Where’s the Innovation in Schools?

29 Jan

This post originally appeared on the CEA Blog series on innovation. You can see it in that form here.

A colleague returned from her son’s parent-teacher interview frustrated. Her children attend a “well-off” school, with community support, that serves a large number of middle-income families. In contrast, the school she teaches at serves many low-income families.

She complained that her children’s school was too ‘safe’. They weren’t striving to be better but instead choosing to maintain the status quo. Students used computers one/week to do only word processing, literacy strategies were 5-10 years out of date and nowhere in their program were they ‘cutting edge’.

To the casual observer, this was an exemplary school. Test scores were high, students learned, parents were happy and highly engaged. Her frustration wasn’t with performance but the loss of potential. She knew they could be doing so much more, but weren’t. This was a school that could try new things, take some chances and excel, but instead they stayed safe. She didn’t understand it.

It’s a common refrain heard in education. Why don’t things change faster? Where is the innovation in schools? Last week a parent complained that schools are only willing to innovate about things that don’t really matter (e.g. balanced school day). Where are the new approaches to teaching and learning?
Fortunately, innovation is a highly discussed topic. Experts explain  how to enhance innovation and agreed that to foster innovation we need to create an “innovation culture“.

There are many elements in creating an ‘innovation culture’ but chief among them is encouraging “…risk taking, challenging the status quo, and freedom of expression”. This runs counter to the current “best practices” philosophy common in education. When educators should be innovating and discovering their own solutions they are told to follow dictates from board and ministry offices written by people who “know better”.

As Dr. Robert Langer, head of the highly innovative and creative Langer Lab at MIT said “Very often when you are going for real innovation you have to go against prevailing wisdom”. Best practices mean that Canadian educators are discouraged, and in some cases forbidden, from going against prevailing wisdom. Curriculum gurus insist they know best, and tell educators what to do in classes they’ve never seen and are thousands of miles away.

Innovation often flourishes at the edges of large systems, not as part of the mainstream. Skunkworks projects are prime examples as small, loosely structured groups of people, research and develop projects outside of their main responsibilities. This model started with Lockheed Martin in 1943 and persists today with many other innovative companies. The research that happened at Xerox PARC, which led to the development of Apple and the personal computer, is another example.

Google, one of the world’s most innovative organizations, supports a culture of innovation in a couple of ways:

  1. They give researchers “20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally“. Google’s workers feel free to look into something that interests them and able to try something new without the fear of it failing affecting their career.
  2. Google created “Google X” a completely separate organization that is free to chase “shoot-for-the-stars ideas“.

The question we must answer is how can we create a culture of innovation in Canadian schools? How do we encourage innovation in an education system that is increasingly conformist, politicized and risk averse?

Here are three places where the seeds of innovation exist and where, if supported and nourished, educators can develop new ideas that, once proven, can be safely transferred to the educational mainstream. Places where mainstream education can go looking for practices and approaches that work better than what we are currently doing:

  1. Independent Schools: I am not referring to traditional conservative private schools (e.g. Upper Canada College) but schools organized around a pedagogy or philosophy. Montessori methods have survived and grown in independent schools and are now entering the mainstream. Schools such as Calgary Science School  or Quest University are current examples of independent schools that are innovative leaders.
  2. First Nations Schools: A system in crisis that sits outside of provincial oversight  is perfectly positioned to innovate. The existence of a separate native culture justifies ‘challenging the prevailing wisdom’ about education, and educators in remote locations should have the freedom to try new approaches. Chief Mathews Elementary in British Columbia is a great example of this in action.
  3. Low Performing Schools: Schools where traditional methods aren’t working because of poverty or culture, where students aren’t learning, are prime breeding grounds for innovation. Educators who want to innovate should be flocking to these schools to try new approaches. A great example of this is an approach taken at Inner City High in Edmonton using rapping to educate disengaged students. There are lots of other examples.

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