If ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, the education crisis in many developing countries calls for some fresh thinking about how to provide quality education for all children.
There is plenty of opportunity to build on existing best practice but abundant examples from around the world make the case for reinventing schools and transforming learning.
Opinions are divided on how radical change should be. Some practitioners say disruptive innovation is an essential response to stagnating and redundant education models and systems. Others see ‘innovation’ as window dressing of steady progress and, at worst, needless destruction of the tried and tested.
However, there is a middle ground. The most radical reformers recognize the merits of effective schools supported by wider society and understand that much innovation will be incremental and in familiar surroundings.
On the other hand, most practitioners agree that conventional school systems are failing millions of children. New approaches have to be considered and the risks of change managed.
Drawing on Cambridge Education’s extensive program experience across many cultures and contexts, we have identified the key factors or conditions that have led to successful outcomes when introducing or supporting innovative approaches for education.
Factors for successful innovation in schools and communities
Teachers benefit – innovation in schools works best when educators see an incentive to become involved, usually in making their job easier and improving their professional development.
Effective use of ICT – ICT (information and communications technology) in the classroom has great potential and works best when complemented and guided by teachers. Training and classroom materials available on mobile platforms or via the internet have successfully engaged teachers and mentors in continuing professional development (CPD) activities. Simpler, cheaper hardware has made use of ICT more cost-effective.
Teacher support networks – peer-supported learning within innovative CPD activities, and the creative combination of content delivery with practice-based reflections, improve the capacity for improvements to the quality of teaching. Improvements to teaching and learning have been enhanced by promoting wider support networks including head teachers, school-based mentors and district education office staff.
Engaging communities – informed community engagement can increase attendance, mobilize demand for improved school performance and provide children with additional learning opportunities out of formal schooling.
Factors for successful innovation in education at the system level
Responsive policy and curriculum development – policy and curriculum frameworks must be flexible enough to allow and encourage the testing and adoption of new ideas. Capacity for institutional development should be reflected in ministry terms of employment and CPD initiatives.
Broad leadership support – leadership should inspire initiative and non-submissive behaviors, allow decision-making at different levels across the education system, and welcome diversity.
Create an enabling environment – ministry-level acceptance of organizational and cultural change is a prerequisite if new norms and behaviors that enable innovation are to be institutionalized. The inherent risks of innovating must be accepted without instilling a fear of failure.
Brokering partnerships to support innovation – networks of diverse partners strengthen capacity in the education sector and encourage the development and diffusion of new ideas and the sharing of experience and information.
Attract sustainable funding – government funding is essential for national, systemic adoption of innovations but alternative funding streams are often vital to cover risks in the incubation and initial scale-up of new ideas. For example, social entrepreneurs can bring in a wealth of new resources to respond quickly to new opportunities, and the low-cost private school market can leverage complementary resources. Giving schools greater autonomy over funding can make more efficient use of scarce resources.
Learning organizations – strong knowledge management is at the heart of innovation for education. Innovation must be informed by research and analysis of education priorities and rigorously monitored and evaluated to inform evidence-based policy making. Strategic communication of key learning influences policy decisions, changes the behaviors of education practitioners, and mobilizes stakeholder support.
Establish a dedicated innovation unit – having a distinct working group makes it easier to manage resources, oversee knowledge management, forge links with innovation partners, and embed innovation in stakeholder institutions. Ideally the unit’s members will bring different expertise and experiences and be closely connected to education research, policy and planning – though not necessarily located within the ministry.
Time and space are needed at school, in the wider community, and across the education sector to allow individuals and teams to be creative and reflective. To get involved they have to feel they can own innovation as individuals and organizations, and be recognized as innovators without fear of reprimand and, especially, without fear of failure. Once that cultural change is achieved, then they can be free – free to innovate.
This article is based on Richard Hanson’s paper, Go innovate! A guide to successful innovation in education, June 2016, which can be downloaded here.
Photo Credits: Can't Wait to Learn Sudan ; Anseye Pou Ayiti