Making Innovation: Literacy and Techno-science in Urban Public School Reform
Philip Nichols

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

This study looks to understand the contingent historical processes that shape our present conceptions of “innovation” in urban public school reform, and follows these lineages to see how they are taken up, resisted, or undermined in the day-to-day practices of an “innovative” classroom. Drawing on science and technology studies (STS) and sociocultural theories of literacy, the study combines archival research on the changing meanings of “innovation” in K-12 school reform – from its rise in Cold War social science to its present associations with STEM entrepreneurship – with an ethnographic study of The Innovation School, a non-selective, urban public high school based on principles of making. Following the school’s first cohort through a full academic year, the project explores how the tangled genealogies of “innovation” are brought to bear in the literacy instruction and practices of an asynchronous, technology-driven Humanities classroom, and documents the strategies teachers and students use to reconcile these competing demands with their own purposes for literacy learning. In this way, the study looks to wrest “innovation” from the scale of elite experts and relocate it in the lived dynamics of classroom praxis – a framing that complicates the research base around ed-tech reform and “21st century literacy” by situating each in the historical interplay of techno-science and education, and by considering how their adoption is implicated in the larger struggle for educational equity in urban public schools.
About Philip Nichols
T. Philip Nichols is a PhD candidate in Reading/Writing/Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also earned an M.A. in History and Sociology of Science. His research blends historical and ethnographic methods to examine relationships among techno-scientific knowledge production, urban school reform, and the ways we practice, teach, and talk about literacy. His work has appeared in Teachers College Record (forthcoming), Language Arts, Educational Leadership, and The Atlantic. Prior to doctoral study, he was a National Writing Project fellow and a high school English teacher.

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