Schools at the crossroads of innovation

by Dirk Van Damme

Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

In a not so distant past, it was seen as one of the defining features of schools that they isolated learners – and the learning process itself – from the surrounding environment. As so brilliantly described by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his account of the modern machinery of discipline and power, schools must be secluded time/space settings, far away from the impurities of the contemporary world which would poison the minds and character of children. But also in a more enlightened and emancipatory sense, separating young learners from an often depressing environment was perceived to be the best way to guide them to higher levels of knowledge, skill and wisdom.

Schools and schooling have changed a lot in recent years, but they are still well-defined in terms of the time and space boundaries that separate them from their environment. Some modern progressive pedagogies have gradually opened up schooling by moving children out of the school and into the surrounding natural and social environments, introducing a new learning process based on realistic and relevant challenges. But in most cases, schools are still isolated spaces, defined by concrete walls and iron fences, where life is dictated by the rhythm of the school bell.

How different this mindset is from the realities of today‘s world! The separation of school time from the wider world, characterised by borderless networking and communication, may seem rather alienating to young people. Isolating schools from their environment does nothing to help the process of incremental change, nor the innovation of education and learning. No modern institution changes solely from within, but rather does so in reaction or interaction with an environment which continuously challenges its processes and outputs. In today’s world, these pressures challenges and demands towards schools seem to accumulate, be it in the form of employers asking for more relevant skills and offering workplace learning arrangements to move learners into the reality, or in the form of citizens and civil society claiming all kinds of changes in the curriculum in order to align education with what they perceive to be the common good.

These issues are further developed and expanded in a new OECD/CERI publication Schools at the crossroads of innovation in cities and regions, and will be discussed with education ministers, high-level policy makers and industry leaders in the upcoming Global Education Industry Summit, which takes place in Luxembourg on 25-26 September, hosted by the OECD, the European Commission and the Government of Luxembourg.

Too often the answer from the world of education is defensive and self-protective. It is time to radically rethink schooling in terms of openness and networking, or in other words, as nodes in wider ecosystems of innovation and learning. Schools are among the most important knowledge institutions of modern societies and they have such great potential to play a critical role in processes of knowledge production and dissemination, vital to innovation in the local and regional economy. Many accounts of innovation would agree that human capital plays a crucial role, but they tend to look first at the knowledge and skills of educated individuals, and not at the active engagement of schools as learning environments where innovation also occurs. Similarly, schools can – and should –play a very important role in building the social capital of local communities, by offering services that improve the well-being and social cohesion in local communities.

By developing an ecosystems view of schools and opening up schools to the surrounding economies and societies, many important stakeholders would feel empowered to support and contribute to them. Local employers, who already play a role in apprenticeships and workplace learning arrangements in vocational education, could easily expand their role towards other dimensions and sectors of the educational system. Opening up schools will generate a completely different governance system for education, one where vertical command-and-control steering and accountability is exchanged for more horizontal relationships and a networking system made up of various stakeholders. Such developments would strengthen the relevance of what is learnt in schools, and contribute to the social and emotional learning that is essential for fostering good citizenship and engaging human beings.

Innovative schools challenge the boundaries – in time, space, and also in curricula and learning processes – that tradition seems to impose on schools today. They often have different approaches to the learning process and especially how its pedagogical core is organised. It is true that deep learning sometimes requires concentration, silencing the noise from the surrounding environment. And a networking world can be a very noisy world. But the era when isolation and separation were necessary to define the learning environments for our children has passed. Schools are at a crossroads of innovation: they are becoming partners and actors in processes of innovation in the surrounding economy and society, and taking benefit of the world around them to innovate their own existence.

Schools at the crossroads of innovation in cities and regions
3rd Global Education Industry Summit, Luxembourg, 25-26 September, 2017

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Photo credit: The Global Education Industry Summit

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