Why innovation becomes imperative in education

by Dirk Van Damme 
Head of the Skills Beyond School Division,  Directorate for Education and Skills

Since Harvard economists Goldin & Katz published their ground-breaking book The Race between Technology and Education (2008), education has come face-to-face with the challenges of a world continuously altered by technological innovation. Education is generally perceived to be a laggard social system, better equipped to transmit the heritage of the past than to prepare for the future. This perception is not entirely accurate; OECD/CERI work on Measuring innovation in education (2014) demonstrates that education is a system that is not change-averse.

From a historical perspective, education has adjusted to the needs and opportunities of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, for example by introducing natural sciences into the curriculum – although it took many years for that to happen. Will education have the luxury of time to confront the current wave of technological change and innovation? How will it react to the challenges of digitalization and artificial intelligence?

On 25-26 September some hundred education policy makers from national governments and international organisations and representatives from the emerging education industry gathered at the 3rd Global Education Industry Summit (GEIS) in Luxembourg to discuss these questions. Jointly organised by the OECD, the European Commission and Luxembourg, the GEIS aspired to be a platform for discussions on how education can embrace innovation and how the education industry can be involved in that endeavour. This year the focus of the event was on opening up education, with the title Schools at the crossroads of innovation in cities and regions. A background report with the same title provided the substantive materials to support the discussions: it suggests that schools need to  reach out  to regional economies and local communities to be part of innovation ecosystems in order to contribute with knowledge and learning opportunities, but also to get incentivised to become more innovative themselves.

One of the most visible outcomes of the discussions was that education policy makers and industrialists are not yet on the same page. While the latter forcefully argued for a sense of urgency and more drastic changes, the former made a case for piecemeal engineering of a very complicated system. Some participants concerned with the economics of education argued that innovation will become a systemic imperative, driven by the exploding cost of current models. Over time PISA scores remain rather flat, while the cost of education is increasing. “You can’t keep squeezing the model; you need to change the production function”. But education policy makers argued that education needs to be inclusive, taking into account not only the innovation pioneers but many other stakeholders as well.

Part of the discussion was about what we exactly mean with ‘innovation’. Spectacular changes at the frontier of scientific discovery and technological inventions attract of lot of attention. But in broader definitions, such as the one adopted by the OECD Innovation Strategy, innovation is not only about the latest state-of-the-art disruptive technologies, but also about the breadth of societal changes, including social innovation. Innovation is also about the knowledge and skills that make societies future-proof, including capacities and capabilities for using, integrating, accepting novel solutions to challenges.

Some representatives from innovative schools were invited to the Summit to share their views and experiences. Some of them convincingly argued for greater diversification, moving away from the standardization and uniformity that has characterised education’s solutions to the challenge of the 2nd Industrial Revolution and its demand for mass education. In the past standardisation was the easy answer to the increasing need  of access and equity, but the future will require education to implement systemic diversification to meet very different economic and social needs and to provide opportunities to very different talents.

On how schools should progress, education industry representatives applauded the call for schools to open up and become partners in innovation ecosystems in regional economies and societies. Networking and connecting schools with business and local communities will be essential drivers of innovation in education; opening up is the best strategy to address change and connect schools with what’s happening in the outside world.  Industry representatives recognised that this would involve more risk-taking by schools, but that’s what is expected from all social systems in a period of rapid transformation. The status-quo is not an option, and not risk-free either.

Opening up education to businesses was, however, an idea that provoked a rather strong reaction from the side of Education International, the representative of teacher unions, against the dangers of commodification and privatization of education. Employers can play a role in education, but education works for the greater public good and should not be submitted to the economic interests of for-profit actors. Others argued that innovation will never endanger the critically important role of teachers, quite  the contrary. Innovation-proof education systems will have to rely on a very strong, mature profession. But the teaching profession will have to move away from an industrial model to a professional model. We need to take a giant leap forward in the process of professionalization of teachers.

In the end there was an idea on which all participants agreed: the critical role of governments to steer innovation in education. Increasing school autonomy, decentralisation, complexity and technological disruption make the task of governing education systems more difficult, but also move the governance challenge to a higher level, that of leadership in a period of change. Democratic government is and will be the system through which change and innovation in education will happen. But this will only be possible by empowering schools and supporting those that promote innovation.


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