Jim Knight: 'Policymakers who want innovation should aim for consensus, trust teachers and then get out of the way'

11th July 2015 at 11:59
Jim Knight
I've tried to change education from above, writes the chief education adviser to TES Global, with only mixed results. The best way is to go for a ground-up approach

Last week I read an interesting online exchange between two of my American friends, Sandy Speicher and Richard Culatta. This conversation between the head of education at IDEO and the head of edtech at the White House is a great discussion about how to scale innovation in teaching.

I was schools minister in the UK for three years driving top-down change, and now at TES I want to enable bottom-up change, so this got me thinking. The letters between the two experts pose some of the issues. 

Incremental or big-bang innovation; innovation on what to teach or how to teach; focus on innovators or innovations. As always, the answer to these choices is normally both! As Michael Barber, another chief education adviser, once said to me; “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

But then Richard and Sandy got on to the question of scale. We all know of some fantastic innovations in teaching and learning, but are they scalable? If so, is that best driven from the top or the bottom?

I tried to drive quite a lot of change as a minister. Some of it worked – I’m especially proud of the Home Access Programme, for example. However, the big one was introducing the diploma qualifications, to bridge the gap between academic and vocational learning.  That has sunk like a stone.

Both were clear in their strategic aim, but each were tactically different. 

Home Access, which attempted to inprove access to the internet and technology among young people from deprived communities, was enabling and not mandatory. It aimed to end the digital divide and thereby improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. It was designed collaboratively by industry, schools and government. It was led from the top but delivered with elements of a bottom-up approach and a strong social mission that schools could relate to.

By contrast, the 14-19 diplomas came out of a fudged response to the Tomlinson review. We used all the levers of power – legislation, money, training, and convening power. But in the end we didn’t have consensus and when a new government killed it off there was no great push back from teachers, let alone parents.

We failed to win hearts and minds and thereby failed to innovate from the top.

Now, at TES, I see the power of teachers connecting and sharing. TES Resources is one great example, but I see it on Twitter, at Teach Meets and at some of the better conferences I attend. But is there innovation?

Last week I caught up with Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, the pioneers of the “flipped classroom”. In a relatively short time their teaching innovation has achieved scale – from two chemistry teachers experimenting in Colorado to a global movement.  

How? Because it was bottom up.

Yes, the popularization of the Khan Academy may have helped, as do the books and speaking engagements. But I think it is first and foremost because it started in the classroom and caught on because teachers are so much more connected online in sharing practice.

When I look outside education at the explosion of businesses like Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify, I see innovation powered by connecting people and the sharing economy.  This combination of clever strategy and bottom-up design works well and can take off at a phenomenal rate.

The world is changing fast and education needs to keep responding. Enabling innovation at scale is therefore important. Policymakers can easily get in the way with accountability measures, restrictive curricula, and endless distraction, but if they want innovation, their best bet is to get consensus around their vision and then get out of the way and trust teachers.


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