While our overall model of education has tended to lag behind the changes in wider society, many still feel that innovation in education is a painful process. Teachers and school leaders rightly feel they were very innovative during the pandemic, implementing remote learning, dealing with disruption to attendance and exams. Nevertheless, innovation often feels either like something done ‘to’ rather than ‘with’ us, or like something we’re being sold. And when we do find good innovations, we often lack the means to scale them up.
To me, innovation is about finding new solutions that produce improved or more consistent results in ways that are easier or cheaper. Innovation can involve improving something that already exists, devising entirely new educational programmes or connecting stakeholders in new ways. My experience suggests that, no matter what the innovation is, it typically goes through two stages: an early-adopter phase and a scale-up phase.
The early-adopter phase
In the early-adopter phase, high-potential ideas are tested and refined in different contexts while providers scramble to fix problems and prove the value of their solutions. It’s a highly iterative process, involving constant problem-solving and a high fall-out rate.
A flourishing ecosystem of innovation involves hundreds of solution providers and many centres of innovation where these solutions can be tried out. Today, our networks of innovation centres are fragmented. They include edtech demonstrator schools, teaching schools, city projects such as Damien Allen’s ‘talent and innovation ecosystem’ in Doncaster, and MATs such as the Oasis Hub. It takes years for high-potential ideas to be turned into practical solutions while others fall by the wayside. But this fragmentation means it can take just as long to cross-pollinate success across the system.
The scale-up phase
This month’s 2022 BETT show will showcase some 1,200 suppliers. Many are people with minimal experience or funding but plenty of vision for how to improve aspects of education. A number of them are ex-teachers who know the inner workings of the education system and have experienced first-hand the need for change. Many of these solutions are looking to scale up, but how many are really ready to do so?
By the time a solution is ready to scale up, it has often been simplified to the point that it is ‘plug and play’. But that’s also the point at which its benefits have been rarefied to what feels like a sales pitch. So how are school leaders with tight budgets to know what will prove a good investment?
Scepticism about new innovations is healthy. But whether you happen to love it or hate it, edtech has gone from educational fringe to classroom mainstream over the past couple of decades. And how this happened holds lessons for the best ways to approach innovation now.
In the early 2000s as now, innovation largely took place within centres of innovation that wanted to experiment with new solutions. Then, it was the local authority network of ICT advisors that provided the proving ground for solutions like my own venture, SAM Learning. Crucially, this protected the majority of schools from risk and unwanted change. (After all, as Todd Rose says, it’s not that change is hard, it’s that “change nobody wants is really hard”.)
But the biggest difference between then and now, and the one that really worked, was to separate the early-adopter phase from the scale-up phase. By the time the DfE provided schools with ring-fenced funding for online learning resources, many solutions had already been through years of refinement. This was evident in that many schools outside centres of innovation adopted these solutions before the funding became available. Solutions were ready to scale up, and the money merely accelerated their roll-out, ensuring these ‘in-a-box’ solutions were available consistently to all schools.
As the number of exhibitors at this year’s BETT shows, we have a thriving market of education solutions. However, our system is slowing the pace of scaling up. Only a more connected and systemic approach to centres of innovation will give school leaders the confidence they need to invest in the solutions they are being offered.