The innovative school

Anyone who follows discussions about education in traditional media, social media or even academia will see innovation and risk-taking being presented as particularly good things that we should have more of. This idea is part of the zeitgeist and is no doubt influenced by idealised notions of thrusting silicon valley startups that spurt innovation all over the place.

However, startups have a relatively high rate of failure. Now, it probably doesn’t matter too much if the world misses out on another dancing-cat app. However, in our line of business, the failure of the harvest is far more significant. These are people’s lives that we are talking about.

Early this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the ICSEI conference in Cincinnati. One of the highlights was hearing David Reynolds discussing the High Reliability Schools project of which he is a part – interestingly, he was sharing a platform with Robert Marzano who is involved in a U.S. project of the same name but where the details seemed quite different.

Reynolds suggested that perhaps a better metaphor for a school is an airline. Airlines obsess about safety. That is their primary concern. Yes, they want to serve you palatable food, get your bags to the right destination and give good customer service, but sometimes they fall a little short on these criteria. Why? Because the whole organisation is geared around safety.

What would an ‘innovative’ airline look like? It would perhaps have a new model for selling seats or it might provide a new form of in-flight entertainment. Perhaps it would open up a new route. However, it certainly won’t involve the pilots deciding on innovative flight-paths or making modifications to customised planes. The core business of airlines is safely getting passengers from A to B and they are extremely conservative about this. New aeroplanes have to undergo extensive testing over many flight hours in order to demonstrate their safety i.e. their effectiveness as measured against an airline’s main objective.

However, the same does not seem to be true of innovative schools. The closest analogy for not crashing the planes is schools not allowing children to fail to learn to read. We have powerful evidence on how best to teach reading. The use of systematic, synthetic phonics is endorsed by three separate national inquiries into the issue from the US, UK and Australia. None of these support alternatives such as the use of multiple cues (guessing from context, from the picture or from the sound of the first letter). Yet, even in this area, there is a reluctance among teachers to use the most reliable methods.

Response to intervention is a complementary approach that actively seeks out the students who are falling behind in learning to read. In this sense, it can tell us early if one of our planes is likely to crash. It is similar to the kinds of checklists that airlines will follow to ensure safety. Why do more schools not adopt such a model?

Instead, we have innovative schools that tend to be places where strange pedagogical fads flourish; ordinary lessons are abandoned on Fridays in favour of cross-curricular projects, every student is given an iPad in the expectation that this will lead to miracles occurring, or perhaps administrators turn up at lessons with stopwatches to ensure that no teacher talks for more than two minutes.

We have a lot of references to ‘deeper’ learning or learner engagement but the central point that advocates of these approaches need to demonstrate – that these approaches are effective – is just assumed and debating it usually doesn’t get much air-time. Surely, everyone would want deeper learning, wouldn’t they? Who could possibly be against student control of learning? If you’re unconvinced then I have this motivational poster…

I have a view as to why this innovation narrative thrives. The dominant education theories are largely lacking in evidence of effectiveness. Educational theorists indirectly absorb early twentieth century ideas from thinkers such as John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick and then talk themselves into disastrous schemes like whole language learning. When you have no evidence to support the approach that you are pushing then the language of innovation and modernity can be deployed instead. Come on guys, take a risk!

It is worth remembering that whole language was perpetrated on an entire generation of young people from the 1970s to the 1990s and its influence is still significant today in balanced literacy programmes and interventions such as Reading Recovery. This, despite the fact that numerous studies that have reviewed all of the available evidence – such as those cited above – have found little to no empirical support for it. It therefore demonstrates an argument against accepting any products of educational theory without strong empirical evidence.

A similar innovation saw Canada, since around the Year 2000, move away from traditional forms of maths instruction in favour of more ‘constructivist’ approaches. The learning of times-tables was downplayed and students were encouraged to find multiple ways to solve problems, inventing their own strategies rather than learning the standard methods; precisely the sort of maths promoted in this video. It was all coordinated under the auspices of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol. The adoption of this approach has coincided with significant declines in Canadian students’ maths performance on international tests relative to their own performance at the start of the century, with the Canadian media laying the blame at the door of the new curricula.

It is hardly surprising. You may not care for the kinds of lab-based tests that have demonstrated the worked-example effect. However, even in ‘ecologically valid’ classroom intervention studies, constructivist approaches underperform explicit teaching.

Never mind. Who wants to worry about crashing the planes when you can be innovative?

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5 Comments on “The innovative school”

  1. In the video featuring Jo Boaler’s math camp students singing a song that you link to, it’s hard to say what kind of math is promoted if any. There is no mention of math in the video except for a line or two about getting ideas from others via collaboration.

  2. chrismwparsons says:

    I do like your metaphor of the airline Greg – I think it’s definitely better than the radical new start-up company trying to do something that has never been thought of before.

    However – I guess, for me, the comparison sells education short a little. In general, airlines are just there to get you safely from A to B – as you point out, with A and B being clearly defined. Now if the goal of education is simply functional literacy, then the comparison works well. Perhaps, like the airline industry, try to find more efficient engines to get us to the end point quicker, but other than that it is just trimmings.

    Is that really all that education is about though? Sure, functional literacy should be a baseline pre-requisite for successful education, but is there no mileage in the notion of a ‘good’ education? No sense at all in which we can say that people are ‘better’ educated than anyone else once they can effectively read, write and add-up…?

    Isn’t there then, logically at least, some sense in still looking for educational innovations which manage to go ‘deeper’ or spread ‘wider’ in their educational vision – whilst still achieving the baseline?

    Of course we get into the whole messy domain of the ‘purpose of education’ here, so what I’m saying only multiplies the disagreements, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better then to just cut and dry the issue into one of being ultimately just about getting people from A to B.

    • gregashman says:

      I think we should focus on teaching reading properly first. The numeracy. Then building a strong body of knowledge. Yes, there are other aims of education but they are moot in the absence of these key skills. We skip over these basics to readily.


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