Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tomorrow's Innovators: Essential Skills for a Changing World

reviewed by James Wilkins 

Title: Tomorrow's Innovators: Essential Skills for a Changing World
Author(s): Dennis Adams & Mary Hamm
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475800819, Pages: 194, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

The slightly prophetic tone of the title aptly reflects the contents of Adams and Hamm's detailed and stimulating exploration of the challenges and rewards facing teachers in the immediate and more distant future. This is a book with a clear philosophical and ideological agenda, which argues unapologetically that a radical change needs to take place in pedagogical practice nationwide in order to prevent the education sector stagnating and falling out of step with the demands of the post-secondary world. But the authors are not prophets of doom: on the contrary, theirs is a message of hope, and the book digresses in some detail on the various strategies for incorporating new and emerging technologies into the classroom that the authors have identified as most effective and efficient. The book is therefore both a philosophical and a practical manual for teachers and educational theorists, and its lively, engaging tone encourages readers to appreciate the benefits derived from these new modes of learning, rather than the detriments.

Adams and Hamm argue that the education sector is at the core of all societal change, and that for students and educators to be left behind by what they consider a rapid and radical advance in technology would do great harm to our civilization. The recent shifts toward a more technological world, they argue, are merely the beginning of a phenomenon that will span decades, and old fashioned models of pedagogy, whatever their value and relevance in the past, must now reform or die out. Again, the tone is a positive one, urging evolution rather than revolution. The authors begin their survey of educational models by commenting on the efficacy of various historical instructional methods, seeking to identify new technologies as the latest in a trend of innovations dating back to the founding of the public education system (and, indeed, of formal education in and of itself). This is a welcome approach, since although some will doubtless embrace the changes proposed in teaching practice by this book, it is vital, by the authors' own admission, that traditionalists be persuaded to enter the conversation as well. By positioning their case for a “changing world” in the context of a longstanding tradition, therefore, Adams and Hamm demonstrate a clear sensitivity to their audience and awareness of the range of views – including skepticism – that teachers currently hold toward the policy of integrating technology in the classroom.

The authors go on to develop this theme by arguing that their case is for radical, but not fundamental change, i.e., they are proposing a series of specific, practical, achievable reforms to bring the education sector into line with exciting innovations in the world of private enterprise and commercial research. They argue compellingly that the principle task of any educator is to prepare students for the realities and challenges of the world they will encounter when they leave school. As society is changing to embrace and rely on technology, so they claim, teaching practice must do the same. Digital inter-connectivity and online communications are two fields effectively drawn into the teacher's remit as Adams and Hamm simply and effectively make the case for interacting with students both on their own terms and on the terms they will be expected to adopt in their subsequent careers.

The juxtaposition between innovation and stagnation is one to which the authors return again and again, and despite an occasional tendency to overuse a cliché or several in illustrating their case (“learning to hit moving targets”), it is difficult to fault them for this. Their case studies are recent and relevant and they select their examples with great discretion. They are also inventive in the way they propose specific innovations for elementary and middle school educators looking to integrate new technologies in their lessons. This specificity is much to their credit, and the book is at its best when it moves beyond the introductory clichés and engages seriously and dynamically with its subject matter. Adams and Hamm are writing for teachers, whom they clearly understand and relate to sympathetically, but unfortunately this does at times lead them to indulge in jargon that might be off-putting to the casual reader. They would doubtless defend this tendency on the grounds that this book is not targeted at the casual reader, but meant as a professional guide for those who are stakeholders in education. So diverse is the material they cover, however, and so widely-applicable their conclusions, that this book should have appeal far beyond such a narrow demographic.

The argument is well paced and becomes ever stronger as the book progresses. Initially there is a liability to make unsubstantiated statements of fact (“nearly everyone agrees that the future depends on creating a better-educated, freer, and more efficient citizenry.”) But this charge is rapidly and skillfully undermined as the authors become increasingly specific and detailed in their recommendations for fellow teachers. Their remit is ambitious: to overcome doubts and reinforce the value and applicability of these new pedagogical techniques while remaining sympathetic to the needs of students and staff of all ages and levels of experience. A coherent strategy is at the heart of the model championed in Tomorrow's Innovators, with the authors urging teachers to utilize all the data-gathering powers of technology to support them in creating ever-more targeted and responsive learning environments. The possibilities for overcoming historic shortcomings are also exposed with tact and creativity: the advantages offered by technology-supported learning environments in terms of improving the de factoratio of staff to students, for instance. The energy and enthusiasm for new technologies are infectious, and this is clearly a book to which jaded teachers will return many times over for renewed spirit and new ideas.

In their own description of the book, Adams and Hamm claim that it will assess how “thinking about curriculum and instruction has to occur as the traditional boundaries between politics, technology, culture, education, and ecology disappear.” This conviction that the social fabric of society is currently in the early stages of a major reshaping will lead some to see this book as political: and well they should. The authors are agitators, calling for progress, not satisfaction. They are not shy of drawing attention to the parlous and resource-poor context in which much modern education takes place, but are resolute in their view that by integrating a greater range of technologies the savings made and standards raised in the long term will benefit students and teachers and lead to a more coherent understanding of the educational sector nationwide – indeed, globally. The global implications of these changes receive only passing comment, which is perhaps a shame, but they are evidently foremost in the minds of these writers who contend that the real power of many of these technologies is in the community-based philosophy of sharing which they engender and support. Students are able to research, complete and submit work online, and databases of their previous work can be stored, recalled and referenced at will. The implications for group work are also dramatic, both in the local environment of the classroom, facilitated perhaps by an interactive whiteboard for the presentation of a group of speakers, and in the global sense that international exchanges can now be supported by conversations over media such as Skype. The book gives a real sense of the scope and possibilities associated with emerging technologies, and makes constant reference to the fact that the developments educators have experienced to date are bound to be eclipsed in the course of the next decade.

A further strength of this engaging and unusual book is its habit of contextualizing its main argument within a broader understanding of the challenges facing educators and students. Digressions by the evidently experienced authors take in teaching attitudes, the importance of technological competencies in the home, the vocational ramifications of their agenda, and the likely impact of new technologies on the political landscape of the future. In short, their passion and widespread interest are compelling and their book generally well-researched, well-referenced and accessible. The style is conversational, becoming dense only when the occasional tendency toward jargon takes hold. Not all the ideas are new – indeed, the authors acknowledge their widespread debts to the 'innovators of today' – this nevertheless represents perhaps the most comprehensive manifesto for greater technological integration in the classroom, from elementary school on, currently available to readers. The strategies proposed are achievable and the outcomes clearly measurable – which, as the authors acknowledge, sets them apart from numerous earlier attempts to justify the increased presence of new technologies in the sector. Not all readers will accept this case at the outset, nor will the most hardened skeptics be persuaded. There is, after all, little primary research work on display here: the emphasis is more geared toward implementing the conclusions of earlier work. Nonetheless, the book is bound to develop a substantial following and make its mark on modern pedagogical practice.

Tomorrow's Innovators does not hold all the solutions, since the authors are forced to admit that the future is unpredictable and the pace of change too rapid to effectively project the outcomes of their proposals. Nonetheless, their argument that without the essential skills highlighted in this book, a generation will emerge unsuited to the technological demands of further education and the workplace is persuasive, and in their attempt to promulgate it, they have proposed a range of strategies that should excite, inspire and intrigue the forward-thinking teacher.

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