EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Innovation in Education: Why Don’t The Game Changers Change The Game?

Ron Canuel recently asked ‘why do we need innovation in education?’ I’m an Editorial Board Member of CEA’s flagship publication, Education Canada, so I have to declare an interest in blogging about this. But it’s a perfectly valid, if surprising, question to ask. Surprising, because it’s hard to imagine captains of industry asking themselves ‘do we need more innovation in (say) manufacturing? Or medicine, or technology?  But it’s valid to ask, because so few education innovations seem to stick, and scale-up. The ‘game changers’ rarely seem to change the game.

Ron, himself, gives one good reason for the comparative lack of innovation: that accountability frameworks don’t recognize innovation as a yardstick to be measured. So, education systems tend to value compliance , conformity, even complacency, above experimentation.

He’s right, of course, though just because we’re not being rewarded for innovation, is insufficient reason not to do it. Educators have a moral purpose – to strive to find the best learning for each individual in their care – and that should always trump keeping governments off our backs. That takes courage, of course, and school leaders, especially the less experienced ones, need time to build their courage. A Head Teacher of a highly innovative school in England, was taking a bunch of visitors around the school this week. He was asked ‘what progress have you made this year against the targets from the last OFSTED (our national inspections agency) visit?’ ‘None’, came the reply to a confused silence. ‘We haven’t tried to – it’s not important’. If only we had more school leaders who showed such determination not to be blown off-course by the constantly shifting winds of government. School leaders have a lot more autonomy than they often claim to have. But because it’s  such a tough job, it’s sometimes frankly easier to work to the targets and priorities someone else has set for you, and blame them when it doesn’t work.

There are, however, another couple of explanations for the lack of innovation. 

First, there’s the dreaded ‘guinea-pig’ syndrome, where any attempt to try something new is met with ‘so you’re going to use these children as guinea-pigs in your experiment, are you?’  I’m baffled by this reaction (and parents and politicians are equally guilty here) for two reasons: First, how many medical breakthroughs would we have missed if people had refused to take part in clinical trials? More accurately, it’s not the patients who are refusing the clinical trial. Kids generally enjoy being part of a new initiative. It’s the guardians of their interests who resist.

Second,  there’s the ‘not-invented here-syndrome’ . Most of the truly exciting innovations in education are trialled on the ‘terminally ill’: the students for whom nothing seems to be working.  But the treatment would work just as well on other students. The CEA have recently rewarded one such initiative: The Oasis Skateboard Factory. This is an alternative school in Toronto for kids for whom mainstream schooling just doesn’t work. I urge you to take a little time to watch it. Listen to Craig, the founder of the school, and listen to the students. And then tell me, what is it about this innovation that wouldn’t work in mainstream schooling?

It’s such a compelling argument for offering some kids (if not most) a more authentic, project and enterprise-based approach to learning. My experience of showing new models of learning to educators, or policy makers, usually gets the same reaction Ron Canuel refers to: ‘that’s interesting, but it wouldn’t work in our school’. When the Musical Futures model I helped develop was drawing attention from schools in other countries, I did the politically correct thing by saying that cultural contexts would need different approaches, and that student outcomes would probably be different. But, inside I was thinking, ‘kids are not that different all over the world, so this should work just the same, wherever you are’. The reality has been just that. In seven countries the impact on kids is pretty much the same, wherever you go, for the reasons stated so elequently in the Oasis video.

I’ve been researching business models of innovation for the book I’m writing, and it’s fascinating to observe the ‘innovation gap’ which blocks change. Sometimes it’s structural/cultural – disciplinary silos, circling the waggons with’professional standards’ (most innovations come from outside), specialists viewing attempts to change their established ways as implied criticism). Sometimes it’s managerial – CEOs of innovative companies (think Steve Jobs) spend twice as much time personally involved in innovation, than their counterparts in less innovative companies. You have to model the change you wish to see.

So, there are some long-standing reasons why innovation gets blocked, or fails to transfer. But these aren’t as insurmountable as we often proclaim, and we can’t let them get in the way. As to the orginal question being posed, here are my five top reasons why we need innovation in education:

1. Because student outcomes are flatlining in countries where the ‘do more, work harder’ dictat,  combined with market-driven approaches from governments, drove innovation out of the sector and replaced it with fear. We need some new ideas.

2. Because, as educators, we’re in direct competition with the learning young people access socially, informally – and, right now, we’re coming off second best.

3. Because we need to constantly engage in respectful, challenging, professional discourse about our practice (and we need to spend rather less time providing pointless information to satisfy demands for accountability)

4. Because children, far from considering themselves ‘guinea pigs’ actually enjoy being part of something new. They well understand that being part of an innovation that doesn’t ultimately work isn’t going to have a critical effect on their education – not least because of (2) above. But the critical point is ‘being part of’, being active co-designers of learning innovations.

5. Because the one-size model of schooling never did fit all students, and it certainly won’t now. The school of the future needs to be an amalgamation of many different learning models, which students and teachers can try out to find what works best for them. 

But what are yours? Please let me know your reasons for demanding more innovation in education.

Please note that this is a slightly edited version of David’s original blog post that can be accessed here

Meet the Expert(s)

David Price

Senior Associate, Innovation Unit

David Price is a Senior Associate at the Innovation Unit, in London, U.K. His new book, OPEN: How we’ll work, live & learn in the future, is published by Crux Publishing (and available on Amazon). He was awarded the Order of the British Empire, for services to education, in 2009.

David Price est un écrivain, un conférencier et un consultant en éducation. Il est associé principal à l’Unité de l’innovation du Royaume-Uni et a mis en place des projets d’éducation au Royaume-Uni, au Canada, en Australie et à Singapour.

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