Do we need innovation in education?

source: pixabbay @PIRO4D

Rooted in the Latin word novus (meaning ‘new’), innovation has been a catch cry in education and other sectors for decades. But ‘new’ does not equate to ‘better’. Most would argue that to innovate is not to pursue only novelty, but change for added value and improvement. Educational innovation can: improve learning outcomes and the quality of education provision; help enhance equity in the access to and use of education, as well as equality in learning outcomes; improve the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practices and services; and ensure education remains relevant by introducing the changes it needs to adapt to societal needs (OECD, 2016).

Wu and Lin (2019) use the term ‘educational entrepreneurs’ to describe educators who analyse problems, recognise opportunities, and pragmatically create meaningful solutions. Couros (2015) talks about innovators needing to be empathetic, questioning, risk taking, networked, observant, creative, resilient and reflective, qualities we would like to see in our students, teachers and school leaders. Networks are becoming ever-more important in enhancing global education innovation (Azorín et al., 2021).

I explored on this blog, pre-COVID in 2019, whether we needed innovation in schools, and what being innovative might look like: growth-focused, student-centred change from the ground up that challenges accepted and dominant ways of thinking about education. I wrote (Netolicky, 2020) that the pandemic-forced education innovations we were living through in 2020 were not well-planned and deliberate models of best practice, but rather temporary crisis responses. In the introduction to the recently released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (Netolicky, 2021), I describe my perception of the educational experience of 2020, including constant emergency response planning and re-planning, remote teaching, remote leading, online professional learning, exacerbated inequities, and erosion of wellbeing.

COVID-19 did not reveal schools to be obsolete factories of irrelevant content, but hubs of community, engagement, relationships, values and care (AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021). We discovered that remote learning and online professional development have benefits and possibilities, but also pitfalls. We appreciated that schools are vital places of learning, belonging, support, friendship and safety for students, and for families. We learned what we already knew – that teachers are committed experts who work to serve their students no matter what the circumstances, and that teaching is a complex, nuanced practice of great value for reasons beyond academic achievement. Now, still mid-pandemic, after a period of necessitated innovation by educators around the globe, I continue to feel that we do not need innovation for innovation’s sake, but that we do need to constantly evolve, reflect, iterate, and respond to socio-economic local and global developments.

The pandemic silver linings in education include: a focus on flexibility in the how and when of learning, teaching and work; an acceleration in the meaningful and creative use of digital technologies; a reconsideration around what engagement, relevance and agency mean in teaching and learning; and an expansion of accepted learning pathways. Early offers to university and flexible university admissions processes have lifted the focus from university entrance examinations, opening up new ways for students to demonstrate suitability and gain entry. This allows schools to move further in the direction of inclusive, exciting and varied senior secondary and post-school pathways for students.

I agree with Zhao and Watterston’s (2021) argument for an educative focus on lifelong learning, student autonomy, self-regulation, happiness, wellbeing, opportunity, and contribution to humanity. I’m not convinced, however, about their suggestion that school subjects such as history and physics disappear, or that direct instruction be ‘cast away’. I feel now, more than ever, that what we need in education is to do our core business as well as we can. That means educating students, developing them as lifelong learners, helping them to be well people of curiosity, character, knowledge, skill, resilience, and adaptability who know who they are, who they want to be, and how to develop themselves and collaborate with others to address real problems.

The conditions need to be right for a mindset and culture of productive and collaborative innovation with students at its heart. The capacity for organisational innovation is influenced by leadership through values, structures, strategies, policies and practices, and by the collective culture of attitudes and behaviours (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). Those working in schools benefit from being helped to imagine possible futures and guided in choosing a preferred option (Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2019). Innovation that finds solutions to complex and previously unforeseen problems requires diverse, multidisciplinary teams with members who are resilient, capable of complex analysis, able to embrace others’ perspectives, and who trust one another (Kresta, 2021). It also requires well-considered and robust evaluation to guide future innovations and avoid being stuck at the level of well-intended but isolated pioneering efforts (OECD, 2016).

If we focus on the human, on learning, wellbeing and inclusion, we have a foundation stone on which to make decisions for the best interests of our students and the people within our school communities. If we build cultures of trust, psychological safety, high challenge and high support, we create the conditions for school-based innovation that is student-centred and context-respecting. If we apply consultative, systematic, evidence-informed and futures-looking processes of improvement, we have ways to move forward in productive, value-adding directions. If innovations—big and small—are to lead to the compelling education vision they seek to realise, school and system leaders need to approach any desired improvement with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, with a deep knowledge of context and cultural readiness, and with clear and ongoing communication and feedback.

As one of my children’s teachers once told me, education is about doing good, not looking good. Innovation in this sense is not about seeking newness, difference, radicalness or shiny edu-confections. We should always be working towards better serving our students, better preparing them for the changing and uncertain world, with the knowledge, skills, capabilities and character they need to find their best success, be their best selves, and contribute positively to their world. If innovation is constant, context-embedded iteration towards the best outcomes for students, then it should be our natural way of operating in schools.

References

  • AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021. Lead the Change Series Q&A with Deborah Netolicky. Lead the Change Series, 116, 1-8.
  • Amabile, T. M., & Pratt, M. G. (2016). The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning. Research in organisational behaviour36, 157-183.
  • Azorín, C., Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2021). Distributed leadership and networking: Exploring the evidence base. In D. M Netolicky (Ed.) Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership. Routledge.
  • Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.
  • Jónsdóttir, S. R., & Macdonald, M. A. (2019). The feasibility of innovation and entrepreneurial education in middle schools. Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development.
  • Kresta, S. M. (2021). Teaching innovation in an age of disruption. The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering.
  • Netolicky, D. M. (2020). School leadership during a pandemic: navigating tensions. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.
  • Netolicky, D. M. (2021). Introduction: What’s now and what’s next in educational leadership. In D. M Netolicky (Ed.) Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (pp. 1-10). Routledge.
  • OECD (2016), Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation: The Power of Digital Technologies and Skills. OECD Publishing.
  • Wu, S., & Lin, C. Y. Y. (2019). Educational innovation, educational entrepreneurs and ecosystem. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship in an Educational Ecosystem (pp. 43-53). Springer, Singapore.
  • Zhao, Y., & Watterston, J. (2021). The changes we need: Education post COVID-19. Journal of Educational Change22(1), 3-12.

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?