Innovation refers to something new – it can be a product, a service or a new process that has been implemented to help streamline, increase impact, or enhance outcomes of a task or an activity. There is no denying that innovation has become important in education, as it has in business and organisations. Whether within a singular school, multi-academy trust, or nationally, the hope that developments will lead to greater learning outcomes, efficiency, and productivity has become something which requires to move from the ‘desired’ into the ‘tangible’.
Yet the unfortunate reality is that there are many educational institutions and establishments stuck in their ways because they are afraid of change. So how does education effectively encourage innovation and manage the resulting changes that may be needed?
True innovation requires significant investment of time, appropriate allocation of resources and a willingness from management to be prepared to embrace changes.
Nurture an open environment
If you give employees autonomy it allows them to work outside the box and take the opportunity to think creatively. Creative people do not like to be micromanaged, so it’s important to leave them relatively unsupervised and give them the freedom to create. In the same way in which we should be treating learners, teachers also require the opportunity to experience autonomy and through that, affirmation. All too often, education finds itself on a predetermined path laid out in front of itself and supported by unforgiving data models. From the physical environment, to the social, boundaries have evolved which in turn have served to inhibit and restrict. Something as simple as autonomous professional development has the potential to create multiple positive non-linear impacts throughout a school community, and upon the student learning experience.
Innovation thrives where it is encouraged, promoted, and nurtured. The social environment in which we work plays a part in that. Encouraging ‘peer to peer networks’ of teachers (or Communities of Practice) where they have the autonomy to choose the focus and implement their actions can play a large role in the sharing of ideas and stimulating innovation. Communities of Practice, when grown ‘from the bottom up’, encourage a level of autonomy and motivation which can have far reaching and sustainable impacts.
Failure is part of innovation. Allowing a culture where failed experiments are tolerated is essential. In an environment where the look, feel and shape of success is predetermined through grades and data, it is not surprising that many in education (teachers, leaders and students) feel that failure and penalties go hand-in-hand. With expectations for method and outcome set from the start of an academic year, it is easy to see why so many might be discouraged from taking the innovation ‘risk’ initiative.
‘Risk’ is part of everyday life, and the more successful people you speak to, it is the ‘risk’ which shaped them and consequently brought them the opportunity to achieve more. It is fair to say that ‘risk’ is something which requires planning and preparation, and shouldn’t be applied without careful consideration; however, education / learning without risk is akin to programming a computer, or teaching a Parrot to repeat phrases.
‘Risk and failure’ / ‘trial and error’ should be a respected and expected part of the learning journey. Whether it is teachers offering their students to opportunity to form and then learn from their own ideas, leaders promoting an environment for teachers to experiment with new forms of assessment and pedagogy, or Governments trusting educators to have the best interests of those they are responsible for, ‘risk’ might not always produce the expected outcomes; however it will promote innovation and allow re-shaping of systems and processes which are more relevant, impactful, and dynamic (also, as a consequence, it might just also provide the motivation and affirmation which is slowly eroded by each mechanical input and recognised output).
Be prepared to support and celebrate innovative ‘effort’, even if an innovative concept does not fully succeed – this will incentivise people to try new things. Value of people and ideas, especially from those in positions to support, is essential in providing the environment where innovation is tangible. Frequently, innovative practice is performed away from the key improvement strategies and detached from the ongoing desire to achieve ‘outstanding’; consequently it rarely achieves what it was meant to in the first place, remaining siloed, and often left to gather dust whilst the ‘non-negotiable consistencies’ of daily practice take back control.
Clear, overt, and supportive leadership of innovation and change management has the potential to not only promote the outcomes of innovation, but also make it more accessible to others. Those who have worked in education (especially within schools) know just how hard it is to find time to do anything outside of the core expectations. Even when a school tries to implement ‘small changes’, it requires the whole ecosystem to support it so that it doesn’t get drowned in the bureaucracy of appeasement. By offering clear opportunity, supportive leadership, ‘value’ in outcomes, and meaningful application, Education can drive innovation and embrace change.
Hire creative people
Don’t underestimate the importance of hiring people who are creative, can inspire change, and lead the process of innovation. Positions of responsibility in Schools often revolve around elements which have been there for centuries… Head of Subject or Year / Timetabling / Statistics & Data; however without elevated emphasis and trust, how is innovation ever going to grasp a foothold in a structure which is rigid, standardised, and in many ways predetermined in its direction and output.
How do you know if someone is a creative when you are hiring? It has to be someone who is different from you. To innovate, sometimes you have to hire people who make you feel uncomfortable with their less conventional (and sometimes controversial) ideas. New ideas don’t readily come from within structures which place dominant value on consistency and uniformity – something which education has at times found itself trapped within – and therefore to encourage and realise innovation, it may require a purposeful recruitment agenda.
As I started by saying, ‘True innovation requires significant investment of time, appropriate allocation of resources, and a willingness from management to be prepared to embrace change’. It is by no means an impossible task, yet without lifting your head up to see the big picture and notice the journey you are on, education (through its standardised ‘one size fits all’ approach, and predetermined data-driven outcomes) can consume and drown out the potential for change.
Over the last few months, we have seen 2 sides of this with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and how schools have responded. Whilst on one hand, there have been calls to shut down schools due to the fear of increasing the spread of the virus and not being able to deliver the traditional forms of education; we have also witnessed many resilient and innovative approaches to how schools can respond. Out of this we will have learnt new lessons and found new ways of facilitating learning, of which some may stick with us on the other side of the pandemic and serve to change and innovate education for the better.