Light bulbs, sockets and innovation in education

June 9, 2013

Merrill Vargo

If you stop and think about it, when Edison invented the light bulb he also had to invent the socket. Edison was a master innovator, but it must have become clear to him pretty quickly that continued innovation on the socket wasn’t the point, and that standardizing the socket actually made it easier to innovate at the level of the bulb. You can visit any hardware store to see the power of this idea.

The idea that standardization lays the foundation for innovation is one that everyone in the high-tech world recognizes, but it is particularly relevant to education right now. The governor has just proposed allocating $1 billion for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and this has sparked a familiar debate: Where in a school system should decision-making happen?  When it comes to the Common Core, who should get to decide what? People In search of an answer say things like we should be “tight on goals and loose on means” or “decisions should be made by those closest to the children.” Things like this sound good when you say them fast, but they don’t really answer the question. Loose on all the means?  Really? And which decisions, exactly, should be made closest to the children?

If we reframe the question as not about autonomy or “who’s in charge here?” but rather as about what should be standardized and why, the answers look different. One argument is that standardization is justified whenever it creates efficiencies. This matters; good stewardship of resources should be a core value for any school system. But efficiency is not the primary argument for standardization. Standardizing some things can help teachers by reducing the number of things they need to worry about. Everybody has a limit to the amount of complexity they can manage, and classrooms are complex places. Standardization is also sometimes justified as a tool for “equity.” This is a misunderstanding; standardization can be used to guarantee equal inputs to an educational process, but equity of opportunity or outcomes rarely is produced solely through a focus on equality of inputs. But the fundamental – and often misunderstood – function of standardization is actually to foster customization and even innovation. It’s about sockets and bulbs.

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of the new assessments from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), California has opted to standardize a few key elements of the system: standards and assessments. These are sockets, and rightly understood they lay the foundation for innovation. Edison had to screw the bulb into the socket and turn it on to see which design worked best. Standardized assessments make it possible for teachers to test the effectiveness of a variety of instructional strategies and curriculum materials. It is the systematic testing of the innovation that is the key here, and that can’t happen without the socket, which in this case is the state assessments.

Of course, education systems are complex, and one person’s light bulb is another person’s socket. As we move into the Common Core, many schools still treat the school schedule as a socket that might as well be standardized; others want to experiment with an extended school day. Some districts still want to move into the Common Core by adopting a textbook series, thus standardizing the instructional materials. Yet even some of these districts are encouraging teachers to experiment with a variety of what educators call “pacing guides,” which are the roadmaps that teachers use to move through the textbook. What is important to understand here is that none of these answers are wrong: Context matters, and the answer to the “where to innovate” question is about finding the overlap between what issue will spark the most creativity from teachers and students and what could have the most potential to affect student learning. When we focus creativity on how instruction is delivered, it leads us to blended learning innovations that utilize tools like Khan Academy. If we focus creativity on curriculum, we may get Linked Learning approaches that integrate workplace skills and experiences into the curriculum. Still other innovators – aka teachers – will want to work on some kind of performance assessment that they think will inspire their students.

All of these innovations – and many others – can make sense, but what is important to keep in mind is that light bulbs require sockets. If we want an education system that models, teaches and fosters innovation, we need to standardize a few key things. But if standardization is reframed as a tool not for control but rather to support innovation, we will decide very carefully where standardization matters and where innovation or customization should be encouraged.

Figuring this out is a task for leaders: state policymakers, superintendents, board members, principals. It is a new task, but one worth doing well.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

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