Summary of The Knowledge Garage: Redesigning Education R&D to Transform Learning

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We prepared this Executive Summary of our white paper for the national invitational summit that we convened with Knowledge Alliance/Center for Knowledge Use and the Stupski Foundation, Unleashing Knowledge and Innovation for the Next Generation of Learning, from August 10–12, 2009, in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.

Executive Summary

Education R&D has its passionate advocates, to be sure, but even they would be hard pressed to argue that the topic conjures up visions of unbridled creativity, free flowing inventiveness, and audacious risk-taking—at least at first glance.

This white paper advocates on behalf of taking a second, more introspective glance through the lens of “the knowledge garage”—the garage serving as a metaphor for ideas hatched in unlikely places by unlikely people, but ideas nonetheless that can ultimately change the world.

The paper begins with an appreciative nod to the early garage sites of youthful inventiveness, whose initial tinkering gave us the personal computer, eventually democratizing ongoing communications worldwide. It then poses the following question:

by pursuing a similar course, one also filled with creativity, inquiry, opportunity, and tenacity, could education R&D be redesigned to transform learning?

Section One, Road Trip: Rethinking Education R&D, describes the quest for the answer, led by two organizations: Knowledge Alliance and West Wind Education Policy. It highlights development of a new product, one of ideas and potential actions, six years in the making. What began as a conceptual dialogue among a group of leading research organizations to define the meaning of knowledge utilization culminated, via a broader conversation with individuals from other backgrounds and fields, in concrete dimensions of a potential R&D infrastructure for education. In between, were side trips incorporating thoughts of the future, entrepreneurship, web-based technology, and system design.

Sharing this road trip has three objectives. First, it aims to document for the actual participants the highlights of their long-term efforts to identify the intersection of knowledge, innovation, research, development, and action. Second, it provides a record in hindsight for potential participants, intended to accelerate their subsequent engagement. Third, openly sharing these activities models the comprehensive, thoughtful type of inquiry needed to assess the role of education R&D, both now and in the future, in the transformation of learning.

Section Two, Specifications: Designing a New Model, places the issue of reinventing education R&D into larger relief, by summarizing four emerging issues that will have a significant impact on the outcome. First is the profound way in which the education system itself is changing, starting with rethinking the individual relationship between students and teachers in a 2.0 learning world. Second is a new Administration on record as champions of transparency in governing and innovation as well as stewards of a record infusion of federal education funds to states and school districts. Third is the evolving conversation to replace 50 different sets of state standards and assessments with an alternative more responsive to accomplishing national education priorities in a global context. Fourth are external considerations of the general public’s role in education R&D, not only to inform citizens but to involve them as active participants, as beneficiaries, and ultimately, as taxpayers and public investors. As one wise participant noted, if the early innovators had not found their market and filled a demand, they’d still be in the garage.

Section Three, GPS: Navigating the Road Ahead, describes how an innovative idea successfully implemented by dedicated educators and achieving positive results may still not survive—a situation all too common in education today. A future scenario, based on forging a new teacher-student relationship more compelling for a digital world, is used to illustrate the point. The paper then revisits the scenario in order to pose this question: what would have happened differently if a redesigned R&D education infrastructure had been in place?

Section Four, Body Parts: Building the Infrastructure, moves from the conceptual to the concrete. It uses the scenario as backdrop to examine the respective parts—from the leadership structure that provides oversight, field support, outreach, and dissemination, to the local design teams and innovation sites that address problems of practice through cycles of continuous improvement—of what a top-down/bottom-up redesigned R&D system in education might look like. It also poses, as part of this context, a way to position policymaking and practice in a seamless relationship, enriched by the coordinated, strategic use of research, knowledge, development, and dissemination.

Section Five, Test Drive: Shifting into High Gear, poses three recommendations intended to prompt action.

  • Recommendation One: create a new leadership structure to redesign R&D in education, with two preconditions intended to accelerate its initial and long-term success: 1) conduct a series of rigorous benchmarking studies to capture, and then customize for implementation, the relevant best practices from comparable types of entities and 2) align with other R&D entities, both within and outside the federal government, that share the same applied research mission.
  • Recommendation Two: implement a proof of concept of the approach outlined in this paper that, ultimately, would position local design teams nationwide as consistent participants in implementing ongoing innovative practices in education.
  • Recommendation Three: support a series of targeted and coordinated outreach efforts so that the new education R&D infrastructure can evolve into a true knowledge ecosystem, which routinely uses research to reinforce effective state and federal policymaking; helps build a market, based on practitioner needs, for product development that will spur continual innovation; and informs and engages the public and its many segments, so that they, collectively and respectively, have an identifiable stake in the outcome.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in many respects, was the ideal sponsor of this white paper. Its male namesake was part of a cadre of young independent-minded learners a generation ago who used their imagination and resolve in ways that ultimately transformed the world. In democratizing access to information, they also fashioned a whole new type of student, “the 24/7 learner,” for whom self-directed education has become not just an aspiration, but an expectation.

As with any transformation, there are winners and losers. Clearly, the first category includes the growing numbers of students for whom the Internet has become the primary source of both knowledge and co-invention. In the potential loser category is the current education system, increasingly at risk in achieving its mission, as increasing numbers of students are learning in spite of, not because of, what they experience in school. Even more troubling are the growing numbers of students who, precisely because they lack access to the Internet, are in danger of falling even further behind.

It is therefore fitting for the Gates Foundation, as well as growing numbers of other innovators, to weigh in on the side of forging new solutions to transform public education—using, as their legacy, both the experiences and resources grounded in the early garage days. Accordingly, this white paper ends with a call to action on behalf of forging future learning opportunities. It suggests embracing not only the original inventive spirit of the garage, but also the purposeful actions—and lasting entities—that such creativity ultimately produced.

A dual inventive/sustainable approach cannot come soon enough. Fundamental challenges now confront all aspects of society, calling upon the entire country to act like one big garage. The problems are increasingly apparent; remedies, less so. The risk, absent proven and thoughtful approaches, is defaulting to inappropriate or deficient solutions. The stakes are high, but the opportunities are endless—if we can evolve the myriad, often vitriolic separate discussions currently underway into collaborative deliberation followed by collective action.

Developing a culture and habit of using R&D in education to innovate for the long-term—the message conveyed in the following pages—can serve this purpose. The message is long overdue.

It’s time, taking a cue from the quintessential garage band of all time, therefore, “to head out on the highway.”

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