Disruption is essential to Innovation in Education

17 Oct

Reinventing Innovation

10/09/2013

student

 Image: Shutterstock

“Yes, he has got the right answer but the method is all wrong. Where is the method?! It was given in the class so many times, but he does not do it! ”

I stared at the teacher dumbfounded.

(No, I was not about to comment on the language or tone used, though that was pretty objectionable too.)

This was against all the principles of good education that had been shared at every conference, teacher training programme and seminar I had ever attended or led. Learning was supposed to be a journey of discovery. This was standardisation to the level of micro management, approximates to learning by rote, and leaves no room for individual growth, let alone individual pace within the system. It is a system designed for efficiency, geared to a specific goal. Change the goalposts, and the system flounders. The goalposts, of course, do not stay the same ever, and this system is clearly not future proof.

The quest is always for higher standards in a system, not mass standardisation at the last mile. If every notebook in the nation is expected to look exactly like every other, then all we are doing is raising a nation of replicators. They are trained to repeat what has been done before, not to create and bring rigour to their inventions or innovations.

Innovation often starts in the classroom where any exploration or creative journey into the subject is clearly inefficient use of class time. The rote learning method with micro standardisation is the most efficient way to demonstrate results, with the consequence of leaving little room to develop the higher faculties of the student. If a child cannot ask disruptive questions, then their learning has been stunted. If they are not appreciated for breaking the mould and creating new solutions, then they are merely being trained to be followers–and that is not where the premiums head.

Innovation needs to extend beyond classroom content and classroom processes to school systems. Local administrators and policy makers play a key role here–those that are supportive have found massive improvements in school achievements in their areas. Others, we hear, are keen to maintain the status quo and do no more. These areas tend to stagnate.

This carries through beyond schools, into higher education and research laboratories too, where hierarchies determine the degrees of freedom (and credit) received.

Creativity is a habit as much as it is a discipline. The process of creativity needs to be fostered if innovations are to be scored and used. Strong hierarchies, where research agenda are set by those of a previous generation, may not always be the best way to plan future knowledge building. Fresh entrants are often bubbling with new ideas, many scholars admit their best work was done in their twenties and thirties. The brain, we know, tends to atrophy with age. An innovation culture must do its best to capture the ideas of the young and foster them to create value.

Innovation, by definition is a disruptive process, it needs disruptive attitudes to foster innovation cultures. An excess of respect, lack of humour and continual deferring to those who came before are not always ideal. While I see many go tut-tut and say the young are disrespectful, an excess of ‘respect’ is stultifying. Let me say it straight out–many Indians are over sensitive about hierarchy and respect. And the continual deference to the guru- figure stems the exchange of ideas and the discovery of new pathways. Sometimes (and it is reported in less than hushed whispers), the incentive to innovate is lost when credit is taken by the ‘seniors’.

The process of innovation starts with the meeting of ideas and process. This is where strong structures of mentorship, not just hierarchies of process, are useful. The role of the teacher, research guide and even workplace senior is critical to innovation. Their experience and networks can foster the idea and bring it to fruition in ways the young ideator may not even be aware of, and thus incapable of implementing.

What does this mean for the learning leader? It means they need to change the way they do things. It means they need to include a wider range of opinions and options in what they discuss. It means, they should let students have some fun while they are learning–to take a little side path once in a while, a little self exploration before coming back to what they ought to know anyway.

Things are changing slowly but surely globally and in India. Singapore, as they often are, have realised that creativity that leads to innovation will be the growth engine of the future and have now changed their curriculum and assessments to grow such creativity. Many other countries are investing in fostering a research and innovation culture. India does not speak of creativity and innovation directly in its education policy but the introduction of continuous assessments in class give teachers enough room to foster it, if they choose to–and are able to handle the workload. Unfortunately, this is not enough.

Innovations in the classroom do exist, but many of them remain underexposed, and so under-utilised. Micro-innovations need to be fostered and shared. STiR (disclaimer, I am on their advisory board) does stellar work in gathering, sifting and fostering such classroom innovations and seeding an innovation culture in schools. Little things make a difference–celebrating teachers who find new ways to help students learn, listening and nurturing smarter ways of working, sharing content or a process that increases student achievements. The need is equally great in higher education where innovations are required to jumpstart the process of quality enhancements without which India has no claim to a place at the global table.

It is time to accept dissent as part of the discussion, to be secure enough to deal with change and to be smart enough to create new ways of working.

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