Innovate from within

25th July 2014 at 01:00

"Innovate or die" is a guiding principle of modern business. The search for increasingly radical ways to achieve desired outcomes has become a prime test of leadership. Similarly governments do not make their names by arguing for the status quo but by convincing us that their new policies will transform our lives.

The relationship between invention and innovation is complex. In retrospect, the invention of the printing press, the steam engine and the internet all heralded dramatic change for society. However, their full implications became apparent only with the passage of time. Real change is defined by history. We should beware those who claim to have the keys to transformation.

In education, the search for new ways to improve results has become an obsession. Inventions such as the photocopier, word processor and internet search engine have all made real differences to how schools and teachers work. However, education policy has sought more profound change to enhance competence in literacy and numeracy, develop deeper knowledge and a wider range of skills, raise standards and promote equity. The pursuit of such goals has led to national curriculum prescription, changes in school structures, developments in testing and accountability, competition between schools and the promotion of a plethora of packaged materials.

The problem, however, is that teachers have proved sceptical about the worth of many of these externally imposed "innovations". Frequently, they respond by introducing the minimum change necessary to comply with requirements. The gap between policy intention and classroom implementation is difficult to bridge.

Such scepticism goes back a long way. The introduction of open-plan teaching in the 1960s often met with increasingly ingenious ways to recreate classrooms by constructing barriers. More recently, attempts to encourage interdisciplinary learning or emphasise skills over knowledge have been hit by significant doubts.

What does this tell us about innovation in education? The main message is that teachers are rightly wary of snake oil and have to believe that change will make a positive difference for their pupils. Their hearts need to be engaged if their heads and their practice are to follow. Successful innovation is about equipping staff with the skills to explore new ways of working for themselves. It thrives in collegiate contexts. We need the support of a strong university sector and effective contributions from credible development bodies. We also need evidence of impact to ensure responsiveness and guard against delusion.

Good practice is often context-specific and is best arrived at through imagination rather than replication. Successful innovation is more about determined exploration than expectant dissemination.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future

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