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.
Round table: New landscapes and new requirements for Education and their professionals.
Chairs: Jordi Collet, professor of the Departament of Pedagogy, Universitat de Vic.
Ismael Peña-López, professor of Public Policies for Development, UOC; Director of Open Innovation, Fundació Jaume Bofill.
Joan Subirats, professor of the Departament of Political Science and Public Law, UAB, and researcher at IGOP.
Fordism put us into massification, by standadizing many processes and outputs. Digitization puts us into individual needs and emotions.
Our present is a public national educational system, to educate masses, and fostered by the State. But the idea of nation is questioned, the idea of system is opposed to network, the idea of masses goes against personalization. Heterogeneity is here to stay.
If what is “public” is in crisis because of the crisis of the state (or the nation-states), how can we vindicate public education, what is public, from the individual point of view? or from the collective but non-governmental point of view?
The concept of expertise, of the expert, is also challenged.
Bauman: how to build intelligent missiles that change their trajectory as targets move or change. How do we maintain an educational structure that is notwithstanding able to adapt to the always changing targets and environment. Can we create cooperating universities? Or universities that are cooperatives?
How can we make up new methodologies and structures and, more important, how can we generate agreements and consensus on how to sustain these new methodologies and structures.
Jordi Collet: is innovation ideologically neutral? Subirats: surely not. Peña-López: as innovation is the application of technology, and technology is the realization of science, it is very difficult to avoid adding ideology in each step of application.
Jordi Collet: how to go from theory to practice? Peña-López: 1) creating spaces of conversation, of sharing, enabling platforms, networks; 2) accelerate conversation; 3) foster skills to learn how to learn. Subirats: combining self-learning and processes of collaborative building.
Ramon Grau: how do we spread the gospel of innovation? how do we tear down the ancient regime? Peña-López: it may be just to soon for many people to acknowledge changes. It will take time and pedagogy. Subirats: raising awareness on new practices, new ways of doing things.
Q: How do we foster critical thinking and critical use of technology and networks? Peña-López: we should apply technology to improve training of trainers so that those can improve learning methodologies that can act upon pre-existing inequalities, as the knowledge gap hypothesis has evidenced again and again.
Joan Badia: How do we educate for uncertainty? what happens with values? Peñ-López: same answer as before: the Internet multiplies inequalities and values. We should act on the substrate at least to change the sign from negative to positive, so that when we multiply we are multiplying in positive. But changing or transferring values with technology and methodologies may not be the best way to change them. Subirats: fostering the idea that education is a common good (not a “public” good), and that it is in the interest of everyone to take care of it, to make it possible, to build it.
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Round table: What did it mean to my personal and professional experience belonging to an innovation network.
Chairs: Miquel A. Alegre, membre de l’Institut Català d’Avaluació de Politiques Públiques (Ivàlua).
Martí Olivella, director de Nova – Innovació Social.
Enabling learning is like being a sower. The teacher seeds and grows seeds of transformation in fields of opportunity and is persistent so that seeds can germinate, grow and produce.
If there is no crisis, there is not an opportunity of change.
Innovation is about making happen things that are statistically unlikely.
- Fighting against the compulsory military service through objection of conscience or insubmission.
- For a better quality of democracy. Deliberation is not voting: citizen parlaiament.
- Rethink cities as transition towns.
Keys for transformation:
- Social innovation: structural transformation. To ask ourselves what we are doing and why is already an transformer action.
- Network: a team of teams with synergies.
- Educational: we transform ourselves by transforming others. Education for transformation = transformation for education.
Agnès Barba, founder of the Xarxa 0-6 de Bellvitge and director of the School els Encants de Barcelona.
To create a network of schools and all other people outside of schools that have to do, in some way, with education. The goal being how to make a comprehensive accompaniment to kids’ learning.
When a new school is created, the only way to create it is by taking into account all the stakeholders and agents related with the education of kids. And that is done through networks.
A basic aspect for a network to work is meeting together, talking, discussing, exchanging information, feelings, doubts, approaches, proposals.
Jordi Adell, coordinator of the Centre for Education and New Technologies of the Universitat Jaume I de Castelló (CENT).
Belonging to networks of teachers is highly transforming and reshapes how one faces their own teaching.
Educational institutions are beginning to shift from being isolated places where education happens, to be nodes of huge networks that enable learning.
Networks work well if one contributes to them: the more you give, the more you get.
Networks are a window to the world:
my classroom is the world. There still are many degrees of freedom within the educational system and networks are one of them.
There are a lot of emerging teaching and learning methodologies, many of them enabled by technology. There is a lot of innovation ongoing and we must make it visible, share it.
For complex systems, good practices do not work. Good practices are good for simple or complicated systems, but not for complex systems. For complex systems we must look not at practices, but at patterns.
For analysing and realizing patterns, theories work very well. Theory is not opposed to practice, but complementary.
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Round table: Leading today’s centers: challenges of an innovative center.
Chairs: Ferran Ruiz, president of the School Council of Catalonia.
Is it possible to consolidate and maintain innovative learning environments? What changes — regulation, budget, culture — should be introduced? What experiences can be used as a reference?
Ramon Grau, director of the INS Quatre Cantons of the Network of Innovative High Schools of the ICE-UAB.
Sometimes a change is required to enable further changes: a change of scenario, a change of team, or just building a new school or high school.
Three main ideas:
- The student should work in the classroom: listen, speak, interact. This has an impact on the inner architecture of the physical spaces.
- The student should have autonomy. Thus, no coursebooks.
- The student should be proficient in managing information. Put questions, search for answers. Students should be able to provide evidence, to explain what they have learnt.
To do this, the centre works with the “globalized” model developed after Ovide Decroly. The centre also accepts requests from other institutions (theatres, museums, fablabs) for collaboration, with which they develop the globalized work after an external request. The students then develop these requests (write a play, multimedia content for a piece of art, create a short film) that are supervised by these institutions.
Mariona Monterde, head of studies at the School Serralavella, Ullastrell.
The school is highly commited with values and quality. The classroom is not a place, but a context for learning, learning being the ability of the students to put questions to themselves. In the classroom research processes are initiated to that answers to the former questions can be find.
This research heavily relies on conversation, on the exchange of information, ideas, feelings, etc.
As this is a project based on reflection, the project explicitly includes several measures and tools to enable reflection, not only within the project, but about it: pedagogical reflection, share experiences developed in the classroom, etc.
One of the main challenges for the sustainability of the project is the high rotation of the team: experiences are lost and newcomers get lost. Thus, monitoring and tutoring of most experiences and people is the way to try to maintain some coherence and continuity of the project. With the added problem of how to draw a possible schedule, how to avoid burnout, how to avoid an overwhelming workload.
This monitoring has to be highly flexible, and provide lots of room for the newcomer to experiment himself and to change the project itself.
Not all families understand the school project. Most of the times, they feel they lose control upon the education of their children, as their children do “different things” than the ones they parents did at school. The solution is to engage parents in the educational project.
Some concluding remarks:
- The school has become a place for the teachers for continuous learning and training.
- The school has become a place for the students where to learn how to be autonomous, critical.
Joan Badia, co-coordinator of the Project Leading for learning of the Fundació Jaume Bofill.
What are the elements of leadership that explain the improvements in education? Leadership is the engine of change for education by introducing innovation.
One common characteristic of leading and innovative centres is that teachers state that they learn from the students: everyone is learning. The most significant changes are the ones experienced at the personal level, including the teaching staff. And learning means, of course, deciding, participating, exploring, sharing, designing, deciding (again).
Q: is there a room for the coursebook in this scenario? Ramon Grau: it depends on the context. If the goal is sheer literacy or the transmission of basic knowledge, then it does have a place; but if the goal is the creation of new knowledge, then the coursebook is a barrier and not an enabler. Same with homework: homework will depend on the context, on the activities that are planned: sometimes homework will not be necessary, sometimes will be required as a starting point for the following day.
Ismael Peña-López: how should families adapt to these changes? Badia: this is impossible to answer, as there is not a unique model of family or, strictly speaking, not a model. Grau: the least we should aim at is that families understand what centres are doing, that they are engaged, that they share what is being done at the school or high school.
Q: how teacher training reproduces traditional methodologies or how can it foster new ones? Grau: it is true that, generally speaking, teacher training reproduces traditional methodologies and approaches and it is practice what brings innovation in.
Q: what happens when standardized exams make it almost impossible to introduce any methodological change? Ramon Grau: why cannot we work differently in specific courses despite the pressure of standardized exams?
Jordi Adell: do we know how to make the “click” for change? Badia: no, we don’t. We know that some scenarios, some factors help, but do not know exactly how to trigger this “click”.
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Round table: Innovation in times of change of era
Chairs: Enric Roca, professor of the Department of Systematic and Social Pedagogy, UAB.
What values and what frameworks promote innovation? Which ones are a barrier to it? What characterizes innovative schools and innovative projects?
Joaquim Brugué, director of the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP), UAB.
As these are times of change, it seems common sense that institutions should change too. Thus, innovation look like the best means to drive this change. But change makes change more complex. Problems become wicked, problems that cannot be simplified or reduced to simpler components. There is no simple answer or, simply, not just one single answer.
BUT: instead of trying to approach wicked problems in different and many ways, what institutions are doing is to specialize put all their effort in being more efficient and effective in their field of specialization… leaving wicked problems unsolved or, at least, providing wicked problems with one single perfect solution that actually does not solve all the complexity of the given issue.
This is the approach of a technocratic society or a technocratic organization that creates no externalities, no networks, no lateral vision.
Màrius Martínez, professor of the Departament of Applied Pedagogy, UAB.
We heavily rely on our own mindsets and mental frameworks, which drag us and stop us from looking at problems from different points of view.
Only dialogue can make these mindsets emerge, ideas be exchanged, and mindsets be changed, or adapted to others’.
There is a need to have a culture of transformation, of “why not?”, to give a chance to change, to transformation.
Once there is such a culture, innovation becomes explicit — not tacit — and can be transferred, replicated.
We have to have a systemic point of view, to look at the whole so that we can clearly frame the problems, the resources, the possibilities.
Trust and accountability, not suspicion and control.
Leadership has to be strong, but distributed, leaving room for collaboration and participation.
Provide resources, especially time, but with some planning, with deadlines, so that accountability can happen.
Emphasis on learning, on development. Innovation has to target learning, learning of the students or of the teaching stuff, but innovation has to lead to learn more and better things. And innovation has to be also an acknowledgement. The acknowledgement that (1) something is wrong and (2) it is wrong that something it is wrong. And, thus, it has to be fixed. Learning and equity are linked to innovation.
Martínez: innovation requires a shared project. And this shared project, or vision, is usually illustrated with a motto. The shared project and motto helps in building a story, a tale, a dialogue.
Enric Roca: Does everyone has to be an innovator in their same role? Can we specialize? Should we not?
Quim Brugué: there should not be such a role as “the innovator”. Instead, conditions have to be created where innovation can happen. These conditions include, most of the times, dialogue and the hybridization of approaches.
Màrius Martínez: in an innovative environment, people feel like agents, agents of change. So, yes there is a need to find agents of change. Distributed leadership is about identifying the existing talent and putting it to work. In this train of thought, maybe the term “good practices” is not as good as “practices of reference”.
Quim Brugué: we have to be aware that what we take for learning is not sheer imitation. This is the risk of having “practices of reference” which, in the end, evolve into bad copies.
Màrius Martinez: the currículum should be put in crisis and, in this exercise, the student should have a leading role.
Q: why most institutions and people deny complexity? Màrius Martinez: sometimes it is a matter of perception, that is, of not perceiving complexity. Quim Brugué: sometimes because complexity is a blocking scenario and, thus, decision-makers rather approach not complexity but simplicity, where traditional rules and tools used to work.
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