Open Thinkering


Innovation in education: what I’ll be talking about at the Guardian event today. (#IIE2011)

Guardian Innovation in Education

I’m in London today at the Guardian Innovation in Education event (hashtag #IIE2011). Not only will it be the first time I’ve been on a keynote panel but I’ll also be chairing a session for the first time. Happy days.

The following are those currently listed as joining me on the keynote panel (which has been shuffled more often that a Tory Cabinet):

I’ll be given a couple of minutes to outline my position on innovation and, bizarrely, learning styles. The latter is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned given my experience in the classroom and this devastating critique on YouTube by Prof. Daniel Willingham. But innovation? I’ve definitely got a couple of things to say about that.

1. Innovation is predicated upon standardisation

Homogeneity in ecological terms, refers to a reduction in biodiversity. I think it’s important to make it clear at the outset that’s not what I mean when I’m talking about standardisation. What I mean by standardisation is a common, negotiated base upon which something can be constructed. This base could be a technology, it could be a set of practices, a calendar, defined workflows or communications channels.

Something I would change if I could go back and re-teach my early career would be the way that I approached innovation. In my current position at JISC infoNet and in my previous role as Director of e-Learning I’ve seen just how important the social negotiation and co-construction of a common baseline is. To mix metaphors, it’s about getting people on the same page and facing the same direction. Too often in my early career I went full-tilt in a different direction to others, thinking to myself that I could bring others onboard I’d reached ‘version 1.0’. Now I realise the importance of bringing in people much earlier than that.

Whilst it is may be possible to enforce standardisation in a top-down manner, effective leaders know that this is unlikely to encourage buy-in. As I argued in Chapter 10 of my thesis on digital literacies the process is at least as important as the outcome. Conversation and iteration is important because the very nature of innovation means that you don’t know necessarily know what’s going to happen next. As Woodrow Wilson famously stated, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow”.

Douglas Adams was being flippant when he called for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty” but, when it comes to innovation, demarcating such areas can be productive. Be focused. If, for example, your organisation is focusing upon methods of communication, getting sidetracked by existing problems (such as software incompatibilities) or irrelevancies (the staff dress code) is likely to be unhelpful. Get things right one at a time building towards a bigger picture. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Sustaining and embedding innovation

In JISC’s Sustaining and Embedding Innovations: a good practice guide, Peter Chatterton defines three broad stages of innovation:

  1. Invention (generation of new ideas)
  2. Early Innovation (practical implementation of new inventions, usually in specific areas)
  3. Systemic Innovation (organisation or institution-wide adoption of inventions)

As colleague Andrew Stewart and I argued at the Future of Technology of Education conference the problem is that we get stuck at the second step. The reason for this is twofold, I believe.

Firstly, we’ve outsourced technological invention to the market. This means that early innovation (usually) involves taking something not designed explicitly with education in mind and finding way of using it for pedagogical purposes. By the time we’ve done that, of course, the market moved on and the process begins all over again. We’re like dogs chasing shiny cars.

The second reason, however, is due to education being a political football. Every year a raft of changes are enforced upon educational institutions, and schools in particular. Somtimes (and I’m looking at you, Michael Gove, with the English Baccalaureate) such changes are even made half-way through a school year! As a result, systemic innovation and ownership of the change process by overworked, underpaid staff is extremely difficult to achieve, even if they believe in the changes proposed. Some schools, such as Cramlington Learning Village manage focused, systemic change but these are few and far between.


Innovation is a tricky beast. You’re never quite sure when or where the next great idea will come from. There are, however, some ways to tame the monster. Here’s my three suggestions:

  • Focus on workflows: huge efficiencies can be gained by socially-negotiating these and using them as a standardised basis. In one school I used to work at, these were posted in every classroom for sanctions, rewards, book marking, everything. Review these often so they don’t become burdensome when the contexts change due to wider environmental factors.
  • Take a step back: as someone (hilariously) mentioned at a JISC programme startup meeting this week, “the early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” Make sure that everyone knows what they are there for. Have a discussion about the purpose(s) of education, if necessary.
  • Get everyone involved: when I say that you don’t know where the next transformational idea may come from, I’m serious. Get as many different angles on the problem as possible. And even when things are going well, have channels and methods of communication that allow people to make leftfield suggestions without being ridiculed.

What are YOUR thoughts on innovation in education?

13 thoughts on “Innovation in education: what I’ll be talking about at the Guardian event today. (#IIE2011)

  1. Thank you for the fascinating read Doug. I see many parallels in your early critique of yourself and my own experience. All part of the process of learning! I think you make some really valid points about where we get stuck in the innovation chain, it is always the biggest challenge to assimilate innovation and adopt it more widely. Your ground up approach is something I strongly agree with, but your ideas on standardising workflows are more difficult. I think you are right about the importance of workflows to the wider adoption of innovation- the trouble is it is very difficult to create and embed workflows in a systematic way without ending up dictating to people to some extent, and therefore meeting a potential for resistance, thus undermining the ground up approach. 

    A really tricky one I think- how do we approach standardising whilst still maintaining buy in and a sense of responsibility and ownership?That’s the question I would ask if I could make it to the discussion anyway!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Oliver. I think it’s a valid point but one that can be sidestepped with a mix of clear channels of communication and a vision for the organisation that others buy into.
      The final decision and say will, of course, be down to those ‘in charge’ at the end of the day, but I’d like to think that it’s possible to include everyone in making things better.
      Something I’d push for immediately if/when I return to senior management in schools is use a wiki as a knowledge base. We use PBworks at JISC infoNet and it’s just the *most* democratic way to get things done and make sure everyone’s got access to everything they need. :-)

  2. Personally I think you’ve dealt a fairly accurate blow to the head of the nail that is innovation in schools. I found the conference today challenging for various reasons but the biggest one is the lack of solutions so thanks for providing a structure which I agree would be productive. I’d be interested to see a review after you return to school leadership!

  3. Doug: Lack of social negotiation can be a flaw, especially if working for ‘early adopter’ leaders who are, in fact, bandwagonists who can’t play the instruments. We need to embed innovative ideas so that they are seen as common practice and part of the organisational culture as quickly as possible. This needs a level of managerialism that some might think sits as a potential paradox in the creativity box.

    Also, Willingham’s learning styles critique seems pretty vague to me. Infact he admits to appearing contradictory then evades any opportunity to give his arguement any currency. The trouble with VAK is giving it a label. This immediately invites distrust. Good teaching, as he says, has always centred around variety. Perhaps the commercialisation of VAK and the product sold to schools has led to some professional jealousies? The fact that it is pretty impossible to provide all these different (beyond VAK) learning styles for every individual in a class has never, if we’re honest, been realistic or of any value should not suggest that there is ‘no such thing’. Without exploring these ideas, we will certainly continue to be stuck in the 2011 surgeon analogy.

    Keep in touch.

    1. Hi Bill, thanks for the comment.

      I confess to not really understanding your first paragraph and disagree with your second. It’s not just that VAK have been ‘packaged up’ but that the quack-science behind them is spurious and misleading.

  4. Thanks Doug, I was expecting you to help me with developing my thinking regarding the VAK debate and I’m not disappointed. I am not blindly supporting the notion of learning styles, but would like some worthwhile counter to the quackery you suggest (whilst having a strong feeling you and others are right). Can you provide some peer-reviewed references that can add to the anti-styles debate that do not add another, contrary layer of quack-science? There seems to be plenty of opinion and no less confusion. Your expertise is appreciated.

    I suppose the point I was making about packaging relates to the ‘misleading’ element of your reply. Because some saw it as a commercial opportunity it became the answer to ‘all your learning needs’. School leaders under pressure to prove they were doing something to improve learning could buy the product and tick the box.

    In the first paragraph I identify social negotiation as important by suggesting that those who avoid it put up barriers to innovation. This can be particularly evident in some early adopters who haven’t really thought things through or who simply don’t quite get it.

    I am doing some work on the leadership of innovation and creativity (briefly mentioned it to Claire at IIE) so could I contact you about this direct at JISC?

  5. Great stuff here Doug. I really like the points in your conclusion, especially the focus on workflow. So much stuff in education is hard to pin down but not all of it is. Identifying the things we can easily agree on and then standardise leaves us with more time to sort the stuff that’s harder to sort and leaves more time for innovation!

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