Exploring the learnscape

Developments in how we teach and learn are often blind sighted by bad data and lack of foresight, no matter how good our intentions.

by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

Education 30 April 2019

Innovation in education today has become a huge talking point compared to what it was in the past and is found featured in daily and political discourse more than ever before. People in business, education, and society at large are now asking what we want from education, whether it be a more balanced and rounded sort or something different entirely. Yet, as with most things, turning vision or talk into action is difficult – and when it comes to innovation in education, the story is no different.

Nowadays everyone, everywhere, agrees that innovation is important. But what is innovation in education? What feeds it? What shapes it? What prevents it? Education is one of the sectors with one of the highest levels of investment of GDP expenditure in OECD countries – where an average 6% is spent on education. One would expect such a sector to invest a lot in innovation and continuous improvement, but there is little conscious investment in this agenda. Is funding then, a prerequisite to innovation? Many would argue yes but few would say that innovation springs in totality from the investment.

In fact, one of the reasons why spending more GDP expenditure fails to correlate with increased levels of innovation is that in education it is mainly devoted to staff costs, leaving little room for discretionary or unusual expenses. A lot of innovation just comes from policy reform. New ministers come in at a relatively fast pace with a new, often worthwhile, purpose and mandate some changes which result in innovation – paradoxically leading to innovation fatigue in the teachers on the ground who, at the end of the day, are tasked with implementing it. This is because there is simply not enough time for them to get to grips with some reforms before another wave of reform hits. There is this little space to talk about the more usual innovation policy which consists of empowering actors in a system so that they generate positive change bottom-up.

Today you would be hard-pressed to point to one country and say that it is getting it really right. But there are countries who are getting things right in many ways. In some places, the idea of innovation is well articulated – in France for example – even though they often lack the resources behind the concept to achieve their better-defined goals. In the US, there is a strong innovation drive which is more focused on technology and on an entrepreneurial mindset – yet it has yet to be understood if this is leading to any actual change. Unfortunately, we do not have many domestic data on what is changing or not, which makes it rather difficult for countries to know whether they are on the track they want, not to mention if they are on a good track.

One of the difficulties in measuring innovation at the most fundamental level is that innovation can happen anywhere – while we cannot measure everything. We thus have to be clear about the area of innovation at which we are looking. At OECD, what we just measured as innovation in education is the magnitude of the change in over 150  educational  practices during a decade, mainly teaching and learning practices, teacher professional development practices, and relationship with the stakeholders. (Other areas of innovation could have been new product adoption, change in administrative procedures, or new work organizations, for example, but we did not have enough international information about that.) We have also grouped them into broader categories which include the likes of active learning in science, learning through memorization, students learning without teacher input, homework or assessment practices. A few others are more teacher-focused such as peer-to-peer learning and teacher training.

By analyzing the state of educational practice in 2016 compared to 2006 through international surveys, we were able to document a moderate change in the overall educational practices students were exposed to – so a noticeable change that is not negligible but that is also not large or spectacular on average. For example, between 2006 and 2016, the share of secondary students who frequently practiced their math skills on computers went up from 8% to 31% in an average OECD country – this we would argue is an innovation in their educational experience as what was a marginal practice has significantly scaled up. Same if there is a contraction: for example when the share of students having access to a tablet during their reading lessons drops from 83% to 51%, as was the case on average. Systemic innovation is the emergence of something new or significantly different from before.

So where have we seen the most innovation? The role of technology in the classroom is perhaps the most obvious one – due to the more frequent use of IT in class (in spite of a small decrease in the access to IT equipment). But perhaps more surprising is the increase in peer-to-peer learning between teachers everywhere. Teachers have become more collaborative as of late, and we are witnessing teachers actually talking to each other and comparing ideas and teaching methods. Innovation is often charged by collaboration and the strength of learning processes within a sector, just as much as by money and governmental oversight.

This is because issues are solved faster through such collaboration; two brains are better than one after all. Classic teacher training is often not as effective or useful in the classroom due to the time disconnect between formal training and practice. Teachers are therefore more likely to get more practical, hands-on learning in how to teach in the moment or through the discussions with their peers who are in a similar position. We think this change correlates with the adoption of digital tools, as it allows for faster exchanges of information between individuals. There has been a strong push in educational policy as of late in growing educational professional communities and encouraging this collaboration.

One of the difficulties is the lack of investment in knowledge dissemination, in evaluation and in research. Practices tend to get adopted, not always because their success is likely, but because they are the ones that teachers know how to implement (or some politicians or parents think they were helpful in their own education). The big challenge is for teachers to expand their teaching portfolio, but it is no small task – it means mastering new teaching techniques, but that sometimes means being less controlling, taking more risks, and getting out of their comfort zone.

Personally, I do not believe that what is taught in schools is as important as it is made out to be. What is important is how they are taught. I would be content with an educational system that rebalanced the transmission of knowledge content (technical skills across different domains) with higher order skills and social and emotional skills. One of the problems of schools today is that they, perhaps ironically, are teaching too much subject-wise. The schools I would want are more reflective and more creative, and as this takes time, they should probably drop some of the content being taught, and teach more deeply. However, people have been saying this for decades, and getting anything removed from a curriculum is very difficult as teachers can argue convincingly that everything is important in their discipline.

This is not me advocating for less knowledge; on the contrary, I am advocating deeper knowledge. Some  people say we no longer need to know anything as we can google it: I find it outright bizarre – after all, how do we know what questions to ask if we know nothing? Learning something gives us confidence in ourselves and our abilities to learn other things and grow, mental milestones of our experience on earth. While acknowledging the importance of personalized, tailored education, we need to keep in mind that schools are social institutions, and a curriculum provides students with a common basis to be part of a common society. This common understanding is the foundation of mutual understanding and collaboration, and a cornerstone of the functioning of society.

Nowadays, if you do not say the word artificial intelligence (AI) in your sentence, you risk losing people’s attention. This is another topic we are working on. In higher education, one of the biggest innovations we are anticipating is the implementation of early warning systems, which monitor student’s progression and alert teachers to the possibility, to name a couple of examples, that they are not engaging with their studies or are at risk of dropping out – reducing the disconnect between the student and the teacher. Some AI agent could help faculty interpret the data.

This is a very good thing because data is everything today and more of it is exactly what innovation in education needs. Currently, when it comes to good actionable data, education is woefully lacking – in spite of being a sector producing a lot of data. Without a better capture and analysis of data, we are less capable of reflecting on what does and what does not work in the education sphere – handicapped in our ability to make informed changes to practice, or target direct funding accordingly.

Innovation in education is a multifaceted affair. With better data, including on innovation, we can finally put to rest the question of what is needed, adapt our curriculum accordingly, prove our theories wrong or right, and ensure that education continues to improve so as to ensure that the students are best equipped to deal with an uncertain future. What we must remember throughout is that we also need to ensure that education remains meaningful and enjoyable, that the students learn more than just facts and techniques. They also have to play with ideas, understand good intentions and each other.