Get a hundred teachers together at a conference on innovation in education and there’s a very particular atmosphere in the room. Excitement, hope and passionate enthusiasm mingle with fear about the future , insecurity about current practice, and curiosity about the practical demands of the rapid technological revolution.
Hosted by the Guardian, the Innovation in Education conference on Thursday demonstrated one thing above all: transformative changes in how the most dynamic countries educate their young people are already upon us, and we are falling behind.
Keynote speaker, Lord Puttnam, warned that “we have not prepared ourselves for the rate of change or the consequences of change,” adding that politicians he’d recently met in the Department for Education “aren’t looking at the reality of our current context but instead are looking at education as they wish it was and as it used to be”.
The danger, he said is that education itself will suffer, “and young people will give up on us”.
Teachers and school leaders who bravely grasp emerging opportunities to re-imagine how teaching is expressed and experienced, however, will be serving their pupils the very best they can.
New technologies and the creative opportunities they offer teachers who want to innovate were a central focus of the day; it was acknowledged however that the journey will not be easy or comfortable.
The critical role of school leaders in accepting innovation that may challenge traditional authority structures was discussed in one panel session, with NAHT general secretary, Russell Hobby, noting that “technologies are subversive so it needs a whole new way of thinking about where you get your authority from. Leaders will have to develop a degree of humility.”
Professional development must also be urgently re-imagined, with emphasis on how teachers are to be supported as they strive to adopt new ways of working as a core part of their job, urged Stephen Crowne of Cisco.
One session explored how changes to the curriculum will impact on students’ skills in the 21st century. Sam Dutton, a developer advocate with Google, highlighted the fact that while children use applications with ease, “computing is not just a digital skill. It’s reshaping our world in ways we don’t always understand”. Because of this, children, he suggested, need to understand far more than they currently do about the nuts and bolts of computing. Only then can they influence how new technologies alter their lives as they grow up, at the same time gaining commercially attractive skills.
A session on the incentives which drive innovation gave four speakers just five minutes each to make their case. Stephen Breslin, chief executive of FutureLab, looked at how difficult it is for novel approaches in teaching to translate from small, disconnected pilots to mainstream practice. A reliable driver of true innovation, he said, is need.
Psychological barriers to change are already being addressed by some educationalists. One speaker described how computer games could be adapted to incorporate curriculum demands as a teaching method that truly enthused pupils. Another explained how iPhones had been given out to an entire class, to be used to enhance learning in every lesson.
True innovation isn’t about the sophistication of your technology, discussion at a Q+A session concluded, but is about an unstinting willingness to welcome new approaches into classrooms.
It also means school leaders being not just open to new ideas but positively keen to foster the dynamism and creativity that uncertainty brings for teachers and pupils who are increasingly co-learners in a fast-changing education journey.
By Louise Tickle