Research in Action | September 2012 Digital Edition

Innovation Abroad, Insight at Home

A global team of researchers goes around the world to see what it takes to prepare students for their futures, and suggests ways to apply the lessons here in the United States.

This article, complete with an interactive slide show, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's September 2012 digital edition.

Policy and education leaders around the world tout the need to reinvent education so that their students will gain the skills necessary to succeed in the rapidly changing, technology-enabled world of tomorrow. It's easy to agree that students need to be collaborators, problem-solvers, and adept users of technology tools, but many of those same thought leaders find it much harder to design classroom environments that help students build these skills.

Over the last three years, SRI International led a team of research partners from seven countries as they explored the teaching practices that enable student learning of 21st century skills and the systems of support that can help teachers to adopt those practices.

The Innovative Teaching and Learning Research project took place in a wide variety of educational settings, ranging from Finland and Australia to Senegal and Indonesia. In the 2010-11 school year, we surveyed 4,038 teachers and 159 school administrators, visited 24 schools in seven countries, and analyzed 967 assignments given by teachers and 3,367 corresponding pieces of student work. As a result, a number of remarkably consistent findings emerged across this very diverse range of educational settings--many of which we believe can inform educators here in the United States.

In this research, we define "innovative teaching" as instruction that is designed to promote 21st century capacities such as collaboration, problem-solving, self-regulation of learning activities, and the use of technology to support deeper learning. It is important to note that technology use is not seen as an end in itself; rather, it is an essential enabler of a pedagogical vision that provides richer learning opportunities for students.

Innovative teaching, as we think of it, looks different in different educational contexts. In this research it included, for example, teams of students in Russia who took on roles to investigate the chemical composition of carbonated drinks in the style of a popular TV show, Australian students who worked in pairs to identify different parts of the digestive system through a virtual frog dissection application, and students in Indonesia who researched the relationship between supply and demand at a local outdoor market. Our goal was to use a common set of lenses to view and describe innovative teaching, with analytic methods that look at the practices in each setting on its own terms.

Here are some of our findings that seemed to be consistent across the range of countries we looked at:

The assignment makes a difference. Across classroom settings, we found a high correlation between the 21st century skills that students are asked to use and those they exhibit in their work. For example, students in Senegal were given the opportunity to research and debate the important issue of the impact of emigration on Africa's economy. The students stepped up to the challenge by collaborating, solving problems, and supporting their ideas with evidence. The inverse is also true, resulting in a ceiling effect: If students aren't asked to use these skills, it's unlikely that they will.

Innovative teaching doesn't necessarily pervade the school environment. The schools we visited in this research had been identified and chosen because of their innovative practices. Despite that, we found more variation in teaching practices among teachers in the same school than (on average) across schools. Innovation was typically a set of isolated practices of individual teachers more than an integrated experience for students. And in most schools we visited, traditional classroom practices were still the norm.

In most settings, teachers' use of technology for teaching was far more common than students' use of technology for learning. This is a typical pattern in the technology adoption process that is related to a host of factors. Chief among these are the availability of technology for students to use, teacher readiness, and supports such as electronic curriculum materials that can help to enable more transformational uses of technology in learning.

In one observed lesson, only the teacher was using technology with students in the role of observers, despite the fact that the lesson took place in a computer lab. And across all schools visited, when students did use technology, they were more likely to use it in basic ways (such as looking up information or practicing procedures) than for purposes that were more transformational to their learning.

Important school-level supports tend to be present in schools with higher concentrations of innovative teaching. In schools where teachers reported higher average levels of innovative teaching practices, they also tended to report:

  • a higher frequency of collaboration among teachers;
  • sustained hands-on professional development opportunities (such as practicing teaching methods or conducting research) rather than one-time, passive opportunities (such as attending a lecture-based workshop or observing a demonstration);
  • access to technology within the classroom, rather than solely in stand-alone lab settings; and
  • a professional culture aligned to support innovation, reflection, and meaningful discourse about new teaching practices.

Coherent systemic support is essential. Disconnects between policy mandates or supports and desired practice were found in most of the schools and all of the systems in our sample. For example, a teacher in England described the commonly felt tension of wanting to innovate but being judged by the more traditional demands of school inspectors and standardized exams.

In most settings technology was available in the classroom before related curricular materials and models for its powerful and effective use were. Throughout the sample, these tensions were some of the most striking challenges for teachers as they sought to move toward 21st century models of teaching and learning.

How can what we learned in this multi-country study inform the work of school- or district-level leaders who are pursuing technology-enabled reform agendas here in the United States? We have a few suggestions:

1) Explicitly design opportunities for students to build 21st century skills. When learning activities and assessments demand collaboration, knowledge building, and problem solving, students have opportunities and incentives to engage and develop these skills. Furthermore, the design process should focus on what it takes for students to build these skills deeply. If students are working in pairs, for example, are they simply sharing ideas, as is often the case in the popular "think, pair, share" model of group work?

Or, like the assignment in Mexico that asked teams of students to develop blog posts and videos expressing their views about social stereotypes and student self-images, is the task structured in a way that requires students to build the important collaboration skills of listening, negotiating, and integrating diverse ideas into a coherent whole?

2) Integrate technology with a vision and plan for how it will enable deeper learning. Information technologies evolved to extend the capabilities of working professionals engaged in authentic knowledge-rich tasks. They afford access to new information, collaboration with colleagues, and forms of representation in the service of accomplishing highly complex activities.

Similarly, when schools adopt technologies because they will complement and extend learning opportunities for students, these technologies can add significant value to the educational experience. On the other hand, technologies adopted without careful forethought and integration into the curriculum are more likely to reinforce the pedagogical status quo in classrooms.

3) Align systems of professional support toward innovative teaching. Just as students need a learning environment that's structured to support and encourage their practice of 21st century competencies, teachers need a professional environment that supports and encourages them in new ways of teaching.

Key elements include:

  • sustained, systematic professional development programs to support the professional growth of the teaching staff;
  • incentives and appraisals aligned with new instructional goals;
  • structural considerations that might support new practices (such as block scheduling, team teaching, or technology resource allocation); and
  • explicit instructional models and curriculum resources that can help teachers bring these goals alive in classrooms.

4) Recognize that different teachers may require different supports as they work to change their practices. Teachers--even within the same school--vary considerably in both their aptitude and readiness for innovative teaching. Just as good teachers pay attention to the learning needs of individual students, schools should support individual teachers' development as they become more skillful with incorporating 21st century pedagogy into their professional practice.

One school leader described the organic spread of enthusiasm as "like a chain reaction" when innovation was encouraged with an opt-in model rather than when it was mandated from the top down. Strategies like this, and opportunities for teachers to collaborate around classroom practice, can help teachers who are in early stages of the adoption curve learn from their colleagues and participate in school-level innovation even if they're only ready for initial steps in their own classroom.

About the ITL Research Project

The Innovative Teaching and Learning Research project used a number of different research methods that included, but were not limited to, surveys, interviews, and objective analysis of classroom artifacts. The project was funded by Microsoft Partners in Learning in partnership with ITL Research's in-country sponsors, Langworthy Research, and a global board of advisers. For more information, please visit