Unpacking innovation

We hear the word ‘innovation’ so much. Everyone’s innovating. Innovators are the new KOLs. From financial, technological, medical and scientific innovation, to innovation in retail, supply chains and business.

Impactful innovation

Finnish non-profit has a mission to improve education around the world through ’impactful innovation’. As an Ambassador for HundrED, my role is to seek out and spread inspiring innovations in the local education community.

After joining HundrED, the first thing on my mind was how I would recognise an inspiring and impactful innovation in the first place.

What does innovation mean in education?

  • Is it synonymous with ‘creativity’ or ‘invention’? Does it mean the same as reform, rearrangement, variation, upheaval or novelty? Innovation can lead to change, but must it involve disruption?
  • Does innovation necessarily involve technology? And if it does, is it a case of ‘old wine in new bottles’ or does it bring something new to the experience?
  • And who decides what is innovative or not? Is it a universal concept? For example, when a teacher does a role-play or a project-based lesson for the first time, is it an innovation? Maybe it’s new for the teacher, but what about the learners?
  • Is innovation concerned with creating new, unimagined ways to teach and learn, or is it about reconfiguring what already exists?

A multi-dimensional perspective

Innovation has multiple dimensions. A framework from Education Evolving splits the term into four dimensions, with each dimension defined as either Type A and Type B.

How far do you agree with these dimensions and types? Are there others?

  • What is the extent of the newness? Is it (A) a fundamental redesign or (B) an incremental improvement?
  • Has the ‘new’ ever been done before? Is it (A) a true invention or (B) the replication of something that would be ‘new here’?
  • Is the learning programme or the school itself new? Does it (A) create something or (B) does it adopt or convert characteristics from another context?
  • And who initiates the ‘new‘? Is it (A) people at the working level – teachers, for instance or (B) external people, perhaps technology companies, experts or consultants?

Clearly, innovation is a response to new events and circumstances. And although this framework aligns innovation with ‘newness’, in reality innovation is always a blend of A and B.

Is one form of innovation better than the other? The authors suggest that Type A is perhaps a ‘purer’ form of the concept; one that has been romanticised in startup culture.

However, they point out these terms do not imply any judgement. “To bring new and better designs for learning to scale, we need both.” Type B suits many situations and, importantly, can yield the greatest benefits in many contexts.

Whatever the type of innovation, when we think about scaling up to benefit the greatest number of people we should remain open to Type A innovators. Their work may well be more disruptive, but “We need their hope, energy and ideas to fuel the other forms of innovation”.

Innovation and impact

How do we measure the impact of a change or transformation in education? And what impact do we hope to see?

We may expect an innovation to have a measurable effect on the provision, access and delivery of education. We may also expect that improvements in the design and availability of learning experiences to lead to higher levels of achievement and engagement for learners.

Here are two examples of innovation that I’ve been involved in during the past years.

How do you rate them in terms of innovation and impact? What types of innovation are they?

Example A: An overnight sensation?

A few years ago, a prestigious English language learning organisation installed interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in every classroom.

Overnight, TVs, CD-players, overhead projectors and other ‘out-dated‘ technology were removed and replaced by a single class computer connected to a big, shiny IWB.

This transformation had a great effect on the time required for teachers to prepare lessons. It also led to changes in how teachers managed learning, and how the learners interacted in the classroom.

Teachers spent hours converting their existing lesson plans, PPTs and other documents to the new format. Materials now included web pages, YouTube videos, interactive activities; all decorated with clip art and images from Google.

When observing classes, senior teachers noticed how lessons became more teacher-centred. The new gadget encouraged some teachers to stand and present at the board for longer periods of time.

Learners were at first entranced by the novelty – there was a tangible wow factor. However, in a short space of time, the wow factor ebbed away, and ‘interactive whiteboard’ became ‘interactive quite bored’, as EdTech leader Gavin Dudeney once wrote.

Teachers and learners felt more detached from the learning process. The IWB became the teacher. It created an invisible barrier between them. It altered the dynamic; lessening the range and quality of interaction.

What’s more, the new boards fostered a uniform, static learning experience. IWB content is in reality a fancy PowerPoint presentation. Teachers felt obliged to go through each slide in turn. In effect, the technology became the teacher.

In terms of impact, there was no measurable improvement in learning outcomes. Neither was there an increase in enrolment, although it may be true that learners had a greater perception that the organisation itself was at the cutting edge of innovation and, therefore, more prestigious.

Over time, the boards became part of the furniture and not the focal point. Many teachers used them as they would a regular projector screen, with the benefit of being able to annotate over pages.

At the end of the day, it’s a moot point whether the decision to change was a positive step, or whether the cost of training teachers, creating new content as well as the mixed implications forclassroom practice was worth the disruption.

What do you think?

Example B: Teaching Unplugged

In the early 2000s, teachers were swamped with ‘innovation’. Every publisher had jumped on the CD-ROM bandwagon. Classrooms had been revamped with visualisers, projectors, CD-players, TVs. Computers had become common, mostly in computer labs and in teacher’s rooms.

Not only that, but published course materials had become monolithic in scope and scale. These kits came in large boxes and would contain every type of resource known to mankind! Game boards, flashcards, DVDs, supplementary exercise books, printable worksheets. And not to forget the teacher and student class books, mini-dictionaries and activity books.

An embarrassment of riches.

All this ‘clutter’ was intended to offer choice. Publishers fell over each other to provide every possible resource a teacher could need. They seemed to disregard the reality that such materials are not teachers.

It is the meaningful and personal interactions between teachers, learners, the content and the environment which foster language skills.

A group of teachers and trainers in Barcelona felt that the social and interactive nature of teaching/learning was being buried by an avalanche of generic materials. They decided to return to a purer form of teaching.

They developed a ‘manifesto’ which focused on meaningful communication between learners and speakers, and removed all the published paraphernalia. A kind of ‘Marie Kondo for ELT’.

ELT leaders such as Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings proposed ten key principles, including interactivity, engagement, dialogue processes, scaffolded conversations, empowerment and relevance.

In the classroom, conversation was seen as central to the experience. They placed more emphasis on real life conversations, especially social interaction.

Another key principle was a materials-light approach. Learner-generate content was preferable to published materials and course books.

Many teachers who adopted Dogme abandoned text books altogether. That approach led many to see ‘teaching unplugged’ as a way to address affordability and availability of materials in many parts of the world.

Dogme ELT does not claim to be a perfect solution to helping learners develop their English skills and knowledge. It does, however, put learners back at the centre of the whole enterprise. It also shifted the focus away from how to use published materials and towards meaningful, dialogic engagement in the classroom.

Do you consider Dogme ELT innovative, impactful and scalable? Does it have the potential to improve learning outcomes?

A time of change

Circumstances change rapidly. As I write this, the education sector is responding to the global pandemic, with all the disruption it has brought to learners, teachers and administrators at schools, colleges and universities around the world.

Disruption is a breeding ground for creative minds to innovate educational design and delivery. Many of the changes have necessarily focused on ensuring access to learning through video-conferencing. But we can hardly see this as innovation. After all, online classes and virtual learning environments have been around for decades.

In which areas can we expect innovation? Inclusive access is a critical issue and we may expect creative reconfiguration of class delivery to drive positive change. Assessment of learning is another area. Take, for example, the situation in the UK where final exams were cancelled and the government adopted an algorithmic approach – bringing with it a backlash from parents and students who achieved lower grades than they expected.

With millions of students at home, the wholesale shift to Zoom has not by and large innovated teaching. It simply shifted the delivery to video while preserving a ‘chalk and talk’ methodology which may not be fit for purpose with distanced, dispersed groups.

In my own work, the focus right now is on imagining how the small, piecemeal changes taking place today will lead to totally new approaches to curriculum design and the deeper-level merging of online/offline learning experiences.

When there is no teacher physically present, the demands on learners increase in terms of self-direction and autonomy. Western paradigms of social constructivism demand learners take on a much higher level of responsibility for their own learning. But this may clash with learners’ needs and expectations in places where more teacher-centred approaches are dominant.

Technology may be able to take on many of the roles traditionally carried out by teachers. Roles such as setting up tasks and activities, managing time to achieve objectives and providing formative feedback, for example, can be handled through well-designed learning tech.

Likewise, adapting and personalising input and practice to suit the individual needs of learners is already used widely in commercial learning programmes and in some national high-stakes tests.

How do you see the education landscape changing in the coming months and years? Do you see the current adaptations as a temporary response that will largely fade away along with the virus? Or will the innovation taking place lead to deeper changes?

It’s an extraordinary time which, I believe, will lead to extraordinary adaptation through innovation. In short, we have reached a tipping point in terms of acceptance of online/offline integration. Many of the changes we are experiencing today will become the default. And many more innovations of all types will naturally occur as individuals, companies and governments discover and implement new and more effective ways of helping people learn throughout life.

What’s your take on innovation and impact? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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