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.
- 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 behaviour, 36, 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 Change, 22(1), 3-12.