Thursday, October 22, 2015

The innovation imperative and the design of learning systems

by David Istance
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Education has become increasingly important worldwide, including politically. Probably the key driver for this is economic – the fundamental role of knowledge and skills in underpinning and maintaining prosperity. No argument has more political purchase today regarding education’s value than that it enhances competitiveness. These developments create an appetite for reform and innovation, often manifest as favouring “learning” over “education”, and a readiness to disrupt accepted institutional arrangements as too slow to change, too inward-looking, and too detached from the economic shifts taking place globally and locally.

This represents a very different starting point for innovation compared with the longstanding educational ambition to realise more holistic opportunities and promote individual development. From this perspective, the problem is not that the institutions of education are too detached from the economy, but that they are too close, and are pulled to narrow their curricula and instil only superficial knowledge and not deep understanding. The charge is also that education systems are profoundly inequitable, too driven by sorting and selecting and not organised for the optimisation of learning.

There is another constituency with an interest in innovation. Innovating learning environments offer a far more promising route for enhancing the attractiveness of teaching than backward-looking definitions of professionalism seen as the right of the individual teacher to be left undisturbed in his or her own classroom.

The differences of the critiques and constituencies notwithstanding, they coalesce around the urgent need to innovate the fundamentals of schooling: to address the low visibility of teacher work and their isolation in highly fragmented classroom arrangements, the low engagement of too many of the main players (especially students), conformity and highly unequal learning outcomes.

Some 26 school systems (countries, regions, networks) participated in the final part of the OECD Innovative Learning Environments project by submitting their own initiatives for innovating learning beyond single schools or organisations. The synthesis report that emerged from this project, Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems, is published today.

The report summarises the strategies that lead to innovation as a series of Cs: culture change; clarifying focus; creating professional capacity; collaboration and co-operation; communication technologies and platforms; and change agents.

The book emphasises the importance of design, and for that read “leadership”. In complex school systems, leadership can include many more actors – such as community players, families and foundations – besides those usually involved in designing curricula and classrooms. Government leadership remains fundamental, however, because of its legitimacy, breadth and capacity to unlock resources. Governments have a privileged role in starting and sustaining change, and in regulating, incentivising and accelerating it. But this does not have to mean “micro-managing”.

For example, New Zealand’s “Learning and Change Networks” is a government-initiated strategy to establish a web of knowledge-sharing networks among schools, families, teachers, leaders, communities, professional providers and the Ministry of Education. Network participants work collaboratively to accelerate student achievement in grades 1 to 8 and address equity issues.

Austria’s “New Secondary School” reform was initiated by the government in 2008 and has since been mandated to be phased in completely by 2018. It is introduced in individual schools through school-based change agents (Lerndesigners) who themselves work collaboratively as networks. The recently established National Center for Learning Schools provides materials and organisation for these change agents.

The report elaborates what an innovative learning environment would look like, not just in individual schools but across a whole system. For example, schools and classrooms would be characterised by the “buzz” of collegial activity and have many students learning outside conventional classrooms; learner voice would be prominent, including in leadership, right across school systems; educators would discuss and practice learning strategies collaboratively, and personalise these strategies for individual learners; learners and educators would use digital resources and social media innovatively for teaching, learning and professional exchanges; there would be a dominant practice of self-review and use of evidence to inform design; and there would be dense networks of collaboration across districts, networks, chains and communities of practice.

How interesting it would be to be able to measure progress towards this vision, to supplement the more conventional education statistics and indicators!

Photo credit: © Inmagine LTD

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