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What is innovation; do we really want it?

Caroline BarlowWith the latest two Redesigning Schooling pamphlets winging their way to SSAT member schools this week, Caroline Barlow, Head of Innovation, takes stock of the campaign, where it is headed, and what innovation really means for educators. Next stop in the campaign: SSAT National Conference 2014 – The Learner.

‘The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.’
Albert Einstein


I am now nine weeks into an exciting new job. No new classes for me though, as this year I have stepped out of school and am to be found operating under the nebulous title: ‘head of innovation’. This has prompted interesting reactions, from wide-eyed excitement to blank faces; from the bold ‘What do you actually do then?’ to the altogether more intimidating ‘Go on then, innovate me!’

Some assume innovation is magical, revolutionary and immediate. I am not equipped with a wand of innovation. I prefer the definition: doing things differently to do them better. To challenge the status quo, shine a light on current practice and ask why, with what impact and at what cost? I see these questions being asked all around me at the moment; innovation is happening in schools up and down the country. To reference Einstein, educationalists are changing our thinking and changing our world as we speak. Are we ready for it?

It is a basic human need to do things that are intrinsically of value, meaningful to us and others

I sense a will to do things better – growing movements at all levels of the profession are examining what we do and how; testing it, applying it, learning from it and sharing it. It is a basic human need to do things that are intrinsically of value, meaningful to us and others. Since 2012, SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling campaign has been a clarion call to action and the response has been tangible. All over the country there are networks, conferences, collaborations, clusters, federations and alliances which provide fertile ground for developing practical understanding of how to do things differently, in a variety of contexts, in order to do them better.

Nervous commentators claim that all these voices make a cacophony of noise with no clear sound. Perhaps the appeal of the Royal College of Teaching may lie in the strong aversion to the only clear sound being a tune sung by a secretary of state. We dislike politicians dictating our future – but are we bold enough to set that agenda ourselves?

Most see [changes to performance measures] as a step in the right direction to ensure that every grade for every child really does matter

Are we happy to acquiesce the innovation agenda for our profession to politicians and inspectorates? The changes to performance measures perhaps attempt to do things differently to do them better. Most see them as a step in the right direction to ensure that every grade for every child really does matter. Changes to curriculum, assessment and removal of levels certainly provide an opportunity for professional autonomy. There will be transition issues in these areas to resolve, but the intentions and opportunities have gained support. Equally the ‘Ofsted does not’ paper (aka Ofsted inspections – clarification for schools) and recent open dialogue about inspection both move towards creating a climate and culture in schools where powerful innovation can occur. However, grave concerns remain about the pace and nature of change – particularly in examination and qualification reforms and the impact these will have on our young people.

The funding and performance table implications mean most state schools are unable to demonstrate the same levels of freedom as independent schools who may choose to simply opt out. Many still have reason to fear the high stakes accountability of a potentially inconsistent inspection regime. A Labour Party conference discussion argued that innovation in a school-led system has resulted in improved educational outcomes. Teaching Schools, the London Challenge and Challenge Partners are examples that have brought genuine change to the system, through constructive conversations and feedback. Left to make rational informed decisions, schools can meet the needs of their local contexts. However, concerns around these freedoms emphasise that genuine trust and commitment must be the bedrock on which these opportunities are built if the culture for innovative pedagogy is to be encouraged.

Genuine trust and commitment must be the bedrock on which these opportunities are built if the culture for innovative pedagogy is to be encouraged

Innovation brings change; stability can seem reassuring. Historically we are aware that change is not always welcome at the time nor always positive. Innovation though is often characterised by a strong drive to discover new and better ways of doing things and importantly to share that knowledge. Chris Smith’s pamphlet, Redesigning Schooling – 9: Collaboration and networking explores what is known about the impact of collaboration. The SSAT Reform Bulletin, Collaboration within a self-improving school system, shows collective and collaborative sharing of what works does lead to improvements that are more likely to be sustainable. Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves quote international examples: investment in collaboration that has made the impact in Singapore, Finland’s national network of innovation, and Alberta’s three-year cycles of school-designed innovation. This kind of innovation requires courageous leadership. In A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning (2014), Fullan and Langworthy describe this as change leadership requiring ‘1) directional vision 2) letting go as people try new things and then 3) reining in what has been learnt’, to share and generate new ideas in a never ending cycle. They observe that in the best cases, innovation scales virally to schools throughout the system. The change and product design is so absorbing, so automatically useful and so easily embedded that it spreads like wildfire. For ‘green rated’ innovations there is little central management support necessary to ensure innovation is maintained. In fact, clusters of schools learn from each other and continue to build and improve with the innovative product/service – the type of behaviour they have seen during the Ontario school system reform.

​Are we willing to let go to be able do this?

Why not simply settle in and carry on doing what we’re told for another 20 plus years? Why challenge ourselves? Remember Taylor Mali’s message in What teachers make; we want to make a difference. We need innovative pedagogies and change leadership because we must be sure that the difference we make is the most positive, the most transformational for our young people.

Peer challenge helps discern the effective from the ineffective and sifts out quick-fixes

Throughout 2013, the Redesigning Schooling campaign set the framework that has led to an explosion of profession-led innovation. In A Rich Seam, Fullan and Langworthy observe ‘These days you don’t need to be a lighthouse school with extra resources to be innovative – you just need to allow and intelligently foster what is already emerging.’ Innovation is happening. In digital and real-life collaboration teachers meet, share and learn. Peer challenge helps discern the effective from the ineffective and sifts out quick-fixes in preference to routes to sustained deep learning.

I have heard it said that the profession is too compliant, bowed by years of political directives; maybe, but I also know that a new profession-led approach to pedagogy is emerging, it is powerful, it is driven by teachers and it is happening in schools now. Leaders must pro-actively cultivate that energy, give it the direction and coherence relevant to our context, our schools and our young people.

A new profession-led approach to pedagogy is emerging, it is powerful, it is driven by teachers and it is happening in schools now

In 2014, we are entering the next phase: Redesigning Schooling in action will capture the innovation that is having an impact in schools across the country. It will provide a rich evidence base of the energy and integrity of our profession, allowing us to share and learn in a much broader and collective way. Using the core principles and understanding gained from the 2013 campaign we will show how this is being applied in schools today and the impact it is having on young people as we use our collective professional expertise to prepare them for their future and ours. An empowered profession that has the integrity to make the informed choices which lead to greatness every day… no matter who is watching!

It [Redesigning Schooling] will provide a rich evidence base of the energy and integrity of our profession, allowing us to share and learn in a much broader and collective way

If you would like to be part of this movement, the next landmark in the Redesigning Schooling campaign is the SSAT National Conference 2014: The Learner, 4-5 December at Manchester Central.

The conference will explore what education looks like when all our decisions are centred on doing what’s right for every individual learner. It seeks to end the annual pattern of catch-up and intervention to ensure your school and students ‘make the grade’. It will imagine a world where this pattern is no longer necessary – a world where learning that leads to successful outcomes is a fundamental part of all stages of education, and is planned so that children have mastery over their learning and are engaged, resilient and making progress from day one.

Such a vision requires long-term, sustainable approaches, underpinned by strong leadership. At the conference, inspiring keynotes combined with practical school workshops will give you the confidence that this vision is an attainable reality. Schools are already doing this; achieving results because students are ambitious, confident, autonomous learners. Successful at school, and successful in life.

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