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Why Do We Need Innovation in Education?

We are indeed living in interesting times. Never before have we seen such widespread agreement across countries around the globe that the key lever for their economic futures is education; just not the type of education we currently have. Such a paradox must surely challenge our long held beliefs in upholding the status quo. Indeed it would seem the question is no longer should we change the education our young people are currently receiving, to rather, by how much should the change happen.

To date it’s fair to suggest incremental would be the most optimistic way of describing the change that has taken place in a limited number of schools to date, rather than anything fundamental, radical or disruptive. Yet as we let the years go by, debating the nature of change, its virtue and the possibilities, legions of young people continue to march their way through our schools, tolerating traditions that have long lost both their meaning and purpose.

So now we see a new entry point to the dilemma, called Innovation. While it is largely semantics to review to what extent change, innovation, reimagining, rethinking et al are targeting similar end points, though taking different journeys, it’s seem that innovation is the most palatable to educators and educational leaders.

I recently asked a global audience of teachers, ‘when was your last failure?’, and was met with largely blank stares. At the recent New York Maker Faire, Seth Godin referred to the value of ‘learning by doing things wrong’…which after all is the way that most of us learn, most of the time? Not just in an academic sense but even more so in physical sports or crafts, cooking or trades we are continually learning by doing things wrong, because…we take risks; we try something out to see if it works; to see if we can do it well…. yet how often do we see that practice encouraged within our schools?

In such presentations I like to talk about one of our best known ‘failers ’, James Dyson. While vacuuming his home, he became frustrated with the lousy suction of his vacuum cleaner. The bag and filter clogged too quickly, reducing the suction to the point where it didn\\\'t work. Over 15 years, he built 5126 prototypes before he found the one that worked. 15 years and 5126 failures. How did he find the solution? \\\"Wrong doing.\\\" His mantra...Fail fast, and iterate to another possibility; be agile, don’t spend all your time planning something that might be based on wrong design assumptions; develop a Minimum Viable Product and try it out. Do we ever think that way about innovation in our schools?.... because that is the way large companies today develop new ideas, new products and new services. I wonder if Dyson had reflected on his school experience as being lousy, would he have innovated for a better solution 5000+ times until he found one ‘that worked’? No he wouldn’t, and none of us ever do…not 5000 times, but sadly for most, not even once. ..and yet we generally agree too much of what we offer is lousy.

If you work at Valve, one of the largest online gaming companies in the world, they state very clearly in their New Employees Manual...\"No-one has ever been fired at Valve for making mistakes. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait within the company. We couldn’t expect so much of our individuals if we penalised people for errors.\" Could it be that our loathing of failure within schools results not so much in high standards, but rather low ones?

You see, I think any discussion around innovation in our schools, across any dimension, within the projects, pedagogy, or whole school reform, but first embrace the concept of learning from failure, from doing things wrong. Building a culture that supports risk-taking..an anathema to many school leaders. Until we can do that, we will continue to be limited to marginal instrumentalism which will aggravate the problem rather than solve it.

As always, interested in your thoughts!
April 2nd, 2013 @ 5:20PM