Roy Blatchford reflects on innovation in the context of education leadership and policy making…
A defining characteristic of our age is that the extraordinary becomes the commonplace, at a faster and faster rate. The near horizon is being transformed before our eyes.
The tech FAANGs – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – are busy shaping our lifestyles. From drones delivering grocery orders into smart homes to driverless cars being tested on the streets of Oxford and Cambridge; from Saudi Arabia’s new vision of the dreamers’ city of Neom on the edge of the Red Sea to 3D photocopiers replacing traditional surgery.
Underpinning this phenomenon of the extraordinary becoming the everyday lies human invention in a teeming world of more than seven billion people, interconnected through social media in a fashion humankind has never before experienced.
‘Innovation’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the alteration of something established’. In the context of educational leadership and policy making, I see this formula operating: Innovation = Ambition + Change + Delivery. In practice, leaders in the education business are acutely aware of these three constituent and dynamic parts.
Good intentions are laudable, but not enough.
Achieving excellence in any sphere of public life is rooted in leaders caring more than others think is wise and risking more than others think is safe. Further, excellence is rooted in leaders dreaming more than others think is practical and expecting more than others think is possible.
These ambitions to improve upon previous best have to be tempered by context and culture. Ambitions need to be skilfully shared by leaders and policy makers so that ‘followers’ share the same ambitions.
Clarity is paramount, matched by timely communication. We can all think of good decisions failing to be implemented because they were poorly communicated. Sadly, poor decisions, well communicated, can find their way into practice.
In education settings today – in schools, colleges and universities – true ambition is about realising a step change in outcomes for young people entering a global community and market-place. Students in the twenty-first century are destined through their working lives to move within and between countries with a frequency undreamt of in previous generations.
Questing to achieve world class excellence demands a hearts and minds commitment to embrace change amongst all stakeholders. Respectful leaders, from primary headteachers to local authority directors of education, in large part determine that climate.
Shrewd policy makers recognise that a cardinal feature of change is that some people will misunderstand or misinterpret what is being proposed. Some will be inclined to build walls, while others will build windmills and become key personnel in effecting improvement.
Developing capacity in senior staff entails climbing inside their skin and genuinely listening. Staff need reassuring that while change is permanent, individual changes are not to be perceived as negating historic and valued ways of working.
Leaders regularly talk about ‘stuff happens’ and the unintended consequences of legislation. The wisest amongst them remind us that education reform is a people business in which, following a crucial piece of communication, the recipients will observe: ‘I don’t remember exactly what you said. I do remember how you made me feel’.
First, leaders and policy makers need to create a ‘we‘ not an ‘I‘ culture. They must set out to see the best in people, dwell on the positive, acknowledge and applaud success, while at the same time being focused on rooting out obstacles which delay desired outcomes.
Second, leadership at all levels needs to place great store by how well it can create ‘a sense of urgency at the right time’ and a shared ‘it’s never too late’ mentality amongst teams of colleagues. Thoughtful and convincing leadership recognises that not everything can be achieved at the same time, but that colleagues can ‘shift gear’ for a sustained period of time if there is the collective ambition to transform and innovate.
Third, leaders should look inwards in their organisations in order to secure wise and tested ideas; and outwards to seize innovation which can be shaped in the best interests of students and staff. Great design lies in stitching together the best practice from within and outside the organisation.
Fourth, those with final executive responsibilities should value ‘soft power’: the ability to achieve influence by building networks and communicating compelling narratives. And they must, as ambassadors for reform, thrive on and enjoy balancing professional autonomy and sharp accountability.
Few education leaders would claim to be innovators in the mould of Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg and James Dyson.
But they might well argue that within their own settings and institutions they are often seeking to alter something established. They are questioning orthodoxies and driving change to ensure improved social, physical and intellectual outcomes for young people.
The nineteenth century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Many years working in the education system tell me rather that teachers are the real unacknowledged legislators.
Theirs is a decisive influence upon the predispositions and habits of early years’ children; the formative skills and knowledge of primary pupils; the academic and vocational pathways of secondary aged students; the attitudes and expectations of the next generation of teachers in training; the research interests of university students.
The future comes upon us ever faster. We search for a language to describe a screen- obsessed world.
What remains a truism is that no school, college, university or education system can in the end be better than the quality and innovative thinking of its teaching force. Policy makers and leaders ignore this fact at their peril.
Roy Blatchford CBE is Founding Director of the National Education Trust, and is currently working on education system reform in the Middle East. His collection of essays ‘Success is a Journey’ will be published by John Catt in Spring 2018…
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