Why schools should set up their own R&D departments

Change is vital for educational growth – yet time for innovation is in short supply. Mark Steed says, though, that the sector must find ways to try out new methods – and share these findings – if meaningful new ideas are to come to the fore
11th July 2022, 7:00am


Why schools should set up their own R&D departments

Why schools should set up their own R&D departments

Around the world, the biggest companies invest millions in research and development (R&D) to allow new ideas to have a chance to succeed.

Some fail, of course, while others soar. The important thing is that the opportunity is provided because of the willingness of these firms to accept that not everything will work but that they have to find out.

Education is not short of innovative ideas either, but how many of these are ever given the chance to be tested out in schools in a way that could examine whether they really have legs to transform schooling?

Certainly, the pandemic has made people wake up to the fact that new models are possible - with an increasing number of voices within education questioning whether we should be returning to pre-Covid norms.

At the heart of these debates is the recognition that the 20th century industrial examination model of education is no longer fit for purpose.

Inevitably, the debate thus far has focused on the future of GCSE and A levels, in terms of their content and as methods of assessment.

There are many in education who would like to see change, particularly a shift away from the high-stakes assessment and qualification model that drives so much of what goes on in secondary schools.

The question is, what might the brave new world without terminal examinations look like?

What could replace the present model of studying a fixed body of knowledge that is assessed, in the main, by sitting in rows in an exam hall without access to technology?

If we are to find the best ways of facilitating, capturing and crediting learning, perhaps it’s time for schools to develop their own R&D departments, where practitioners can try out new ideas in a considered, measurable way.

R&D in action

Of course, this would not be about establishing million pound R&D departments but about finding ways to give staff the chance to innovate, try things out and report back on their successes or failures.

Certainly, as someone who has been fortunate enough to run independent schools in the UK and international schools free from regulation and with funds to devote time and resources, I have seen how working like this can be achieved.

At JESS Dubai, for example, we allocated a sum from our annual budget to exploring ways in which new technologies might be used in the classroom.

Some projects, such as our attempt to use iBeacons in the classroom, proved to be failures but others bore much fruit.

The work that Steve Bambury (@Steve_Bambury) led at JESS on the use of virtual reality (VR) in the classroom was groundbreaking. He worked with various departments across the age range on how VR might support and augment the work they were doing.

Key projects included an immersive approach to teaching the Blitz in Year 6, a VR provocation to inspire more vivid Gothic horror writing in Year 8, using VR to review computer-aided designs in GCSE design and technology, using VR in the practical investigation of the psychology of fear in Year 12, not to mention developing a whole new medium of VR art for our BTEC students.

At Kellett School, in Hong Kong, we are piloting ways in which digital portfolios might capture students’ learning journeys within and beyond our traditional key stage 2 and 3, GCSE and A-level programmes.

The portfolios include a range of micro-credentials: for example, students in Year 8 and Year 12 have public-speaking lessons and take LAMDA grades; and all of our sixth-formers study for a mini-MBA course, with university credits from IE University.

We are also exploring offering a range of “non-GCSE” options, which students can choose instead of taking a GCSE.

The approach we are exploring turns the traditional approach to learning on its head. Rather than studying a pre-determined body of knowledge in order to pass an examination, students are given a challenge or “provocation”, which forces them to decide what they need to know in order to complete the challenge.

Take, for example, as an alternative to studying for a traditional design and technology GCSE, being part of a team that takes on the sustainability challenge of creating a zero-carbon water dispenser by taking water out of the atmosphere.

Such a project might entail learning how dehumidifiers work, how to harness solar power, how to filter the product to make the water safe for human consumption and so on.

The project would inevitably involve developing initial hypotheses, making protypes and learning from failure. It would develop teamwork, collaboration and problem solving.

The focus would be on the skills and applied knowledge learned along the way rather than gaining a qualification.

Another concept project being discussed is an oceanography module focused on rejuvenating the coral reefs around Hong Kong.

The project entails breeding corals in an aquarium system in school and then replanting them on the reefs in the city.

The course will combine academic study, conservation fieldwork and technical practical skills (we want to incorporate PADI diving qualifications into the course, for obvious reasons).

The learning for these might be captured through design notebooks, meeting minutes and documented through a video blog. The final result might be presented as a 20-minute documentary which, along with other learning assets, could sit on the student’s digital portfolio.

We believe these ideas will work, and provide a new and more innovative approach to education than the more direct “you must learn this” model used in the past.

Or perhaps it will work differently from how we first imagined, throwing up new, unexpected insights that we can learn from, which augment pupil learning and teacher knowledge.

Either way, we are confident students will learn from the process and be better prepared for the world of the mid 21st century than they would be by doing an additional GCSE - which is why we are happy to give it space to be tried out and developed.

The need for investment in innovation in education

What’s more, this taps into the belief, which I am sure many others hold, that innovation in education shouldn’t be top down - it needs to be driven by teachers who are working in schools.

Of course, the barriers to schools having the capacity, scope and resources to run an R&D department - even if just one teacher is given time to try something novel out and report back once a term - are considerable.

Perhaps the biggest barrier is the UK examination and inspection regimes, which mean that schools are so focused on the day-to-day routine, and jumping through the established hoops, that they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to investigate alternatives.

Furthermore, quality innovation requires investment. The projects at JESS and Kellett were possible because we were able to take gifted enthusiasts off their usual academic timetable and were able to redirect resources to purchase the expensive equipment required.

In this context, schools around the country need a separate R&D department, fully funded by government, which can trial new ways of facilitating learning, capturing learning and exploring alternatives to high-stakes assessment.

That may not happen anytime soon but just as the biggest companies invest in R&D because they know the long-term payoffs will be considerable, so, too, should governments see investment in educational experimentation as having long-term economic and social benefit.

A network of innovators

That ideal is probably a long way off, though. For now, the idea of proper R&D in the education space will have to come from the bottom up - and ideally cross-sector.

An important first step is to establish a network of interested parties that can explore possible new approaches to what is going on in schools.

There needs to be a mechanism to share the insights and innovative thinking that is happening around the world.

This will require an effective dialogue between the key stake holders, including educational practitioners, educational research, exam boards, universities, employers, regulators and governments.

Mark S. Steed is the principal and chief executive of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong, having previously run schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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