Educational Innovation Around The World (Revisited)

Last month IEN hosted a symposium on educational innovation around the world, featuring commentary papers from and a discussion about innovation in:

In addition to slides from the framing introduction and the presentations, Deirdre Faughey and an online audience shared notes and questions from the session which can be found at #Whatsnewaera on Twitter.

The discussion highlighted for me several key questions about innovation in different contexts that we need to continue to address:

What’s really “new” and what difference does it make? 

The discussion emphasized that rather than a property of a particular idea or practice innovations make possible more productive and beneficial activities and outcomes in a particular context. In that sense, ideas and practices that may already be in use or may be well known in one context may lead to new developments and improved outcomes in another context.

What innovations are worth spreading?

Not every “new” development is worth pursuing. However, ideas and practices worth spreading includes those that create new opportunities to address problems, achieve existing goals, or pursue productive but previously unimagined directions and activities. In education, in particular, valuable innovations are those that transform the “instructional core,” changing the relationship between students, teachers and content in ways that lead to advances in learning.

What strategies can support the spread and productive use of educational innovations?

The session highlighted a number of different approaches to spreading and deepening innovation that are linked to particular contexts:

  • Start work on developing innovations “at the margins” of the educational system, where there may be fewer requirements and less attention; demonstrate success; and build demand for spread (as in developing peer-tutoring in rural schools in Mexico)
  • Build (and build on) regional clusters and other means of organizing “like-minded” schools and organizations that can incubate innovations that meet their particular needs (as in Singapore)
  • Leverage existing networks and infrastructure (as in efforts in Africa to take advantage of work to build networks focused on health and use of health data)
  • “Occupy” existing structures and re-direct resources (as in Mexico where success of tutoring networks created demands for using professional development resources in new ways and helped to put those involved in developing tutoring networks into central roles in the education system)
  • Use the central structures and resources to seed and reward local and regional innovations; to identify those of broad relevance; and to incorporate selected local innovations into central policy-making and support (as in the “Centralized decentralization” approach in Singapore)
  • Foster conditions that support innovation at the school/community level; the regional/cluster level; and the national level (as in Finland’s efforts to support high levels of professionalism among teachers; coherent but flexible expectations for learning; adaptive leadership; and productive networks and partnerships)

These different approaches, however, have strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, starting at the margins, for example, can be labeled and stigmatized as only appropriate for students, teachers, and schools in those schools. On the other hand, centralizing and systematizing local innovations can reduce flexibility and adaptiveness and limit the local ownership that may have been central to the innovation’s value. Further, while promoting the use of partnerships, clusters, and networks can facilitate spread to some individuals and groups, others are still likely to be left out. As a consequence, questions of whether and when to scale innovations and how to link work at the margins/work at the center and work across networks and clusters have to be addressed.

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While the session made clear that developing productive educational innovations is challenging in any context, it also demonstrated the possibilities for innovation under a wide range of conditions.

Ultimately, the session suggested that innovation cannot be a goal in and of itself. Rather than trying to create new solutions to old problems, the promise of innovation lies in finding new problems, opportunities, and possibilities for advancing learning of students, educators and systems.

Thanks to all those who have contributed to the discussion so far. We welcome further conversation and look forward to hearing more about the work on educational innovation underway in many different contexts.

Thomas Hatch

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