On Innovation and Change in Education

Rosa María Torres
Light bulb - Fubiz

"You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth."
Alexander Graham Bell

Innovation - leading to meaningful change - is imperative  

Innovation is about change towards improvement. The term innovation does not say anything about the nature, orientation, pertinence and depth of such change and of such improvement. Education - both in and out of school - requires major changes. An "expanded vision of basic education" was proposed in 1990 in Jomtien-Thailand when the Education for All global initiative was launched. The need for "a new vision of education" has been highlighted by the Incheon Declaration (2015) and the 2030 Agenda. Minor, superficial, isolated, scattered innovations may modify very little. Increasing access to the school system as we know it, and improving its results as measured by standardized tests, without meaningful changes in conventional teaching and learning mentalities and patterns, may only reinforce and amplify the old "banking education" model. What is needed at this point is not only more or better education, but a different education, teaching and learning model.

▸ Innovations are particularly important in periods of crisis 

Throughout the world, in "developed" and "developing" countries, there is dissatisfaction with education, training and learning systems. Innovative experiences contribute to generate critical awareness on the weaknesses of conventional education practices. They show new angles, possibilities, alternatives, ways out. They reveal that commitment, creativity and change are there and alive behind the apparent inertia and despite adverse conditions. In fact, the most inspiring educational innovations are usually found in the most difficult and disadvantaged circumstances - rural and remote areas, urban slums, small villages, poor neighborhoods, multilingual settings, learners with special needs, etc.

It is critical to transform the school system, the most widespread vehicle of systematic education  

While innovation occurs on a daily basis in schools and classrooms, change is slow and non-systemic. Innovation is often the initiative of enthusiastic, committed and subversive individuals and teams. Activating and accelerating change requires persistent and co-ordinated efforts from all sides: top-down and bottom-up, from inside the school and from the outside, from parents and students, universities, the media, mass organizations, political actors, private enterprise. Experience shows that innovations developed on the margins of the school system tend to be shortlived if they are unable to influence mainstream education. 

Out-of-school education also requires major changes 

The term education is generally understood as school education. On the other hand, innovation in education has often been associated with non-formal or out-of-school education, with NGO programmes rather than with government ones. However, most learning throughout life takes place out of the school system, in the family, the community, the workplace, the media, cultural activities, sports, contact with nature, use of the Internet and digital technologies, autonomous reading and writing, social and political participation, etc. Not all education labelled non-formal or run by ONGs is innovative. At the same time, there are many examples of powerful innovation taking place within school systems. Renovation is a need and a challenge for the education, training and learning field as a whole, governmental and non-governmental, formal, non-formal and informal, dealing with people of all ages - children, youth and adults.   

Innovation is not necessarily related to, or dependent on, technologies  

The extraordinary expansion and advantages of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have led many people to associate educational innovation with technologies. The image of "the world as a huge classroom" is strongly associated to the utopia of a connected world where every individual has access not only to information but to knowledge. Realities show the limits of such fascination and overconfidence on ICTs as guardians of educational democratization and change. Let us remember that half of the world population has no access to the internet. On the other hand, research and experience are already showing that incorporating digital devices and the Internet in schools and classrooms does not necessarily change curricular or pedagogical practices. Acesss to does not ensure effective use of. Access to the Internet is not enough; the speed and quality of Internet connections is a new critical component of the digital gap. Broad band remains a luxury in most countries in the South. And yet, social and pedagogical innovation continue to take place in those contexts that have limited or no contact with the digital world.
Innovation is not only about the future, it may be also about the past

People think of innovation as something that is in the future, something that has never been tried before, and awaits to be discovered or imitated from others. However, important innovations may also be in the past. Many countries can tell about wonderful education experiences, often rooted in local cultures and ideas, that made a difference in the national context and that were left behind in the name of modernity. Many of them remain alive as proud memory and also as inspiration for meaningful current policies and practices. In education, and in many other fields, not everything related to the past is bad or outdated, and not everything related to an imagined future is bright and good.
Innovation is nourished by collaboration, not competition 

People tend to associate innovation with isolated individuals or institutions rather than with groups and teams. However, innovation flourishes
where there is collaboration rather than competition. Learning to collaborate is a key challenge for school systems, mostly dedicated to cultivate competition, forcing students to compete with each other in the name of "excellence". In highly competitive and individualistic societies, learning to collaborate is also a challenge at the workplace, in social and political life. In an increasingly competitive world and with an increasingly competitive Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), chances of technological and social innovation become slimmer.

Innovators get better with age 

Contrary to popular belief, the capacity to innovate and the quality of the innovation become better with age. Research shows that "the age of eventual Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery, and of inventors when making a significant breakthrough, averaged around 38 in 2000, an increase of about six years since 1900." "A 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old." Reasons for this include: 1. It is necessary to learn the patterns before daring and being able to break them. 2. The capacity to learn from mistakes is essential for innovating and it grows with age. 3. Gray hair gives more confidence and better capacity to convince others. The Finnish school model considers that a teacher is better equipped for good teaching after ten years of practice. All this contradicts "common sense" and regular practices in school systems worldwide, where "old" teachers are often forced to retire when many of them are in the best years of their careers.

Innovations are of very different kinds and scopes  

Innovations may have an eminently transforming or an eminently preserving nature, and may vary greatly in scope and impact. Some innovations challenge the conventional  education model in important aspects ("disruptive", "radical", "alterative", "transformative", "paradigmatic", are some of the terms used); others focus on marginal modifications. Some innovations produce the illusion of change, while replicating conventional teaching-learning practices (this is often the case of innovations that rely on technologies as main motors of change). Many are the result of exceptional situations and processes and are thus hardly replicable in other contexts. Many operate in well-controlled micro conditions and are thus hard to scale-up. Most innovations do not transcend the micro and the local level. Few reach the required depth, consistency and persistence to become true educational alternatives. 

Innovations are never totally innovative  

Experiences considered "innovative" may have one or more innovative components, while other aspects remain unchanged. Continuity and discontinuity, tradition and innovation, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, education carries the double mission of preserving tradition and promoting change, learning about the past while preparing for the future. Very often innovations in education are related to administration, organization and infrastructure, which are the easiest to for top-down initiative and control; curricular and pedagogical innovations are hard to sustain since they require educators' will, motivation and competencies. In this terrain, attention is usually given to instructional materials; less attention is given to critical dimensions such as changes in role/behavior, knowledge production, dissemination and use, understanding, internalization of values, etc. Influencing the real curriculum and changing the teaching culture (stereotypes, ideologies, styles, practices) have proven the most difficult and challenging.
The starting point for innovation is critical awareness and analysis of practice

Innovation implies seeing the obvious with new eyes, or putting into practice what is already known. Innovation is often about old ideas being resuscitated, rejuvenated, placed in new contexts or applied to new issues, or about new combinations of the same ideas, or about new components integrated into old ones. While external inputs and stimuli are important, change takes place when it involves ownership, understanding, reflection and critical analysis of one's own practice. 

Educational change requires working at both macro and micro levels 

The term innovation is usually associated with local actors and initiatives and with on-the-ground experiences. The term reform, on the contrary, is associated with large-scale, top-down initiatives, coming from governments and/or international agencies. Educational development and change require both bottom-up and top-down efforts. Sustained and effective change is systemic and this requires complementary and coordinated interventions at both levels. If the school is the focus of change, students, teachers and parents must be placed at the center of the process. Trusting teachers, empowering them, investing in their professional autonomy and status, are essential conditions to ensure building school change from the ground up.

Innovation must be based on realistic grounds  

Perennial, ambitious or radical reform projects often succumb to reality, leaving in their wake skepticism and increasing resistance to change. Many times, changes proposed are too complex or not feasible under concrete conditions and proposed timetables. Typically, teachers are expected to change long-entrenched teaching models and styles with little explanation and short in-service training courses; group work and participatory methods are prescribed regardless of overcrowded classrooms, overloaded curricula or lack of the minimal physical conditions; parental and community involvement in the school is promoted in the absence of any tradition of such involvement and of information, communication or capacity-building efforts. A thorough diagnosis of the starting point and of actual conditions - including resistance to the changes proposed (often confused with "resistance to change" in general), especially when they are not properly communicated and understood - is essential for effective reform implementation.

The innovation process takes time 

Developing, consolidating, institutionalizing and expanding an innovation takes time. Based on lessons from concrete experiences, some authors recommend an initial period of three to five years, and others even a decade or more, before starting an expansion and dissemination process. The fact is that it is easy to initiate innovation but it is hard to sustain and institutionalize it. Many innovative initiatives die before they can even walk by themselves. The field of educational innovation is full of tombs, an indication of the complexities involved and of the haste and simplistic approaches adopted by policy makers and administrators. Survival beyond a limited period of time becomes an indicator of success in itself.

Consolidating and expanding innovation requires a careful strategy  

Systemic does not mean simultaneous: change requires a progressive experimentation and implementation strategy that foresees the different stages and components, the necessary conditions, capacities, resources, support and evaluation to be provided along the way. Understanding, ownership and full involvement of those engaged in the innovation process are conditions for its success. Resistance of some sort must be expected, and a strategy devised to deal with it from the beginning rather than letting it come as a surprise. It is also important to bear in mind that, while initial steps may be encouraging, innovation does not follow a linear evolution: reversion or stagnation is common, as revealed by reports on innovations and reforms that went back into the "old" ways.

Innovation can capture educators' enthusiasm provided that certain conditions are met  

The much-repeated "resistance" of teachers to change has less to do with teachers' characteristics than with what is required of them and under what conditions. Experience has taught teachers that "change" is routine rhetoric in education, something that comes in waves and always from the top. If desired change does not occur within a given (usually short) period of time, it is the teachers who are blamed, not the architects of the plan. Changing teachers' role is not something that can be imposed from the outside and taught through brief lectures or courses. No change in school culture should be expected if it continues to be an external push, and if teachers continue to be viewed as mere implementors.

Innovation is not primarily about money

Often, the possibility of promoting change is perceived primarily as a financial issue. However, abundant international experience, research and evaluation show that higher spending in education is not necessarily related to improved teaching or improved learning. The most important, sustainable and promising change in education has to do with mentalities, with values and attitudes towards education, towards teaching and learning, and towards learners. Ultimately, it is the will to change, at all levels, from central bureaucracies to school classrooms, that makes change foreseeable and possible.

Innovation is not about saying but about doing 

Educational rhetoric has been characterized by ambitious goals and grandiloquent words. Trends towards homogenization and "global education reform" have resulted in a well-known set of words: equity, quality, improvement, decentralization, school autonomy, teacher professionalization, assessment, evaluation, standardized testing, 'merit pay', parental and community involvement, cost-sharing, partnerships, consensus-building, focus on learning, participatory approaches, learner-centered methodologies, learner-friendly schools, technology in education, 1 to 1 models, and, of course, innovation.

There is a big gap between words and facts. Often, programmes are considered innovative because they say they are innovative; education reform proposals are confused with actual reform processes and results; curriculum reform is often considered a document; access to modern technologies and to the Internet is confused with actual and effective use, and taken as equivalent to innovation and change; etcetera. Real innovation and change must be perceivable, not intended.

Innovative experiences cannot be transplanted  

Education and learning are highly dependant on the actors engaged and on the contexts in which they develop. Historical, political, economic, social, cultural, linguistic and other dimensions shape education realities. In a way, each experience is unique. What is innovative in one place may be perfectly conventional in another; what is feasible and what works in a certain context may be rejected or prove ineffective in a different one. There is no "what works/what does not work" in general. Accepting this and acknowledging diversity would avoid the usual temptation to "model" successful experiences and try to replicate them with little or no regard for the particular context and conditions that enable, and ultimately explain, them. 

Innovative experiences may inspire or challenge similar attempts elsewhere but cannot be adopted - and sometimes even adapted - successfully from one context to another. Innovation is about search, exploration and experimentation, not about importing ready-to-use 'one size fits all' models.

Little is still known about educational change   

The nature of educational change is complex and as yet not fully understood. Little is still known on how innovations are initiated, developed, disseminated and institutionalized. "Success stories" and "best practices" tend to be described superficially and included in boxes in national and international reports. We lack information about cultures and contexts, dynamics and contradictions involved in the process. Educational and pedagogical change worldwide would benefit enormously from thorough contextual and in situ studies (not mere accounts), analyses (not mere descriptions) and debate (not just information sharing) on successful and sustainable innovative practices.

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