How can education systems embrace innovation?

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

Innovation in education is a highly contentious issue. Talking to education ministers one quickly gets the impression that education systems in general are very reluctant to innovate, and that there is strong resistance to change among teachers. But teachers would give you the opposite idea, by telling you that there are too many changes imposed on them without much consultation and without ensuring the necessary preconditions for a successful implementation of change. In some countries, innovative change has been implemented without either the care and diligence needed or the appropriate prior testing, experimentation and evaluation.

In its recent publication, Measuring Innovation in Education, the Innovation Strategy project of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) provides evidence that suggests that there are a lot of changes happening at various levels of the system. The widely accepted view that education professionals are change-aversive seems to be wrong. But few of the innovative changes the book documents are the result of deliberate top-down reforms. Other work in CERI, specifically in the Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) project, has revealed a huge reservoir of innovative energy at the micro-level – definitely the most relevant level where teaching and learning actually happens.

How to square these different views on innovation in education? Maybe the core of the dispute is not so much about the actual amount of change and innovation in education, but about the process – how change and innovation happen. A lot of well-intentioned innovations fail not because of a lack of quality or because their intended direction of change is wrong, but because of how they have been implemented. Teachers will be able to give you rich accounts of top-down innovations, implemented without much consultation, without taking into account the experiences and knowledge base at the point of delivery of education. Lack of trust, lack of ownership, a poor evidence base, and lack of empowerment of the key actors – these seem to be the main ingredients of the recipe for failure in changing education.

To better understand this, we need to know more about how the governance of education systems has changed. Many attempts to bring about innovative change in education do not yet seem to be based on what we already know about how education systems are governed. Decentralisation, greater complexity, multiplication of stakeholders, broader dispersion of knowledge and expertise, more levels of decision-making all make education systems more difficult to steer and to change. At least that’s the impression one gets when looking at the system from the outside. Indeed, the complexity and the multilevel nature of decision-making in education systems make top-down reform much more difficult to achieve. But complexity, in itself, does not necessarily jeopardise change through innovation.

Too often education ministers and policy makers react by tightening the screws, i.e. by reinforcing accountability, supervision and bureaucratic control systems. This may lead to short-term behavioural adjustments of the actors in the system, but very rarely to sustainable change. Work in CERI’s Governing Complex Education Systems project has shown us what makes for effective, sustainable innovation and reform: the professionalism of teachers and school leaders, strong knowledge-management frameworks and trust among all stakeholders and actors in the system. Professionals bring about innovation when they have a stake in it, when they see the evidence and the supporting knowledge base as credible, and when they trust their colleagues. In the same vein, parents will commit to innovative change when they feel involved and listened to, and when they understand the rationales and underlying evidence for change.

Does this mean that the capacity of education leaders, ministers and policy makers to steer the direction of change in education has evaporated? Have education ministers become powerless? No, definitely not. But they have to find new ways to set the course of change. Building a convincing case for change and articulating a credible narrative that appeals to both the professionalism of teachers and the interests of parents and stakeholders in the community can go a long way towards effecting change in complex systems. But change also works the other way around. The enormous reservoir of innovative energy at the micro-level can result in sustainable change if the actors involved can make a compelling case that gives direction and meaning to change.

The education community shows a great interest in better understanding these processes of change, reform and innovation in education – and the governance arrangements that support or obstruct them. That’s why some 200 policy makers and professionals will be gathering at the CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education in Paris next week. The findings from CERI work in four different research projects will be shared and discussed so that we all can better understand the conditions under which sustainable and effective innovative change can be realised.

CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
CERI Conference Webcast
CERI Conference Agenda
CERI Conference Background Paper: Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective 
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Follow the conference on twitter: #OECDCERI

Photo credit: Brainstorming / @Shutterstock

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