Innovation in Education

Innovation in Education

I read a lot about innovation in education and I have one overwhelming visceral response. Enough already. Enough proclamations about how our school systems are going to revolutionise education. Enough about how putting more technology in classrooms will make young people creative. Enough about how it’s all about ‘collaboration.’ 

I have watched ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity’ by Sir Ken Robinson and I wholeheartedly agree with his ideas and applaud his mission to make positive change in education. And he is not the first. Many of these ideas have existed for a long time. They have started on the edges, but the commentary is becoming more mainstream. This is especially true as some parents are looking at the effects of their own education and questioning whether it is the right approach for the next generation as they go into what is an uncertain future.

 Unfortunatly, the way that governments and schools are responding to these inspirations is flawed. They continue to focus on some form of external grading system that focuses on clearly defined numerical results. Despite Sir Ken Robinson’s direct rebutal of standardised testing, schools continue to focus on grades. Grades are the signals we all use to validate that the schools are a return on investment. New approaches look at introducing innovation and design thinking into schools. Yet it continues to be paired with one ‘right’ way to innovate and a continued strong focus on grades. 

Therein lies the heart of the problem. Let’s stop talking about innovation in education until we are ready to talk about what I think restricts innovation. And that is the incentives. The incentives are what governments, parents and educational systems find valuable in their exchanges with each other. 

I propose that the educational business model, is to take the largest share of funds possible (private fees or public funds) in return for grades. Grades are the seemingly quantifiable (measurable) marker of a student’s preparedness to gain valuable employment. Grades are the incentives. They are the promissory note to a better financial future.

The government wins because they appear to be supporting future value creation. The educational system wins because they help people obtain the grades that appear to matter. Parents win because they believe they are supporting a better future for their children and gaining validation as being ‘good parents’ by having ensured good grades. 

Perhaps this value exchange worked for a time when there was demand for the type of skills that educational systems were teaching and a limited supply of educated people. Seth Godin notes that the current schooling model was designed for the industrial era, hence its focus on memorisation. Skills like this are easily measured by external tests, exams and associated grading systems. We can compare grades, check if they are rising or falling as an average. However, true innovation involves taking risks, making mistakes and putting things into the world. This can be hampered by focusing on grades which punish failure. 

How can we create a new generation of hungry learners and fearless experimenters in this sort of framework? Currently there is no room for cross-pollinated ideas, personal interests, experimentation, or failure in this model. There is no room for anything innovative. Anything that damages a chance for higher grades in the right subjects is tossed away. The right subjects are those that are perceived as more financially valuable. This includes subjects like science, economics, accounting and law. It bends away from subjects like art, humanities and music because it is harder to define the financial value in these areas. 

Recently, a friend of mine briefly overheard a private tutoring session. The pupil was from one of the prestigious private schools located on Sydney’s North Shore who was studying a foreign language. Outside of a few sentences read out of a text book, the session was conducted entirely in English. There was no opportunity for learning through immmersion or through taking risks to have genuine dialogue. It was focused on what exact material, down to phrases and individual words, that were worth preparing to provide the best chance to excel at the end of year exam. 

The student expressed to the tutor that the reason they were taking the language was because it would look good on their resume. No passion, no creativity, no actual learning of how to speak the language in an uncontrolled setting. What a waste. There is a significant commercial incentive here. Private tutoring and specialised study books aimed at ‘getting the grade you deserve’ are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Imagine the school that said, ‘We aren’t going to grade our students.’ Could you imagine the outcry? But as of 2017, Singapore appears to be in the process of doing just that. Despite its status as the grade leader of the world, Singapore will be trying to move to a more holistic and creative model of assesment. Will they end up replacing a grading system with some sort of badly-shaped proxy? I don’t know. But at least they are trying.  

What I do know is that there is no point in talking about innovation in education until we address the incentives that quash any chance of it ever happening. 



Do Schools Kill Creativity (2006) Ken Robinson, TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Godin, Seth (2010) Lynchpin, Portfolio

Math Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

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