Education professionals as social innovators

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The famous French social scientist Emile Durkheim – the founding father of the academic discipline of sociology of education – grounded the view that by transmitting society and culture into the next generation, education was inevitably looking more to the past than to the future. His legendary quote – “Education is only the image and reflection of society. It imitates and reproduces the latter… it does not create it” – coined the notion of education merely ‘reproducing’ societies. When social change accelerates, it is no surprise that the ‘conservative’ role of education becomes increasingly perceived as a problem in itself. Today, many economic and political leaders tend to share the view that education is losing the race with technology and is not changing fast enough to cope with future challenges.

But is this a fair account? And how do professionals in the education sector view their own jobs? There are very few data sources to empirically assess the innovative potential of education. Measurement of innovation has progressed significantly in recent years, but applying such measures on education has been rare. The most recent issue of OECD Education Indicators in Focus, based on the new publication Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective produced by the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), analyses measures of innovation in education by using data of the Research into Employment and Professional Flexibility (REFLEX) (2005) and Higher Education as a Generator of Strategic Competences (HEGESCO) (2008) surveys in 19 European countries on how tertiary graduates working in education perceive their own jobs. The results are surprising: no less than 59% of education professionals hold a highly innovative job.

Jobs are defined as highly innovative when tertiary educated employees say that they work in an organisation at the forefront of innovation and that they contribute themselves to innovation. With this measure of innovation it becomes possible to compare education with other sectors in society. In the manufacturing sector, 64.4% of the tertiary educated professionals work in highly innovative jobs, but education follows closely with 59.0%, well above the average across all sectors of 54.9%. The health sector, commonly perceived as more innovative than education, only counts 50.4% of jobs defined as highly innovative. Public administration closes the list with 39.5%. It is less of a surprise that within education there are huge differences between primary, secondary and tertiary (or higher) education: the higher education sector is, with 69.2%, the most innovative one, while primary (56%) and secondary (54%) education are situated much lower, but still around the cross-sector average.

Innovation research distinguishes between three types of innovation: ‘knowledge or methods’, ‘products or services’, and ‘technology, tools or instruments’. On average across sectors, innovation in knowledge or methods is the most prevalent one (36.6%), followed by innovation in products or services (28.8%) and innovation in technology, tools or instruments (21.3%). Education shares the same ranking of types of innovation, but with greater differences. Of all sectors, education has the highest percentage of highly innovative jobs in knowledge or methods: 48.5% (in higher education alone even going to 59.5%!). On the other hand, education is on the low side regarding innovation in technology, tools or instruments: only 20.6% (29.6% in higher education) of the tertiary educated professionals in education see their job as highly innovative for this type of innovation.

These data – which are innovative in themselves – put education in a different light than Emile Durkheim did more than a century ago. The idea that education is intrinsically conservative should be revisited, or at the least nuanced. Education professionals seem to align themselves more with the opposite view, of which John Dewey, the famous American philosopher of education, is the main exponent. By leading the next generation into the future, Dewey saw education as intrinsically progressive. In one of his most inspiring quotes – “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself” – he equated education with growth and change, just as life itself. The progressive movement in American education of the mid-20th century was very much inspired by this idea and demonstrated that education could indeed lead the way in transforming society.

In various aspects education is as innovative as many other sectors, in some cases even more so. Certainly, a lot more should be done to make education a truly transformative engine of social change, to align it better to the changes 21st century societies are experiencing. But divergent views among stakeholders on the future of education should be discussed on their own terms, and not presented as a lack of innovation.

These data also show that it is good to listen to the voice of educational professionals themselves before making normative judgments on the education system. A few weeks ago the OECD published the results of the TALIS 2013 survey, an international survey of teachers on their profession and their working conditions. The TALIS data also present a different view on education than what outsiders typically believe: one of teachers generally satisfied with their job, confident that they are up to the challenges, but demanding more professional working conditions and a greater respect from society. The new data on innovation in education bring a similar message: education professionals presenting themselves as social innovators in a system perfectly capable of guiding social transformation.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 24, by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin and Gwénaël Jacotin
TALIS 2013 Survey
Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus:
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:
Chart source: © OECD

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