For many educators, the one thing that stifles innovation more than anything else is a sense of powerlessness. Even if they had the time and capacity to get creative in the classroom, the bureaucracy of education leaves teachers feeling unable to effect change within the limitations of the surrounding systems.
While these factors undeniably present challenges to teachers, there is also an array of opportunities to be found within them. Finding them, however, requires a posture of creativity and a willingness to move with the tides rather than fight them.
To this end, there are 2 questions I would recommend teachers ask in approaching the challenges and opportunities of today’s classrooms.
1. Technology, including ChatGPT, is here to stay. How might we work with it, not against it?
It seems that everywhere, ChatGPT is stirring up buzz and controversy, not least in conversations among educators. The obvious and pressing concern is cheating, and how easy this technology makes it for students. ChatGPT’s current ability to avoid the detection of plagiarism software and its often flawless replication of decent essay writing means educators are left fairly powerless in fighting the technology.
There have been some excellent examples emerge, however, of educators uncovering ways of working with the technology in their teaching, rather than against it. Lecturers from the University of Sydney recently made the news with their move to incorporate ChatGPT into their assessments of medical students, in a way that continues to engage students’ critical thinking.
Students were asked to craft an essay question about contemporary medical challenges and pose it to ChatGPT. They then had to analyse and edit its response and submit a final draft for marking, with their changes to the robot’s work highlighted. While their ability to reproduce information may have been replaced by the technology, their critical analysis, judgement and creativity were still prioritised and assessed.
The reality is that in an age of constant internet access and AI-enabled synthesis, the memorisation of information is superfluous. Examining these skills becomes an irrelevant assessment. However, discerning between information and misinformation, critically analysing an argument and creatively improving it, are skills which will be crucial for these students in the society they are stepping into.
It is important for educators to see technology not as a hindrance to learning, but as a real part of the world students are walking into. Students need to be prepared and equipped to live in world in which these technologies will be an everyday reality, which means integrating them into the classroom is not only novel, but necessary. Doing so becomes possible when they are seen as something that can be collaborated with rather than simply contested.
2. The systems are limiting, but what CAN we do?
It is absolutely true that the bureaucratic systems teachers work within are as stifling as they are outdated. However, while systemic change may be necessary, the individual educator can still adopt a posture of creativity by considering not what they can’t do but what they can.
An inspiring case study of this deliberate optimism comes from a few years ago in Coachella Valley Unified School District. This district is the second poorest in the United States and suffers a myriad social challenges. One hundred per cent of its students live in poverty – many in trailer homes or abandoned railroad cars. Others are homeless. Most students’ families earn less than $1000 per month and struggle daily just to survive, must less focus on their children’s education. Added to this, the Coachella Valley is an enormous district geographically, being roughly the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
A number of years ago, a new district superintendent named Dr Darryl Adams arrived in the Coachella Valley with a mandate for change. Recognising that lack of access to learning technology was a key challenge facing students in the district, Adams secured government funding to provide each student with an iPad. However, very few students had internet access after-hours, limiting the value of the devices.
In considering possible solutions to this challenge, the question of ‘what CAN we do’ proved enormously helpful. The idea was suggested one day that they could use a resource readily at their disposal – the district’s school buses – and place wi-fi routers in them. The buses could be parked in neighbourhoods overnight, giving students internet access. Despite concerns about theft and vandalism, the idea gained traction and the community rallied around the suggestion, which was soon implemented with extraordinary results.
Within a few years, graduation rates for high school students increased to 84 per cent (up from 69 per cent), 40 per cent now go to community college after graduation, and high school dropout rates have halved.
Educators are in a uniquely challenging and rapidly changing set of circumstances. However, these challenges need not be the end of the story, and are certainly not insurmountable. By shifting the paradigm from fighting the tides to moving with them, and from seeing the opportunities for what CAN be done rather than what can’t, teachers open up the possibility of truly creative classrooms. With the future that is set before them, it is this kind of innovative posture towards education that today's students need.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Harris, C 2023, ‘Medical science students were told to use ChatGPT. This is what it wrote’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March.
 Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, pp. 136–138.