Friday, 29 January 2010

Why innovation in education will remain an extreme sport

Reading Becta's Impact of Digital Technology paper from the end of last year I was struck by agency's use of the phrase "educational leviathan" (p21), a very refreshing if resigned admission that within this sector, pushing for change is exhaustingly slow and additional levers are needed. Or as Roy Scheider would have said, "We're gonna need a bigger boat".

It's not just that change leadership/ innovation is tough and lonely - it's dangerous too, with the hunter just as likely to become the hunted. Becta's report goes on to explain why we often see only small changes which “fossilise practice” (e.g. Interactive Whiteboards; technology bending to fit schools, in Heppell's phrase) due to the risk of innovation.

Being risk averse is no surprise if you are under constant psychological attack; from the students who are quick to label your teaching boring; the colleague whose lessons always sound disconcertingly fantastic through the wall; from parents who – having been to school themselves – are naturally experts in the field; and principally from an inspectorate which is ready at a moment’s notice (well, 2-5 days anyway) to grasp any teachers’ self respect and confidence and run it through with a demonic trident labelled ‘satisfactory’. Ok, that was a little over the top, but it’s only been three years and I'm still incensed by it.

Such are the internal and external attacks levelled against anything that challenges the orthodoxy in education, an abundance of confidence is needed to innovate, which is why innovators may occasionally come across as self-publicising and just a little bit pleased with themselves. The pressures of the education system do not breed self-deprecating innovators, so we shouldn't be surprised or (too) homicidal if they use Twitter to remind the world hourly of their total awesomeness. Back on point, however, I suspect that we won't see widespread innovation or even acceptance of change whilst the system retains top-down measures of effectiveness and a big stick approach to 'failing' schools.

This paragraph contains a series of massive generalisations and for any teachers reading, I exclude *you* from what follows, naturally, but it must be said... teachers are also one of the great conservative forces in education and it is the drag factor of the current workforce which holds back many innovations. Psychologically speaking, most teachers’ entire career has been a series of daily re-enforcements to the message that they are in charge. 4 years of university and many more in practice have served to underline their self-image of ‘the sage on the stage’. These are the bricks and mortar of the defensive walls we as teachers have gradually erected to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (in case your Hamlet is rusty, that was Shakespeare describing Ofsted). Technology, particularly the social kind, is massively threatening to this world view. The resistance we often see in schools towards change is a powerful, ego-protecting mechanism which is neither easily or quickly overcome.

This superb short video ridiculing people's attitude to change may seem like a farcical extreme, but it echoes for me the fear-induced or ego-preserving comments made in hundreds of staff meetings I've attended. Its message is clearly Darwinian though - adapt or perish. I remember thinking on entering the profession that it was probably the most mechanisation-proof career in the world - after all, who'd entrust their child's education to a machine - but just look at 2035 in the frankly scary education futures timeline for a revised view on that!

So, in a landscape where the castle is under siege from without by a vicious collation of enemies and its defenders are too busy frantically pushing away scaling ladders to investigate the possibilities offered by gun powder, it would seem that the cause of change and innovation is hopelessly futile. Prior to my current role, I was a deputy headteacher for four years which involved an awful lot of the management of others and here's a quote from my favourite management book which articulates quite how risky being innovative is:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them."
Niccolo Machiavelli, 'The Prince', Chapter VI

Despair not, there is an answer, but as always in education, you're probably not going to like it; Change has to begin in the local context and requires gifted leadership by charismatic people willing to put in a great deal of hard work over a number of years, all of it in the face of opposition. Change Management is every bit as logistical and process-based a challenge as something like building a new school is, but it never seems to attract the same attention or even a fraction of the funding; there's something which can easily be addressed at a national level.

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on Twitter

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