|
EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Do Schools Have the Appetite to Innovate?

Rapid, pervasive change is the current and future norm, whether it be the ongoing explosion in technology, the stunning disruption of the Arab Spring or the relentless multicultural transition in communities.  So what about schools?  Can they innovate fast enough keep up with the world around them or will they be outpaced and replaced by alternative learning modes?  

innovationphoto1

CC Photo by: PhOtOnQuAnTiQue

Rapid, pervasive change is the current and future norm, whether it be the ongoing explosion in technology, the stunning disruption of the Arab Spring or the relentless multicultural transition in communities.  So what about schools?  Can they innovate fast enough keep up with the world around them or will they be outpaced and replaced by alternative learning modes?  

innovationphoto1

CC Photo by: PhOtOnQuAnTiQue

Teachers have enormous freedom to innovate at the classroom level (except in a few subjects at the senior grades where a bloated curriculum feeds exams that serve as a gatekeepers to further education) and yet repetition and incremental improvement dominates over bold innovation.  Perhaps, as Lortie suggests, this is because the profession tends to attract people of a conservative nature, or perhaps the pressing and insistent needs of a diverse classroom leave no time to consider either a long-term or broad-based perspective.[1]   It seems to me however, that the real anchor that constrains our schools is systemic rather than individual.

The freedom that teachers have to adapt their instruction and assessment to the unique needs of their current students is an essential cornerstone for success.  Thus, curriculum dictates outcomes but not methods, and even permits a wide range in the content at most grade levels.  Teachers generally take good advantage of this latitude within their own classes, but that creativity translates into school or system innovation much less frequently because of an array of factors that encourage caution and conformity.

Internally, the greatest constraining factor is isolation.  Nothwithstanding the recent promise of virtual PLNs, teachers do most of their work alone, even within a school.  Moreover, practitioners seldom talk to researchers, and vice versa.   The two sectors seem to ask different questions and find it hard to communicate with each other.

The school system is governed by political bodies that recoil at the first hint of controversy.  The public often seeks guarantees where none can reasonably be given, but educators try to give them anyway, partly because of their personal commitment to their students and partly because they want to be seen as, and feel like, capable professionals.  Confidence is interpreted as professionalism; uncertainty as incompetence.

Such systemic factors tend to stifle innovation.  Only when they are changed can we expect the obvious creativity and commitment of individual educators to translate into a more dynamic school system.

The neoliberal answer is to treat education as a commodity and promote a “free market” of educational services, but Michael Fullan assures us that this approach can “never establish the conditions for whole system reform” and that what is required is “to situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force” for change.[2]  Only when the individual professional commitment of teachers is aligned with structures and strategies that encourage innovation is there any chance for systemic change.

But that sounds like a revolutionary change, and how the heck would it work anyway?  Surely it would be quicker and easier to use technology to transform the system.  Unfortunately, that tempting vision is in reality a mirage.  Technology has great potential to enable innovation, but it will not drive it – although it might be a trigger.  We can’t ignore technology because if we do there is a very real danger that public education will be by-passed by other learning modalities, but technology is only a tool, not as a solution in and of itself.

Genuine systemic transformation requires us to change the conditions that currently anchor the system in the familiar.  School organization must change to break down educator isolation and make team work the norm.  The intensification of teachers’ work life must be reversed to create mental and emotional space for reflection and inquiry.  The two solitudes of practice and research must be joined, not simply to make the school into a lab for academics but to enable action research by teachers themselves and in partnership with the Academy.  Ways must be found to provide parents with the confidence they so naturally desire without the need for educators to wear a false mask of certainty and devote so much time to assurance.

Such restructuring requires the application of authority – the much maligned “top down” initiative – with the intention of creating the conditions necessary for innovation.  The potential that is created by restructuring, however, can only be realized from the bottom up through reculturing; that is, by engaging, amplifying and unleashing the innovation that now lies sequestered in individual classrooms and isolated pockets of creative collaboration.  Restructuring and reculturing go hand in hand, but at this point it is restructuring that is required to kick start accelerated innovation.

The complacent coasting that threatens the school system is a product of its design, not the fault of its inhabitants, and will only be overcome when the system changes.  Transformational innovation comes not from heroic individuals who overcome the system’s inherent inertia, but from committed communities of educators who are empowered by a system that nurtures curiosity, seeks innovation and displays a bias for action.

I don’t have a prescription to offer, but as we look for ways to trigger and sustain the transformational change that the school system requires to remain relevant and successful in the face of rapid, pervasive change in society, it helps to be asking the right question – and the right question is how do we change the system to support the teachers, not how do we change the teachers.


[1] Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Fullan, M. (2011) Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform. Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204.  Victoria, Australia.

Meet the Expert

blogger beairsto

Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

Read More