Review: Education Nation (by Milton Chen)
17 Aug 2010

Review: Education Nation (by Milton Chen)

Milton Chen deviates from the change manifesto genre somewhat by reflecting on his own experiences and the work undertaken by Edutopia, which he previously directed. The book is so deeply oriented toward the work of Edutopia and its key source of income (George Lucas), that, prima facie, it nearly comes across as a swan song of their accomplishments. Reading beyond this, however, the book emerges as another list of indictments of many of the things wrong with the U.S. education system. Where Chen shines, is in making a case for changing our mindsets so that we can find remedies.

17 Aug 2010

Book: Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools
Author: Milton Chen
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Teacher (July, 2010)

Like sunspots, books critical of the education system seem to follow periodic cycles. And, it seems we’ve hit a high point over the past year or so. We’ve seen popular books on the theme emerge from Clayton Christensen, Malcolm Gladwell, Sir Ken Robinson, and others.

Their messages are largely the same.

They converge on a genre that can only be classified as “change manifestos” — texts that are often written by educators (or people on the fringe of education) and suggest that we need a revolution in education. These, nearly universally, fail to tie in research, and lack a real futures orientation. As a result, many of these change manifestos fail to help bring about meaningful change.

Milton Chen deviates from the change manifesto genre somewhat by reflecting on his own experiences and the work undertaken by Edutopia, which he previously directed. The book is so deeply oriented toward the work of Edutopia and its key source of income (George Lucas), that, prima facie, it nearly comes across as a swan song of their accomplishments. Reading beyond this, however, the book emerges as another list of indictments of many of the things wrong with the U.S. education system. Where Chen shines, is in making a case for changing our mindsets so that we can find remedies. Specifically, Chen writes that we need to focus on implementing six edges of “innovation” in K-12 learning — not all of which are mutually compatible:

  1. The thinking edge: We need to upgrade our thinking about education itself
  2. The curriculum edge: Modernizing what is taught, how, and how we assess learning
  3. The technology edge: Meaningfully bringing modern technologies into educational environments
  4. The time/place edge: Realizing that education occurs all the time, not just during school clock hours
  5. The co-teaching edge: Teachers are important, and bringing more experts into the classroom is beneficial
  6. The youth edge: Recognizing generational differences between students, educators, and society

These six edges are just fine, but let’s focus a little bit on semantics: I view innovation as the purposive application of imagination and creativity to produce new benefits, but the edges of “innovations” Chen covers are really frameworks for practitioners, policy makers, revolutionaries, et al, to think about making positive change. Moreover, most of these reframings have existed since the time of Dewey, making me wonder why they’re in a book about “innovation.” What Chen does well, however, is connect his six edges with research and stories — most of which was compiled from his arm’s length relationships with Edutopia and other researches in the San Francisco Bay Area. And, he uses these connections to build support for integrating project-based learning, cooperative teaching, proper technology integration, professional development, and other ideas — except they all emerged from the 20th century, not the 21st century. There are tomes of additional research available, nationally and internationally, that Chen could have folded into his book to make for a richer and deeper read — perhaps one relevant for the 21st century. But, this book is really the story of Edutopia.

And that’s just fine. Unless if you’re looking for innovation.

Whereas peaks in sunspot activity can have real consequences for people on Earth, peaks of change manifesto activity have generally lead to no real change. I have enormous respect for the work of Chen and Edutopia, but the casual rehashing of old themes with an “innovation” rebranding leaves the reader asking “how?” and “so what?” Unless if Chen can address these how and so what questions in a second volume or an update, I’m afraid this book will share space on my bookshelf with other change manifestos.

Bottom line: Chen’s Education Nation is an enjoyable read within its genre, but lacks new ideas.


Notes: 1) Thanks to Carmen Tschofen for introducing the term change manifestos to me to describe the genre discussed above. 2) Wiley provided a copy of this book for me to review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

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