Worlds of Education

Teachers need more innovation, not more innovations

published 2 November 2023 updated 21 March 2024
written by:

We’re in a global fight for the future of the teaching profession. One place where the forces are tussling it out is around the importance of educational innovation. Many people leave teaching because they just don’t like how the job feels. Educators want more opportunity to innovate in their own schools with the kids they know best. We need bigger, stronger cultures of teacher-driven innovation running through all our schools. But what we’re often seeing instead is restriction of innovation by top-down bureaucracies and too much testing. Elsewhere, unwanted innovations are imposed on teachers from the outside.

The promise of innovation

When schools are allowed to innovate, students thrive and so do their teachers. I have seen this up close. This year, I have spent a week in almost every month in classrooms all over Canada as part of a network of 41 schools our team at the University of Ottawa has developed ( CPSN 2023). The schools use innovations in play-based learning to increase engagement and well-being among vulnerable and marginalized groups of middle school students after COVID-19. Teachers have developed and advanced an incredible array of innovations ( Hollweck, Cotnam-Kappel, Hargreaves & Boultif, 2023). Some are digital and involve things like coding, film editing, or playing Minecraft. Some have more machine-like or makerspace elements like robotics, mapping with drones, constructing murals, building calming spaces for younger children, or creating electronic cardboard arcades.

Many teachers are pulling back from innovations that add more indoor screen time to focus instead on “green” innovations outside. These include building outdoor trails and gardens, constructing wooden grow towers to cultivate food during the winter, or linking indigenous learning on the land to the seasons of the moon. Other innovations involve activities such as writing stories, or learning to cook, knit, play board games with children’s parents, or perform magic tricks.

Everywhere there are compelling stories about the uplifting impact of teachers’ innovative efforts.

A student with very poor attendance started to come in just on project days so he could build a bridge that little ozobots, dressed in costumes, would travel across as they became protagonists in a story that he and his fellow students had written.

A Grade 7 student who had been excluded from school for several weeks for fighting, built a wooden tower with his dad, in their garage, to grow food indoors. He then led other students in the school’s atrium in building more towers so they could provide fruits and vegetables for their low-income community year-round.

The perils of innovation

Sadly, innovation is the exception, not the rule in most schools today. It may prosper in early childhood classrooms before “real school” begins but in most schools, the demands of test preparation, top-down accountability, standardization, overbearing bureaucracy, and successions of externally imposed and unwanted reforms, squeeze the life out of teaching and learning. This is one reason why so many teachers leave. They can’t pursue the passions that brought them into the profession in the first place. They have no autonomy to use their professional judgment. Their inability to fulfil their own purposes de-moralizes them.

Disruptive innovation

Some governments, many EdTech companies, and a lot of consultants are trying to bust open this iron cage of educational inflexibility with what the business community calls disruptive innovation ( Christensen, Johnson & Horn, 2008). They want to disrupt the basic organization and assumptions of schooling with technologies that mean students can, in different ways, access learning from anyone, everywhere, at any time they choose, with or without a teacher. The spread of digital technology during COVID-19 ( Vaillancourt et al, 2021) has emboldened them.

Some are genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities of moving more learning towards learners and giving them greater self-determination in their learning ( Wehmeyer & Zhao, 2020). Others have more suspect motives – to replace teachers with technology, limit them to being supplementary coaches or facilitators, increase profits for Edtech, and cut back on the costs of public education.

Digital tools and platforms have, since COVID-19, undoubtedly expanded the ways in which teachers can do their work and engage their students more effectively. But, as UNESCO (2021) point out, the purpose of technological innovation should be human centred to improve human purposes and processes, not replace them or dominate them.

As we saw during COVID-19, and even before it, hasty introductions of too much technology reduce rather than enhance everyone’s humanity. Excess screen time damages mental health ( American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020). It limits the opportunities for students to engage with each other or to learn outdoors ( Nature Canada, 2018; Louv, 2008). In-school, smart phone use creates distraction, impedes many students’ learning, and increases student anxiety ( UNESCO, 2023). Digital engagement presumes that young people can already self-regulate their learning when many of our most vulnerable and marginalized students clearly cannot. Online learning and interaction may be cognitively as good as and sometimes even better than in-person learning, but emotional learning, humour, inspiration, moral, and ethical reflection, interpersonal caring, ability to “read” how people are feeling and responding, and sheer senses of awe are dealt with far better within in-person environments.

Our best resource is not our technology but our teachers. Teachers working together, as partners in innovation, without hindrance from high stakes testing and standardization, and without the distractions of digital quick fixes, should be an overarching priority now.

Dependable innovation

We do need to bust open the rusty iron cage of schooling that is making many teachers disheartened with their profession ( Hess, 2013). What our students and their teachers especially need, though, is more innovation that is driven and developed by teachers in their own classrooms with their own students that they know best.

Teachers and schools need to get out of implementing other people’s innovations. Instead, they need to build on the bond of the teacher-student relationship and develop reliable, dependable innovations of their own, collaboratively, as a school or as an entire profession, that strengthen that bond, not weaken it.

Dependable innovation is not recklessly disruptive. It develops and refines ways of teaching, learning, and assessing through constant inquiry and testing by teachers working together so that it is effective, meaningful and does no harm to the people affected by it. Dependable innovation leads to genuine improvements. It gets teachers out of bed every morning. It may use digital technology but is not driven or dominated by that technology. It does not have serious side effects. Dependable micro-innovations can be used effectively by ordinary educators everywhere ( Hatch, Corson & Van den Berg, 2021).

Teachers need whole cultures of dependable micro innovation in which passionate teaching and engaging learning can flourish. Dependable innovation supports teachers’ autonomy to create new ways of serving their students. It relies on cultures of collaborative professionalism among teachers as communities within and beyond their schools ( Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018; Campbell, 2018). It draws on the research of outside evidence, and the insight of in-school inquiry. It stimulates teachers to share what they are creating and learning with other teachers elsewhere. And in doing all this, in addition to inspiring their students, it engages them more deeply in their own teaching.

Cultures of dependable innovation that spread across entire systems of schools are not a distant dream. I have engaged with them, supported them, and seen the evidence of their impact on teacher motivation and engagement, in large and long-lasting networks in Canada, the United States, Uruguay, Mexico, South Korea, Colombia, and the United Kingdom, among other places ( Hargreaves, 2023). What will it take to create and sustain such thriving cultures of innovation in other schools and systems today?

My expert paper on Leadership and Innovation for the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession includes the following 8 recommendations on how to create and sustain widespread cultures of dependable innovation.

  1. Create an inclusive Innovation Commons in every school, community, and society
  2. Invest in system-wide collaborative cultures of teacher innovation.
  3. Remove the barriers to teacher innovation such as high stakes testing.
  4. Ensure innovation budgets are driven by educational needs for equity and excellence, not by outside corporate interests.
  5. Avoid disruptive transformation. Embrace dependable innovation.
  6. Infuse an equity imperative into all innovation efforts.
  7. Use place-based innovation to bring about collaborative inclusion and equity in communities.
  8. Preserve and protect the contributions that teachers outside grade-level and subject-based classroom roles make to innovation.

The battle for the status and sustainability of the teaching profession is also a battle for the soul of the world and for the young people who will define its future. Our best resource is not our technology but our teachers. Teachers working together, as partners in innovation, without hindrance from high stakes testing and standardization, and without the distractions of digital quick fixes, should be an overarching priority now.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.