What is innovation? The current relationship between educators and technologies

Rory Gallagher

Rory has built boats and houses in France, lived in Japan, and now tries to teach French and Japanese ...

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What is innovation, exactly? Teacher of French and Japanese Rory Gallagher discusses how teachers and companies affect education-innovation.

We are already 14 years into the 21st century, and most of us are just catching up with existing technology – like the internet, social media, touchscreens, digital files etc. We are starting to discover the applications of these inventions in our lives, and realising which are the important innovations, which are simply gimmicks, and which are merely improvements on existing systems. But have our values really changed? In this post I will attempt to provoke and challenge our conceptions of innovation, and I hope to raise more questions than I can answer.

The most radical innovations are often the simplest - they are not necessarily technological advances. These are the real game-changers; they make irrelevant and redundant previous ways of doing and thinking. The innovation of the motor car, for example, was not one of these “disruptive” innovations, because early automobiles were expensive luxury items that did not disrupt the market for horse-drawn vehicles. The arrival of an affordable, mass-produced car – the Model T, was the herald of a real change in the way we travel. Henry Ford reportedly said: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Most people did not yet know that they wanted cars.

Disruptive innovations often start by exploiting niche markets and by not challenging the existing technology (e.g. steam vs. sail, telephone vs. telegraph). This is known as “low-end” disruption. The real shift comes when the value we attribute to the new system overtakes that of the old one. The other type of disruptive innovation – “new market disruption” - is probably less common but it is more spectacular. This is an innovation which fits a new or emerging market. An example of this would be the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, or the Model T Ford.

In education, it is hard to think of any specific, recent innovation that has revolutionised learning. Printing and the internet have both brought radical changes to the way we learn and the way we teach (although I do not believe that we have even scraped the surface with the potential of the internet in learning). The biggest change must have been the democratisation of learning through the accessibility of printed texts coupled with the increase in literacy rates. Some may claim that the use of 1:1 mobile device or BYOD schemes have been a significant innovation, but they can only be as strong or as innovative as the people and the policies behind them. It is interesting to note that we have gone from tablet to textbook back to tablet!

Neuroscience will surely bring many innovations to learning through a better understanding of the human brain and the way we learn. But we can still learn without books, without the internet, and without any notions of neuroscience. We can perhaps foresee a time when neuroscience will be firmly embedded in teacher education, and will improve the learning process for everyone. It is even possible that there will be some element of neural downloading to take away the need for rote learning, but that is a discussion for another day (probably 10 years from now).

Traditionally education suppliers and outside trainers have brought teachers innovations which we implement or not in the classroom. The interactive whiteboard "revolution" has fizzled out with a majority of teachers using them merely as projection devices (where they have them). Many of the innovations in education have proved to be unfounded or wrong (Brain Gym is the most famous example of these). Research has shown that teachers are very willing to try out new ideas and use new resources, but that over time they revert to a default mode of teaching and innovations are often discarded. Most of the innovations brought to us through suppliers have failed to change fundamentally teachers’ practice or values.

Innovation also comes through new colleagues, and perhaps especially through NQTs and trainees (where their views are listened to and respected). This model shows the potential for a teacher-led movement of innovation. The recent growth of platforms such as Twitter, coupled with informal CPD sessions such as TeachMeets, has given many teachers more ideas and challenges to their teaching than they had received in years of staff room chats and in-house CPD. It is a pleasure to discuss and share ideas in collaboration with educators from all levels, of all ages, from all over the world. My values in education are certainly maturing and growing through this forum. Many of the teachers on these forums are branching out into consultancy work, or becoming educational suppliers themselves. Some of the most influential and useful tools used by teachers have been developed by individuals with some experience of teaching. One example is Triptico – a one man show which has grown organically into a powerful and popular tool for teachers.

What have been most powerful in education are innovating philosophies or ideas about learning, rather than technological advances or objects. One could also say that government policies have in the past been more innovative than teachers over the years – but that would be a controversial statement at the moment. The global movement for education – offering a school-based education to all children – has gone a long way to improving life chances for people across the world. It will be interesting to see how we reach children who still do not have access to schools. Will it be through the creation of new schools, or will we sidestep the whole infrastructure through the use of technology (one thinks immediately of Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Cloud”)?

However, more established ideas still jog alongside new theories, and in the classroom I would go so far as to say that the traditional paradigm of education has not yet changed. That is to say – a teacher (who is more knowledgeable) teaches a student (who must accept this relationship). Most classroom practitioners would agree that this is the case in most classrooms (although there are many who would like it to stay that way). There are (and there always have been) pockets of innovation and divergent thinking that can occasionally flourish and inspire others, but in most cases the inertia of the educational establishment means that it is near impossible to stop or divert. This inertia is very often more present in the inherent value systems of teachers, rather than in the policies of schools or governments.

To encourage innovation needs more than a set of iPads or a new style of teaching. To return to the initial definition of innovation - “the development of new values”, what is needed is a collaborative platform of new, shared values that place the learner firmly at the centre of the learning process, that embrace all forms of learning, and which will, eventually create a disruptive innovation to really get us all learning.

Image credit: Boegh

Are you a teacher who deals with companies to innovate their schools? How have your experiences been? Let us know in the comments.

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