My last article in the SMGS newsletter, Aspects focused on the changes facing education this year, with the announcement of a new NSW Education Minister. In this article I want to broaden my scope by focusing on educational leaders; in particular, those leaders who are involved in educational decisions in our profession, sector and schools.
I was recently asked to write about innovation by a colleague. I originally declined to write, citing time pressures, but found myself unable to stop my mind processing and debating what I would write if I sat and put my thoughts on paper. I was constantly examining what I believed to be my own experiences and my inherent beliefs around the importance of effective leadership in education. In the end, my desire to examine the topic of ‘innovation’ was too great and hence this contribution.
The first distinction that needs to be made when discussing innovation is to appreciate the differences between improvement, invention and innovation. I call it having ‘three eyes’. Unfortunately, these distinctions are not always understood and some educational leaders tend to use the terms interchangeably. I believe that using them interchangeably is a disservice to how important all three are to schools today and how important their competing needs are in the minds and decisions of educational leaders.
I once held the view that innovation was doing something new that others had not been doing. It was about making a change that brought about a new landscape within the school. It was about creating excitement, taking a risk to do what others had not done or were not willing to do. It was about fixing what was wrong in schools but doing things a ‘new way’. While I wasn’t wrong, I was narrow in my thinking. Innovation is much deeper than that and by thinking about it as just something ‘new’, I was limiting the impact or effect of what innovation could mean for the students in my school and for the profession in which I am a leader.
The etymology of the word innovation is from the Latin noun, innovatio, ‘a renewal or alteration’. The English word ‘innovation’ dates back to the mid-1400s and means ‘renewal or change’. Therefore, innovation can be seen to be a process that renews what already exists and does not have to be something new. In essence, innovation has little to do with invention or creation.
Digging deeper and examining a fundamental difference between innovation and invention, the word invention dates back to the early 1400s and is derived from the Old French noun, invencion, ‘a find or discovery’, and directly from the Latin verb, invenire, ‘to come upon’. Both pre-date ‘innovation’ and relate to the creation of something new.
Not surprisingly, ‘improvement’ is an Anglo-French term dating back to the mid-1400s and was originally derived from emprouwer, ‘to turn to profit’. In the mid-1600s it developed a more generic meaning associated with the production of something better. This may give reason to why improvement has such a rich history during the industrial era and in the business sphere today.
So, how will the etymology of innovation, invention and improvement help us today? How does this help leaders in providing the best educational possibilities for students? I mean, if there is no benefit to the students or staff, why do something?
With school leaders having ‘three eyes’, it keeps them honest and focused on their core purpose of tailoring an educational experience for students in their schools, in mentoring their staff to be evolving educational experts and in advancing educational outcomes globally. That’s a lot of responsibility and that is why it is important for our leaders in schools to have ‘three eyes’.
I see ‘three eyes’ as a model and mind-frame that is best illustrated using concentric circles interlocking with each other with the purpose of cultivating the educational journey of all stakeholders, encompassing students, parents and staff.
Figure 1.1 – The Three Eyes
A school must have leaders who are producing new ideas, producing new thinking and creating an educational landscape and experience in ways that have not been previously imagined. These leaders need to be bold in their thinking and with the creation of their ideas, but they need to be learnèd in their knowledge because they need to know more than just the ‘what’ of their creation, they need to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Radical educational inventors tend to picture and articulate the ‘what’ but cannot substantiate, under scrutiny, the ‘how’ or ‘why’. Leaders who are radical inventors can do more harm than good.
Effective school leaders will balance their new thinking with how this will impact on students, staff and parents of the school and what benefit it will bring to those key stakeholders. It will not restrict the creation of new ideas but rather focus it to the core and will assist them in answering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.
One of the most influential speeches I have listened to was delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in education who has focused his research around challenging the current (existing) model of education. His speech has been seen by millions of educators around the world and has been the basis of some exciting work in the United Kingdom, particularly with the Innovation Unit. His work often inspires educators as it recognised the individuality of all learners and the inherent difficulties with the mass-produced education system. However, while many educational leaders would agree with his work and views, few have been bold enough to invent a new schooling system.
As a school we had the privilege of collaborating with a number of schools in an Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) program called LearningFrontiers which was a collection of schools who shared an interest in increasing school engagement coming together to form clusters in five cities across the country (Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra). Working alongside leaders across sectors and states, these hubs set about finding and designing new ways to engage students in learning. During one such session, we worked with Aaron Tait and Dave Faulkner from Education Changemakers. What came out of this program for us was the introduction of the Academies of Excellence.
The Academies of Excellence program has allowed us not only to focus on the strengths of our local community and environment, but it has also allowed us to forge forward in several areas that would not be possible in the mainstream educational ‘factories’, as articulated by Sir Ken Robinson. Having vertical classes, with students in Years 7-12 working on common and individual projects, is something new in education; few schools are doing this. The Academies of Excellence program does not treat all students as ‘batches based on their year of birth’, but rather as authentic co-creators of learning and knowledge with their peers and their mentors. That’s a fundamental premise of the personalisation and individual learning experiences at our school. A student’s year group does not define them as a learner.
So, what about improvement? What improvements have occurred at SMGS in recent times?
I think the single biggest improvement has been the acceptance that education is a dynamic journey and one that is constantly needing professionals to be adapting and improving what they do in their classrooms and in their practice. There is an adage that ‘no school can rise above its staff room’ and that is not wrong at all. The collective expertise in our staff room continues to improve and increase as our staff come together as a community of professionals. Our staff are always looking for ways to improve not only their teaching skills but their content knowledge, in new and exciting ways.
So much of our improvement is building upon what we already had. That’s not to say that what we had, or once were, was not good, but rather it acknowledges that improvement is about the evolution of people, processes and products. Improved policies, improved systems and improved educational outcomes have been a cornerstone of the last five years. Constant refinement and improvements have taken place and we have now become a place where the topic is not about change, but about improvement. Conversations are centred on how can we improve something, rather than change something. Our culture has improved as a result.
A key characteristic for our school is about ensuring that our improvements are not about short-term gains or deceptive market differentiation. Our improvements are about the importance of providing a positive educational journey for all our learners, including our staff. We are not focused on temporary improvement, but sustained improvement that has a positive impact on the educational experience of our community of learners. That means that sometimes hard decisions are made, but those decisions have a clear ‘how’ and ‘why’. These are the two fundamental questions that should be asked of any leader with an improvement agenda.
So, we are left with the original intent of this article, a discussion about innovation.
To me, innovation is about the ‘value-added’ aspect of education. It is about what we offer that is of great worth to our community of leaners, to our stakeholders and to our wider profession. It’s about overcoming the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the educational journey and it is often measured by culture, attitudes and beliefs rather than on a quantitative scale. Innovation is more than just a tangible outcome, it’s about the people within an organisation.
Educational innovation is about providing new features in the educational experience and in reconceptualising what we already have. It’s about being not just problem-identifiers, but problem-solvers, with a focus on people, products and processes. It’s about the successful conversion of new concepts and knowledge into new ways of being or doing.
It’s fair to say that most innovations will be improvements but not all improvements will be innovations. In simple terms, innovation is about doing things differently, whereas improvement is doing things better.
The journey for the past five years has been about innovating our school by finding different ways to do things that will lead to improvement. The most fundamental aspect has been innovating our curriculum and assisting each student to reach their academic potential. Our learning culture has improved because we are delivering education differently; our students are more actively engaged in their learning because we are delivering our education differently; and we have challenged the traditional model of teaching by using our own experiences during these innovations to gain new knowledge and to further refine and find ways of doing what we do even better and in new ways.
We are looking forward to continuing our growth as a community of learners and as a profession committed to providing the best educational journey for our students. We will continue to invent, improve and innovate to provide an outstanding schooling experience for your child.
So, next time you read or hear about innovation, consider it carefully. Is it is really innovation?