, this isn't helping" result? When kids in the study group learn less than those with the traditional treatment? Maybe when corporate profits dip for a year, it's not a tragedy. But when a group of kindergarteners learns less about letters and sounds for a year, well, it just might be. So the stakes are high. And its not the teachers who really pay the price of failure, it's the kids. And maybe that's why it's so hard to figure out how to support truly innovative teaching.


Anthony McGrann said...

Thanks for reflecting on my question. You make many good points. Stakes are indeed high, and if we try something new that isn't improving things, we need to know quickly and cut our losses. The opposite is also true though - if what we are doing isn't working and kids aren't being reached, we need to recognize that and do something different. As more teachers share what's working for them, hopefully we'll have even more resources to draw from. I'm sorry you won't be able to make edcampIS, but I'm sure you'll enjoy your visit here in Seattle. Hopefully, I'll be able to meet you at some point during the conference. I'll be there Thursday afternoon and Friday. Thanks in advance for live blogging Mr. Gates' keynote.

Sarah Hanawald said...

Thanks for coming by Anthony. I hope I didn't sound unsupportive of the concept of risk-taking. Doing what failed last year over again this year (or, more likely, repeating what was mediocre) is insanity. I think events like edcampIS are key to raising the standards for new thought among educators.

Michael Rosario said...

I really enjoyed this blog post. I wanted to affirm the insight that all educational innovations come with a risk. When risks pay off, the students win. The opposite is also true. Risks should be taken seriously.

1) I believe that it becomes more important for our educational community to look out for "what works." Innovative teaching is happening all over the world. I believe it becomes more critical for education innovators to share their lessons learned. (what worked? what can be improved)

I really enjoy learning from teachers innovating like Ananth Pai.

2) I view the world as a software developer. Our craft of building software is full of risks. One of the thoughtful practices from agile software development is the idea that innovations should be time boxed. This helps to time box risk. Can we address teaching innovations using time boxes? Can we empower teachers to try out new ideas for a time box of two weeks to one month? At the end of the time box, can we ask education innovators to share what went well and what can be improved?

Page 7 of this white paper describes a potential cycle of educational innovation:

Planning innovations, doing innovations, checking them, improving the plan and repeating the process.

Thanks again for the great post.