No Change, No Progress? No, Not Really!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Who the heck came up with the idea that we always need to innovate in education and learning? Who thought up the saying: No change is no progress? New learning environments, innovative learning programmes, visionary educational approaches, grand challenges, tech trends … it never seems to stop. It’s like people really think that idle hands are the devil’s workshop and that standing still is equivalent to going backwards! While, if you really think about it, it’s only when you pause to think about something (like now ) that you can truly deeply think, reflect and learn, and gain deep understanding, or, metacognition.

This blog is a plea for what one could call “idle innovation”; standing still by what has been done up ’til now and effectively using it. In other words, we’d like to make a plea here for standing still by what we already have and reflecting on what we already know and do in education and learning, instead of thinking up and doing something and then racing off to think up and do something new. We need to take the time to investigate how we can benefit from the possibilities that we just created or even already have. Just reflect on the wisdom in the image below for a moment, to get into the right mindset.

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We’re half kidding here. No, we haven’t turned into mindfulness adepts or ‘believers’ but we DO feel it’s important to acknowledge that we, as education and learning professionals, seem to be seized by folk wisdom (which probably some advertising exec came up with one day) that standing still equals going backwards.

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The – in our opinion misguided – assumption that we need to continually innovate is something that we constantly see in both education and corporate learning. In education, it’s often the government that keeps coming up with innovation initiatives (e.g., 21st century skills!) or school management that decides to implement changes for all the wrong reasons (e.g., iPads, electronic learning environments, learning management systems, etcetera).

In corporate learning, it’s not much better. There’s a lot of jumping on bandwagons and using ‘buzz words’ that are presented as being innovative or ‘absolutely necessary’. This hopping on trends and throwing around buzz words is extremely unhelpful because both are usually devoid of substance and, thus, quite meaningless. “We need to do microlearning!”, “All learning is social!” “eLearning sucks!” and so on, and so forth.

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We also see the effects of this mantra in funding agencies that constantly put out new calls for new innovative techniques and tools or propose new grand challenges while the techniques and tools from the previous generation of calls are still warm (and then die a quick, cold, lonely, and unused death).

Why this approach of ‘continuous innovation’ is so dumbfounding, is because we already have access to so many strategies and tools. Many of these have been proven to be effective, yet we’re using them sub optimally if we’re using them at all. Even worse, sometimes we’re simply unaware that we have access to proven strategies and tools in the context of education and (corporate) learning.

It’s not our intention to review all of the evidence-informed tools and techniques that have been studied in the last years. Rather, we’ll give examples of a few tools that on the one hand are readily accessible to us while on the other, most of us probably don’t even know they exist or realise how we can benefit from them. Note, we’re just giving some examples!

Readily available tools and how to use them for learning

Let’s take computer programs that are available on all of our devices. We, and the learners that we care about, have access to such programs every day. We use them to do our work better or faster, to make us more productive. We call these programs productivity tools. However, these exact same programs that we’re using every day for our productivity, can also be used as ‘mindtools’ to help us think and learn better.

A spreadsheet program, for example, facilitates doing your admin or project planning but can also be used to help learners to come up with, describe, and organise connections between variables, as well as to identify formulas that show these relationships. Hence, a mindtool for learning to think critically about variables and relations.

Search engines can of course be used to quickly access information, but they can also be used as a mindtool to teach learners to develop complex search skills and strategies. This includes the need for thought processes required to find specific information (ask the right question, choose the correct Booleans, select the correct search terms, etc.), evaluate the acquired information (determine which information is and isn’t trustworthy, determine what’s useful and what isn’t, and so forth), and reflect on what was found in order to decide if what you’ve found meets the information need. In other words: developing information problem solving skills. This is useful for children and adults alike!

Finally, word processors simplify editing text but they can also be used as a mindtool to learn how to become a better writer as well as learn from what one writes. Thanks to, for example, the ‘Outline’ view (see screenshot below) even very novice writers at elementary school can structure their thoughts (by visualizing the heading structure), distinguish main topics from side topics (by visualizing the sub headings) and easily restructure a text (by moving paragraphs).

Soul-searching question: How many of you are aware of the outline function and how many of you actually use it?

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Milou de Smet (2011) carried out a series of studies on the educational use of the outline function and found that the simple use of this tool – with a minimum of instruction – led to significantly better texts. And if you structure a text better (i.e., are forced by the outline function to think about what you’re writing) you process it more deeply and you learn better. Finally, as a teacher, if the learner first presents you with an outline before handing in an essay, you can much more quickly catch the problems than you can in the full essay saving both you and the learner time!

Computers with the three just discussed tools are readily available at school and at home as these programs are standard programs which are already installed and ready to use. The school and the student doesn’t have to pay an extra penny! The only thing that’s missing is a well thought out learning strategy (i.e., a pedagogy) to efficiently and effectively use them as mindtools to support learning.

And this goes for many learning ‘innovations’. The desire to discover new things that can help learners become better, more independent, and more responsible learners sometimes leads to throwing out effective strategies or tools (e.g., pen and paper or direct instruction).

Finally, the thought that standing still is equivalent to going backwards drives private and public funding agencies to continually write out new research and/or development calls before the products of the previous call have been used and perfected.

Right now and right here we’d like to suggest what we call ‘idle innovation’ and urge funding agencies to implement an ‘Idle Innovation Fund’ to finance and stimulate education and learning professionals to study and optimise what we already have so that we can use it in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable manner, instead of coming up with something new, jumping on a bandwagon, or reinventing the wheel.

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Let’s park our desire for shiny new stuff, for bells and whistles, and focus instead on making the current suboptimal state of education and corporate learning optimal. Let’s get mindful of what we already have!

Reflecting on what we already know and have is a good starting point for progress!

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De Smet, M. J. R., Broekkamp, H., Brand-Gruwel, S., & Kirschner, P. A. (2011). Effects of electronic outlining on students’ argumentative writing performance. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 557-574. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00420.x