A Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors for the Spreading of Curricular Innovations in a Centralised-Decentralised Context of Singapore Schools

As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world  at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago this week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants.  Today’s contribution is from Paul Meng-Huat Chua and David Wei Loong Hung, of the National Institute of Education, Singapore. 

Contextual and Research Background

Building on descriptions of the Singaporean educational context as a blend between centralization and decentralization, this post seeks to provide a framework to account for the way that curricular innovations may spread both inside and across Singapore schools. Individual schools in Singapore are first organized as clusters then into geographical zones. Schools in Singapore are expected to develop curriculum innovations and deepen them into distinctive identities while a set of recently-launched Future Schools are also expected to spread their digital-based curriculum innovations to other schools throughout the country. In short, we argue that the centralization of the system can complement the decentralized schools’ efforts to develop and spread their own curricular innovations.

The research behind this blog post was carried out in two Future Schools in Singapore, as well as on three other Singaporean technology-mediated innovation-occurring schools. From the data collected, three models of curricular innovation diffusion have been identified, which exist along a continuum. These models range from “deep but narrow” diffusion to “non-deep but wide” diffusion, with a variety of models that exhibit neither deep nor wide diffusion in between. Some of these models adopt a school-based approach to innovation spreading while others adopt a cluster-/zone-based approach to innovation diffusion.

In the case of “deep but narrow” diffusion, a six-year inquiry-oriented, mobile technology-based science curriculum innovation for primary three and four students (aged 9–10 years) has been diffused to five other schools within the same zone since 2013. An example of the “non-deep but wide” diffusion relates to the spreading of a digital-based learning trail innovation from one school to over two hundred schools in a space of a few years. Digital-based learning trails harness real-world data found in a physical trail for students to subsequently apply their inquiry skills to actively construct knowledge.

Several factors appear to support the spread of curricular innovations in each instance, including significant numbers of expert-teachers who can mentor novice-teachers; cross-schools’ leadership and champions; augmentation of school resources from the community; capacity of school leaders and teachers; social capital (trust); as well as passion and belief in the innovation.

Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors of Curricular Innovation Spreading

From these enabling factors, a 3-tier framework to account for the spreading of curricular innovations was developed. The 3 tiers comprise:

  1. Micro-supports for spreading innovations
  2. Macro-supports for spreading innovations
  3. Meso-supports for spreading innovations

Micro-Supports for Spreading Innovation

The micro-level for spreading curricular innovation focuses on the practices within the innovation spreading schools that teachers and leaders are engaged in to develop capacity, since capacity building is a key factor in enabling the spread of curricular innovations. From our research, it was found that both the design of the capacity building tasks and the process of the capacity building mattered. On the task design, a feature of effectiveness was when teachers engaged in the co-designing of the innovative curriculum with teacher-experts. In terms of the process of capacity building, when the learning relationship was approached from an apprenticeship perspective of observation and critical inquiry and reflection, the learning relationship was productive as the teacher-novices were able to appropriate the dimensions of innovative pedagogy (e.g. hypotheses formulation and critical and creative thinking) i.e. to develop the capacity needed to enact that innovation.

Macro-Supports for Spreading Innovation

Any education system exists within a larger environment or eco-system of infrastructures, policies and alignments. The macro-supports for spreading curricular include the macro system-at-large socio-technical-economic and policy infrastructures that facilitate and sustain the spreading of innovation. In the Singapore educational context, features of the larger environment that are established by the Ministry of Education include policy signals for curricular innovation; school autonomy policy vis-à-vis the school cluster system; a tight-loose-tight of perspective for curriculum-pedagogy-assessment design; and the augmentation of resources (financial and technological).

Meso-Supports for Spreading Innovation

Where the contribution lies, we suggest, is in conceptualization of a meso-tier of innovation spreading, which allows for the interplay of the macro- and micro-supports for innovation spreading. The meso-tier has be structured into existence at the level of the innovation spreading schools such as a sub-group of cluster schools which decidedly want to spread the curricular innovation. The meso-tier consists of leadership stances, behavioral norms and structural/organizational arrangements that seek to leverage the affordances of the macro infrastructures in order to “distribute” the learned capacity at the micro-level to other schools within the group of innovation-spreading schools.

From our research, instantiations of the meso-tier leadership stances, norms and structural/organizational arrangements include the culture of learning and innovation in schools. As this tier mediates both macro and micro dimensions, success of this mediation is observed when teachers’ passion towards curricular innovations are stirred; teacher champion-leaders serve as “experts” to apprentice other teachers; visits by principals create awareness of the curricular innovations; and resources such as time, financial, technological and capacity are created and harnessed towards the end of innovation spreading. Last but not least, a final piece to the meso-tier framework is the presence of system leaders who initiate, orchestrate and drive the development of leadership stances (e.g. cultivation of teacher leaders); cultivate behavioural norms (e.g. culture of innovation); and put in place structural/organizational arrangements (e.g. principal visitations, harnessing of resources). In the same vein, Yancy Toh and colleagues have theorized the need for ecological leadership which mediates and orchestrates the various tiers.

Conclusion and Next Steps

This framework has been conceptualized using data from the case study research of two Future Schools in Singapore, as well as on three other technology-mediated innovation-occurring schools. A thread running through the framework is that macro infrastructures that are centrally determined in Singapore schools could be leveraged or appropriated to enable and facilitate the spreading of innovations in individual autonomous schools. For instance, system leaders in the research have been known to capitalize on the affordance of school autonomy in the macro environment to initiate and ensure the spreading of innovation (i.e. learned capacity) from his or her school to another group of schools within the cluster.

A possible next step in the trajectory of this research is to test the robustness of this organizing framework of innovation spreading by using it to predict the extent of innovation spreading in other educational scenarios (including for non-technology mediated innovations) in Singapore schools and to ascertain the reliability of the predictions.

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