Innovation: Ideas before Technology

Recently my wife acquired an iPad. This was her first Apple product and as she was putting it through its paces, I thought about the difference between my iPhone and the first smart phone I bought back at the dawn of such technology. That phone was so clunky and hard to use that I discarded it after a couple of months and did not return to a smart phone until my current iPhone.

I thought about the fact that no matter how great the technology, the idea had to be solid in order to produce a successful device. Ideas do come before technology. All of this brought to mind a time when I was forced to turn this concept on its head.

Back in the early ‘70s I was a high school teacher and French was my specialty. The concept of Oral-Aural language education was in its infancy, but the emphasis on teaching students to listen, comprehend and speak was on the ascendant. The problem for me was that I was teaching in a school that had no technology, no language lab.

For the first two years of my teaching career I struggled. I taught classes of 35 to 40 students and during a 45 minute period it was almost impossible to engage each student for more than a minute. Needless to say, although they could conjugate verbs with the best, my students did not speak French very well.

After my second year, I realized that I had to change something in order to improve my students’ ability to listen, comprehend and speak. During summer vacation, an idea came to me. Improving the results meant changing one fundamental idea: the teacher must be at the front of the class teaching.

The following school year I came to classes with a different approach. Rather being up front for the entire class, I would only stand in front to teach a new concept, after which the students would pair off and work with each other on exercises. Most often the exercises were in the form of questions and answers. I created the materials that they would use to work together.

Then, I became a resource for the students to consult with if they had difficulty. Rather than spend a minute speaking with me, the students spent 35 minutes speaking with each other. The students in each class became a “virtual” language lab, all with no technology!

At the end of the first year, I brought a native French speaker to class to test out the results. He was as amazed as I was at how well the students could carry on conversations about the various topics they had learned during the year.

The lesson that I brought away from this experience was an important one. While technology is important and can change the world, without good ideas as the foundation, technology will be found lacking.

2 thoughts on “Innovation: Ideas before Technology

  1. Scott Jenkins

    We need to constantly look for ways that will change what we are doing for the better. Sometimes, as in your example Kevin, the change results in a “break through” event.

    It is interesting your results did not include the introduction of new technology, rather a change in process.

    Thanks, Scott

    • Kevin R Callahan


      Thanks for your comment. It is interesting that in this case, technology was not part of the answer, but could have been. If this breakthrough had happened a dozen years later, after the advent of the PC, the process could have been enhanced by providing an easier avenue for developing and transmitting materials, rather than typing the old spirit masters!


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