Understanding the Innovation Challenge in Education

Innovation is all the rage in schools. Almost every web site and strategic plan contain something about innovation and nearly all school leaders think that there is something innovative about their schools. Even those with traditional pedagogies or practices tied to a tried-and-true curriculum (think British National Curriculum or AP courses) find a way to mention innovation.

While reading (and hearing) about so much innovation, we cannot help but wonder why school still looks so much the same? Why does innovation often seem like incremental process improvement? What would real innovation look like? Are there any thoroughly innovative approaches to education already in play?

Some “innovations” aren’t really thus. Technology is a good example of something that makes school different but usually in a step improvement kind of way. It was a step to go from typewriters to word processors, from paper records to online files, or from libraries with reference books to doing online literature search. Taken as a whole, technology has been transformative in the way students work and communicate, but less so in terms of what constitutes school itself. In this way, technology (so far) is more like the advent of pen and ink—a shift in the process of doing school work.

Something innovative would shake up the traditional scholastic paradigm of students, teachers, classrooms, school buildings and athletic fields interacting for 12+ years. It wouldn’t just be different, it would be faster and deeper. It might also be cheaper, delivering more value for the same or less money. It wouldn’t be a step improvement; rather, it would make a quantum jump in some way.

On the other hand, maybe we have found it; maybe the standard scholastic paradigm is the very best educational model that could be and all that remains is to fiddle with improvements as we go along. However, if this is the case it would make education one of a very small number of industries immune to innovation and disruption, more like a craft or even a religion than, say, medicine or manufacturing.

Assuming this is true, we are still left with the near-universal lament that our business model is unsustainable and broken in that tuitions continue to rise at a rate in excess of inflation. Tuitions in the nonprofit sector do not rise as a result of greedy profiteers; rather, because operating costs (primarily salaries and benefits) also outruns inflation. As Baumol’s Cost Disease model shows, one cannot innovate in the business model area without also innovating in the pedagogical realm, given that 75% or so of school operating budgets are people.

In the same way that society has not yet reconciled itself to the fact that we are all likely to need and consume vastly more health care services than we can afford by ourselves, independent schools have not reconciled themselves to the tension between our means of production and business model. The usual solution is not to innovate by doing school in a novel way, but to find someone else to pay the bill through philanthropy.

Our search for innovation turned up various lists compiled by different sources. Some “innovations” were modest at best; e.g., online courses to supplement the curriculum in a small school. Applying our criteria of faster—deeper—cheaper, a surprising number of exemplars emerged, including schools such as Green School (Bali), Orestad Gymnasium (Copenhagen), the Steve Jobs School (Amsterdam), Blue School (New York), the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (Hong Kong and Singapore), and Big Picture Learning (Rhode Island). The two elements each of these shares in common are instructive: they are relatively small and are all quite new.

This begs the question of whether so-called legacy organizations, schools with substantial histories and investments in bricks and mortar, can innovate much at all. When you are a small school just starting out, virtually everything you try is an experiment. The bigger and/or older you get, though, the more you have to lose, and the less tolerant to risk-taking (read: innovation) you can become.

So, be careful what you call an innovation. Reserve that term for initiatives that transform learning (faster or deeper) or that change the business model. But, don’t even think about business model innovation unless you are willing to seriously innovate on the teaching and learning side of things.

Governance, Headship, Strategy  |  permalink

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