As expected, the first week of CEA’s blog campaign related to innovation in public education presented an interesting mix of voices, with each author offering a perspective steeped in their own set of unique experiences, values and passions. Although each this contributor admitted an awareness of the systemic challenges inherent in attempting to build an innovative spirit within Canada’s public schools, each entry presented a different angle and a unique opportunity to view this moment in time a little differently.
Bruce Beairsto started things off with a recognition that, while the freedom to innovate has always been part of the individual life of teaching professionals, systemic barriers often prevent these ideas and approaches from spilling out of individual classrooms to affect a whole lot beyond the local school. Beairsto calls for a disruption of some of what makes school practices so comfortable, so familiar and so resistant to substantial change. The support of stronger cultures of collaborative practice, coupled with a systemic recognition that professionals need time built in to their work—time for professional reflection and learning, and grounded in a stronger, more dynamic connection between the classroom and the university are three important structural changes that, according to Beairsto, would result in greater support for an innovative spirit.
The call for systemic change was echoed later in the week by Sandi Urban-Hall, current President of the Canadian School Boards Association. Urban-Hall shoots an arrow directly into the heart of the conversation by grounding her call for systemic change in the demand that educational opportunities not be a function of geography or social standing, but the right of all students. Ultimately, this is going to require that elected school boards be given the resources and authority necessary to respond courageously to the needs of their individual communities and contexts. Only then will our school systems be able to match the type of innovation that is occurring in most other arenas of the Canadian social life.
David Price has a proven track record as a persistent and radical innovator, and believes strongly that the moral imperative to discover and offer the best to each of our students is too strong to be diminished by systemic resistance. In Price’s mind (and experience) innovation provides an important source of engagement for both students and educators, involving participants in something compelling and exciting. It is clear to him that current models of education are lacking in this regard, and are quickly being overshadowed by resources, approaches and technologies now readily available beyond the schoolhouse. For David Price, the fact that innovation does not appear to be well-supported in public education should not serve as an excuse or a reason not to pursue it!
Finally, Ben Levin admits that, while all organizations need a certain degree of innovation, the number of failed initiatives scattered across the history public education demand of us a greater sense of caution and thoughtfulness when considering what should be supported by our systems. In particular, there needs to be a reasonable expectation that an innovation will be likely to succeed before jumping in with both feet. Research-based evidence, professional wisdom and good theoretical grounding are presented as three of the prime criteria for evaluating potential initiatives. Just as important for Levin, however, (and this will resonate with many) is the idea that, once the effectiveness of an idea has been proven, it should be adopted and supported system-wide.
There is a great deal of wisdom in each of these responses. From the tempered and somewhat cautious approach of Ben Levin to the spirited and dogged attitude of David Price, the week’s contributions lay some important groundwork for the conversations that will follow during the month of December. For me, some of the essential questions that need to be asked have to do with the type of system that is going to provide the best chance of attaining the ideals of equitable opportunity expressed by both Sandi and David.
And while talk of structural change is important what ends are being best served by this change? Higher achievement scores? Increased graduation rates? Greater levels of engagement? A more democratic society? Happier citizens?
So, as we move into week two of the discussion, I invite you to consider a few questions that might act as a way of connecting some of the threads presented by our authors over the past week. You may feel compelled to jump in with some responses, or you may have your own emerging questions that could be even more helpful in moving the conversation forward.
Here are some of the ideas going through my own mind:
- What “modern” examples of educational innovation-that-has-taken-root are you able to identify? What has enabled these to find a home?
- What have been some of the most promising innovations with which you have been involved? As an educator, a parent, a student, an administrator?
- What one change to the structure/organization of schools would have the most impact on encouraging the type of innovation that you might like to see?
- What is standing in the way of that one change being made?
- In your mind, what is the essential difference between innovation and improvement? Is it an important distinction to make?