Must we innovate in education? Why? What for? Are we experiencing a fad, where everything has to be innovative… also in the world of education? Or is it something more structural, even necessary?
Past January 10 and 11, the Institute of Education Sciences (ICE-UAB) and the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP) organized the VIII Forum on Education. Innovation and networking. The forum began with a morning session to which I took part as a member of the Jaume Bofill Foundation. It was a seminar-like session to share reflections on what do we mean by innovation, how should organizations and people innovate and whether and why is innovation important.
The concept of innovation is fluid and elusive, and quite probably it is good that it is so: it is in the constellation of ways of understanding innovation and it is in the myriad of methods that we have designed as innovative that an ecosystem takes shape in order to encourage and enable an innovative attitude. An attitude based on questioning everything, on putting everything in doubt, on challenging the reality until it gives up in trying to provide an an answer… and then one needs to find some other answer: an innovation.
A question, however, that ones does not usually put is why innovation, quite different to what for innovation. While the what for tells us where we head to (bringing into the debate also other questions like what and how), the why asks us about the reasons for innovation: we are so imbued with the innovation inertia that we assume that innovation is necessarily good. But, do we really need to innovate? When things are working fine (or even good), do we need to risk and spoil them following a desire for innovation at all costs?
There are probably two main reasons that push us to innovate. Recognizing them, rather than being a justification for ourselves, is also useful as they enable us to shape the kind of innovation that we will conduct. That is, to know why we innovate &mash; or why we should innovate &mash; will be crucial to identify, then, where to apply our innovative effort, where to create this ecosystem that can spark the whole thing, and most especially, what results are to be expected.
The first reason is improvement. We realize that things do not work or do not work well enough, or that they might work even better. And we innovate. Innovation, from this point of view, is not risky, it is incremental, probably leads to a natural evolution of what we are doing, we are not moving in known territory but we have maps that will guide us in the way. We copy, adapt, replace, reinterpret, patch. This is a proactive innovation that enables anticipation to our environment. And it is as necessary as the importance we award to being part of the avant-garde of a cultural field or and economic sector. In education, this type of innovation has historically been reserved for pioneers, the restless ones, even the misfits. With all the connotations — positive and negative — that carry these concepts.
Innovate to transform (oneself)
There is, however, a much more important reason (in my humble opinion) that pushes an innovative approach and it is transformation. Transformation is neither evolutionary nor incremental, but disruptive and often dichotomous: there is a before and an after in a transformating innovation. Transforming innovation usually comes, at its turn, because of two key issues: technological change (comprising as technology everything that is instrumental as tools, methods, protocols, etc.) and shifts of context.
Technological change usually implies, automatically, that the old technology becomes inefficient. That is, new ways of doing the same thing with less resources (again, broadly speaking about resources: people, material, financial, time!). And with inefficiency several tensions arise. Not only the usual restrictions and limitations are accentuated, but the costs of opportunity become unbearable as, especially, unbearable become the frictions between those who are now more efficient because they adopted the new technology and those who are still stuck in the old modus operandi.
The shift of context is even more dramatic, as it affects efficacy: when the context changes, goals also move. Without an adaptation to the new context, without innovation, all our efforts point now to a wrong target. If efficiency is to achieve as many goals as possible (regardless of the means, which are measured in the axis of efficiency), it becomes strictly necessary to innovate but not for improving, but precisely for things to not get worse, for us not to find ourselves like fish out of water.
Paradigm shift towards a knowledge society
At this point, let us grant ourselves a moment to take a distant approach. We are nowadays immersed in a vast socio-technological paradigm shift that is changing how we define and understand the foundations of our society. People and institutions of this society are watching in real time and with their own eyes how technology (efficiency) and context (efficacy) change quickly, inexorably and without turning back.
Before this(these) change(changes) we can, indeed, ask ourselves whether there is a need to innovate, or to improve anything. Or whether we should make evolve what we understand as the “educational system” or “educational institutions”. And these questions are perfectly legitimate.
But it is also legitimate to ask whether we should innovate not in a quest for improvement but just not to lose what we achieved. When we talk about equity in education, we talk about equity in a world where inequalities have shifted, where new inequalities have appeared, in new areas and environments. When we talk about quality, we talk about new skills that we did not even know, with unfound and undisclosed referents with which to compare ourselves. When we speak of excellence we do it in terms of resources and tools that have been replaced by a brand new toolbox.
Thus, it would seem that it is no longer legitimate but now urgent to consider an innovation that is transforming. Basically, because everything around us is changing and at a high speed.
Notes from the workshop School as a social innovation hub, from the conference Education Today, organized by the Fundació Jaume Bofill, and held in Barcelona, in February 20, 2014.
School as a social innovation hub
Chairs: Eugeni Garcia, PhD in Economics of the Public Sector and expert in education and public management
Poverty is a vicious circle that reproduces inequalities: there is unequal access to most opportunities (e.g. education), there is unequal appropriation of these opportunities, and, thus, coming generations reproduce their status as they unequally benefit from those opportunities. How can the educational system break this vicious circle?
The value chain of education:
- The student. At this stage, the family is the actor with a leading role.
- Conditions of educability. Besides families too, public policies have a strong role here; the social third sector too, especially in the care and socio-educational fields.
- Processes of teaching/learning, second opportunities: the school is of course the one with the leading role at this stage, but also public policies.
- Educational success (or failure).
But how do we actually break this vicious circle of poverty and exclusion?
Anna Escobedo, professor at the Department of Sociology and Analysis of Organizations at the University of Barcelona.
What is the role of families. How are these families? How the change of families affect children and their educability?
The context in Spain is that the expenditure in families (or support to families) and education is below the average, and almost 50% of what other leading countries are spending in these areas.
The actual model of the family is two workers and two carers. Less children but more wanted. More negotiating and less authoritarian. Social polarization: couples are made up by people with similar educational levels.
There is a genuine concern or commitment with increasing the implication of the parents in education, in quality time, in dedicating more time to it. And ICTs are also having a significant impact in the education of children and the role of families. The relationship with the teaching staff has also changed.
So, more implication with education but total immersion in the job market is implying a huge difficulty to conciliate professional and family lives. Complementary services led by parent associations within the schools are proving to be a cornerstone for this conciliation: circa 70% of children use this kind of services.
Families — parents and children — should take more part in the making of decisions in the school.
Joan Badia, professor of secondary education and expert in innovation, teacher training and academic planning in higher education.
Schools should acknowledge that it has not all the answers to all problems and situations.
On the other hand, schools should realize too that many issues that do not strictly belong to the field of action of the school (e.g. the situation in the family), do actually have an impact on the activity led by the school. So, the belief that some issues “do not affect” the schools is plain wrong.
Of course, this acknowledgement and realization can only be achieved through a high degree of autonomy from schools, so that they can design their own strategies and actions.
There is a strong need to reinforce strategies that enable second chances.
Marta Caramés, leader of the Paidós Project at Càrites.
Paidós Project aims at providing support to families so they can break the vicious circle of poverty by enabling networks of families. It provides day-centres where families and children can spend time, be given advice on several topics related to education in general and on poverty in particular.
Most of the people benefiting form this project are people that almost the whole day are occupied on sustaining their daily lives: where will I sleep, what will I need. Thus, children do not have a “peaceful” environment where to grow healthy and be properly educated and be cared by.
If families do not understand that education is an investment, then education automatically becomes undersupplied. We have to make it possible that families can invest (time, resources) in their children’s education. To do this, we have to help them in their basic needs, so they can free time now devoted to these basic needs and spend it on their children’s education.
Joan Badia: municipalities should have a major role in the planning of education, more decentralization should be enabled. There are three conditions for learning (from Ken Robinson): diversity, everyone learns differently; curiosity, learning driven by interest; creativity, provide spaces for creation. Different ways for learning within a context: service-learning, multistakeholder partnerships, etc. There is a gap between research and training: education in Spain seems to be lacking a liaison between the outcomes of research and their (non) introduction in training plans.
Anna Escobedo: parents associations and school councils should have deeper links and work closer. Participation and voting should go hand-in-hand. And we should not only focus on what is wrong, but on what is going well too, so it can inspire others.
Imagine an organization you highly and very sincerely respect. Imagine this organization calls you and tells you about their vision and the plans to achieve this vision. Plans about opening research, about making the creation and spread of knowledge very participative and collaborative, about making impact the target and research the instrument put at the service of that impact (instead of research being the goal and impact a casual side-effect). Imagine this organization asking for your opinion and listening to you digress about e-research, personal learning environments, the personal research portal, knowledge management or new ways to use technology and participate in the Information Society.
This happened in September at Fundació Jaume Bofill, a leading non-profit in Catalonia that performs quality research in human sciences in general, and now narrowing its field of action to Education in a very broad sense, with a special focus on inequalities, innovation and social change. And the conversation ended with a
would you like to lead the project?.
Since November 1st I am the director of open innovation at Fundació Jaume Bofill, being my general goal to rethink how knowledge is produced and shared all across the organization. To be able to perform my new responsibilities, since January 1st 2014 until February 1st 2015 I will be on partial leave from my current job, full time professor at the Open University of Catalonia. I describe what I think the main background is in Open Social Innovation. On the other hand, what I believe my main guiding lines will be in the following year was presented in December to my new colleagues. What follows are the slides I used (in Catalan):
All of this has mostly been learning by doing, so I just expect my experience not to be too much wrong.
There is a positive side-effect to this already thrilling collaboration. My University and I found that the best way to channel it was through the recently created Open Evidence, a spin-off from my University working in the field of social sciences research, innovation and knowledge transfer. I will thus be working side by side as a researcher and analyst with my friends Francisco Lupiáñez- Villanueva and David Osimo, whom I highly respect. I hope being closer will make it easier to produce some good things together.
Last, but not least, it is worth acknowledging that things do not happen just because. There is plenty of people to be grateful to. First of all, my thanks go to Ismael Palacín (director of the Foundation), Mònica Nadal (director of prospective) and the board of trustees of the Fundació Jaume Bofill (Carles Capdevila among others) for their trust in me; to some friends and “usual suspects” (Jaume Albaigès, Pau Vidal, etc.) for their priceless help and speaking well of me and my work; to Paco Lupiáñez, Agustí Cerrillo, Mireia Riera, José Miguel de la Dehesa and Enric Vinaixa for their support and making things happen; and to María Salido, Amalio Rey, Julen Iturbe and Ana Rodera for their “notes” on how to leave the nest. And, of course, to Mercè, Muriel and (soon) Jofre for their patience.
At this moment I’m both excited and terrified at the perspective of the new year. The project is huge, both a tremendous opportunity of making great things or falling into deep failures. The team I will be working with is gorgeous and an incredible source of learning. The gods be good to us! Come, masters, let’s home. I ever said we were i’ the wrong if we never tried.