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Scaling Up Success: Lessons Learned from Technology-Based Educational Improvement

reviewed by Alan Lesgold - 2006

coverTitle: Scaling Up Success: Lessons Learned from Technology-Based Educational Improvement
Author(s): Chris Dede (Editor), James P. Honan (Editor), Laurence C. Peters (Editor), Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (Foreword by)
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787976598, Pages: 288, Year: 2005
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A central issue in instructional policy is getting classroom activity to improve and getting enhanced instructional activities to continue over time and across entire school systems. This volume is the record of a workshop at which a number of strong educational researcher-developers described their conclusion about scaling up innovation, based upon their own experiences. In each case, the innovation contributing to the reported experiences and conclusions involved use of information technologies. A shared conclusion was that much remains to be learned about scaling up instructional schemes that have been shown to work in specific single environments.

All of the workshop participants attended to a central problem of scaling up educational innovation, namely the complexity of the educational system. Classrooms involve teachers and students, who differ in their prior knowledge, background, and dispositions. Classrooms exist within schools, which in turn are within school systems. School systems are themselves not closed systems, being influenced by parents, school board members, superintendents, voters, and higher levels of government. Moreover, many of the forces that impinge on school systems are volatile, as are some of the elements within such systems; teachers, superintendents, principals, and board members change.

One way or another, each of the presentations in this volume confronts this complexity. Generally, authors emphasized distributed, bottom-up strategies; extensive professional development; focus on outcome goals; and maintenance of direction over an extended period of time. All of this makes sense. Because the presenters came partly out of technology development efforts, they put forth approaches that contained at least vestiges of the systematic decomposition approaches that characterized the initial generations of software development.

One potential alternative foundation for scaling up innovation, though, comes more from the study of complex systems. A school system is a complex system. It contains a number of agents with considerable freedom of action, including teachers, students, and school leaders. These agents have information links to other agents, both inside and outside the school system, including voters, parents, and politicians. Those outside forces create an ecological niche. When one wants to introduce an innovation, attention must be paid to whether the existing niche can support the innovation. If carrying out the innovation brings about success for the agents within the system, then they will individually pursue it.

More often, however, an innovation – as implemented – is at least partly incompatible with the existing ecological niche. If this is the case, then the innovation will not scale up unless one of several approaches is taken. The first possibility is to make the niche more receptive, i.e., to change the ecology so that enacting the innovation does lead to success. For example, if an innovation produces higher scores on some test, then the ecology may become more receptive if there are incentives to teachers to have their students do well on that test. This approach has a possible drawback, though. When the ecological niche of a school system is changed, it is not inevitable that the desired innovation will be the only adaptation to the change. For example, if high test scores become rewarding, teachers may cheat in testing, or they may focus all attention on the small subset of students most likely to quickly become higher scorers.

A second possibility is to provide training. There are two kinds of training. One focuses on carrying out the innovation. Here, it is assumed that a teacher will enact an innovation if he/she knows how. Often, such training is essential. Another kind of training, however, is also important. This is training in the value of an innovation. Here, the task is not to convince a teacher or other agent to enact an innovation but rather to convince the agent that good things will come from such enactment.

An example of a situation where values training is needed is when the culture does not recognize the utility of an innovation. For example, some mathematics teaching innovations fail because they involve classroom activities that teachers, the general public, and even some mathematicians do not believe are a good idea. In such a situation, a teacher who tries the innovation will receive criticism from parents, and possibly from a school leader. Moreover, he/she may not personally believe in the approach being advocated. Such a situation is one in which the survival of the innovation is unlikely. Moreover, even getting the teacher on board may not be enough if the general public really opposes the approach, as has been evident from the “math wars.”

From the ecological or complex adaptive systems perspective, then, the key to scaling up an innovation lies in making the ecological niche receptive to it and making the relevant agents, usually teachers, able to effect it. Further, as many of the chapters indicate, it is necessary to create a niche in which it is evident that the desired change will continue to be adaptive – on a longer time scale than that required to achieve its implementation. The chapters in this book provide a range of strategies that can accomplish some of this general strategy and thus are eminently worthy of being read. I suggest that if the ecological perspective were applied more systematically to each of their analyses, it would result in even more insight into how to scale up innovations.

Returning to the technological viewpoint from which the authors began their work, perhaps innovations will scale better if the design strategies for robot swarms and other distributed systems become more dominant in researcher-developer thinking. After all, the goal of scaling is not for every classroom to implement the exact same approach but rather for every classroom to encompass innovations that best realize an innovative and adaptive strategy for the particular students and teacher in that room.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 193-195
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12064, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:52:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Alan Lesgold
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    ALAN LESGOLD is professor and dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh and also professor of psychology and intelligent systems. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1971 and also holds an honorary doctorate from the Open University of the Netherlands. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), in experimental, applied, and educational psychology, and also of the American Psychological Society. In 2001, he received the APA award for distinguished contributions of applications of psychology to education and training. In 1995, he was awarded the Educom Medal. He currently is president of the Applied Cognitive Psychology division of the International Association for Applied Psychology. A recent publication he co-authored with his student Amy Soller is Soller, A., & Lesgold, A. (in press). Modeling the process of knowledge sharing. In U. Hoppe, M. Ikeda, & H. Ogata (Eds.) New Technologies for Collaborative Learning. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
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