Innovation in times of uncertainty

22nd April 2020

Two months ago I wrote an article for an Australian education magazine. The introduction read “New technologies have transformed many aspects of our lives, but education is yet to undergo the same radical reinvention.” One month later I found myself writing to the editor asking if there was time to revise the text before it went to print.

 

Schools around the world have been forced into a new educational paradigm which, until recently, existed only in the imagination of futurists. In response to coronavirus, whole systems have switched to remote teaching in a matter of weeks, often aided by online learning platforms and video conferencing software, sometimes aided only by the noble photocopier. 

The observation I made in my article is no longer true and education is in the middle of a reinvention, but the findings I wrote about hold firm. I wrote about my research involving 20 innovative schools in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. When I designed the project, I was interested in understanding how educators, particularly leaders, went about creating future-focused schools. Now, the findings give some idea of the conditions that will help educators work at their best in these challenging times.

We don't need answers immediately

Uncertainty

In normal circumstances, the point of education innovation is to find a new and better method of teaching. If that was as easy as buying a new textbook or reading some notes from a page, though, we’d be doing it already. Innovating in a way that improves outcomes is worthwhile but it is hard. 

The principals I met believed in evidence-informed practice, but they recognised that it wouldn’t provide a readymade solution because findings are often conflicting and they have to be adapted to context. In that spirit, leaders encouraged cycles of experimentation and iteration. These were often approached as inquiry cycles where teachers looked at research evidence, tried out new practice, assessed the impact on students and then refined their approach. I often heard leaders talk about prototyping – a term taken from the design world – which encourages trying out an idea early and then honing it based on feedback, rather than aiming for a perfect product first time. 

Right now, teachers have been asked to move from classroom-based to remote learning in a matter of weeks. It’s impossible to have a perfect solution in that amount of time, in fact achieving anything close to a good solution would be impressive. What is possible, though, is to develop a prototype of a model that can be trialled and improved as students and teachers adapt to this new way of teaching and learning.

Failure is ok

Innovation

At the schools I visited, there was a common view that educational practice needed to evolve to suit the 21st century. When principals asked teachers to develop new practices, they knew they were asking them to take a risk. Even if current methods aren’t getting the best possible outcome for students, they’re a known quantity. Change presents the opportunity to make things better, but it can also potentially make things worse.

The important message that leaders communicated to their staff was that it’s ok for something not to work. As Robin, the principal at a high school in Christchurch, New Zealand, put it “we’re not going to grow unless we take risks. So I openly say to staff, … ‘look, to improve and develop we have to take risks. I do know that when we take risks sometimes they fail and folks, that’s fine, I’m okay with failure, let’s get in there and fail fast’”.

The leaders I met were clear that it wasn’t the failure that mattered, but the learning that followed. As long as they could see that teachers were learning from and building on the experience they were comfortable when things didn’t work. 

Now more than ever, teachers are going to try things that don’t work. However, damage won’t be done from losing a day’s learning, it will be done if leaders respond critically and undermine educators’ efforts. Instead, leaders should support teachers to share openly what they have learned about what doesn’t work in this new mode of teaching, so that they speed up the process of finding an alternative which does.

Collaboration can get us there faster

The future-focused schools I visited were highly collaborative environments. Teachers typically planned together and quite often taught in teams as well. Many of those teams used tools like Google Docs or Sharepoint to co-develop lesson plans and resources. Teachers could create documents together and then any colleague could log on and access that work. Teaching collaboratively meant that teachers could observe one another easily and could share timely feedback, so they were continually experiencing professional development. 

Right now at a school level, no teacher should be left to work out remote teaching in isolation. Some teachers will be confident about technology, others less so. The only way to achieve a consistent approach, which families can then understand and support, will be to work together. 

However, collaboration doesn’t need to stop there. We are in a unique situation where educators across the world are all reinventing the same wheel. Teachers in China, France, America and Japan are all trying to work this out. A quick search on Twitter shows how many educators and organisations are willing to share their ideas freely. There is no need to start from scratch here when there is a global community open to collaboration.

When I set out on my research project in late 2018, it was with the belief that schools could and should evolve to prepare students for the 21st century. Now, we are in an unprecedented situation where schools are not so much evolving as being forced into a major rethink of teaching and learning overnight. 

This process won’t be easy. What little evidence we have suggests that students often learn less in a virtual school environment than a physical classroom¹. The broader research base offered by cognitive psychology affirms that without foundational knowledge, students find it hard to structure and regulate their own learning as they may now be asked to do.

This doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations to the floor, because we can’t afford for a year’s worth of learning to be lost to all our students. However, we should recognise that a change of this magnitude isn’t going to settle overnight. Rather than rushing teachers to achieve a solution, I hope school and system leaders will set the same foundations for innovation as the leaders in my research. I hope they will support risk-taking, forgive failure, encourage experimentation and enable educators to work together to find an approach to teaching and learning that fits this new normal.

Katy is a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow and education researcher. She visited Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to research the leadership of future-focused schools. Katy used to lead the research and evaluation team at Ambition Institute and now works as an education policy advisor. If you’d like to read Katy’s full research report you can find it here. You can contact her through Twitter @KatyTheobald.

¹ Woodworth, J.L, Raymond, M.E., Chirbas, K., Gonzalez, M., Negassi, Y., Snow, W., Van Donge, C., (2015). Online Charter School Study. Stanford, California: Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Molnar, A., Miron, G., Elgeberi, N., Barbour, M.K., Huerta, L., Shafer, S.R., Rice, J.K. (2019). Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 5 April 2020 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2019.

 

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