Innovation in Education – Easier Said than Done

by David Bryfman

Good educators are optimists. They walk into their classrooms every day believing that they can transform the lives of their learners. They do so by facilitating experiences that infuse learners with knowledge and skills that can also enhance society and the world.

These educators recognize, as much as anyone else, that the world is changing at a very rapid rate. They are regularly reminded of these changes when their students bring their new gadgets to schools, dress in strange clothing, and speak a foreign lingo. Educators also know that these students have access to more information than any other generation in history and that paradoxically that this Wikipedia generation can simultaneously know more and know less about any given topic.

In 2018, it is inconceivable to imagine that given the range, magnitude, and pace of change that the world is going through, that any human centered organization would be able to remain relevant without bringing about significant change and innovation.

But when educators are confronted with the directive to innovate they are often left paralyzed. It is my contention that education, as a sector, has fundamental attributes that require specific attention. Despite these differences, innovation remains critical for education in this ever-changing world.

So, why is it that educators, who see the need for change struggle with the concept of innovation? How is it possible that after reading so many articles and attending so many lectures, workshops and professional development days about Design Thinking, Generation Z, and a gazillion other creative thinking practices, that by in large education today remains relatively unchanged?

In part, the response to this dilemma is the failure to recognize that education is continually adapting. These changes might not be the more touted disruptive changes that we often see highlighted in innovation spaces. But good educators are always tinkering to make incremental changes in order to remain relevant. However, the changes necessary in education today are often the large-scale ones that contemporary learners demand and require. And while it is true that educators operate in systems and structures that are often beyond the capacity for individuals to bring about large change, this too conceals the fact that by in large educators resist change because it is threatening and extremely difficult.

Allow me to offer three possible explanations as to why educators are so resistant to innovate:

1. From Rebuke to Inspiration

Often when educators are told that they need to change their practices, it is framed in ways that are perceived to be deriding of their current performance. While it might be true that all people are more inclined to focus on the negative, educators when tasked to change almost always hear that they have become obsolete and that the world has passed them by. What others might be framing as opportunity, educators hear largely as rebuke.

Instead, educators need to be challenged to grow and develop even faster than their learners. The reason for educators needing to innovate must be posed as to a profession that continually needs to be nimble and flexible because they are on the cutting-edge of societal change. This is a message that ought to inspire educators who rightly view themselves as providing the necessary bridges between generations.

2. From the Classroom to Research and Design

From the morning bell to afternoon dismissal, teachers are busy. When educators hear innovation they immediately panic because they do not know when they will have time to do any of the necessary planning to implement anything new. When other sectors talk about innovation they usually talk about introducing a Research and Development team to their company. When schools introduce innovation, they are usually talking about more work for their staff. The answer to this dilemma is simple, if you want educators to innovate, take something off their plate and give them the necessary time and freedom to dream and to change.

But even if time was carved out for educators to innovate, something else is at play, which is psychologically difficult for educators to overcome. When planning for the future there will always exist a cohort of people needing to learn in the present. While educators might be able to create for future generations, it is difficult to acknowledge that one’s current students will be penalized just because of timing. Therefore, unlike other industries which can wait for a better product, education must engage in practices of innovation that enhance the current situation while simultaneously striving for ultimate change.

3. From Innovating Practices to an Innovative Vision

When educators are presented with the need to innovate they are often shown new curriculum, shiny gadgets and exciting websites and apps. As long as the infrastructure supports it, with some training, most educators are able to adopt these products fairly easily.

But good educators realize that unless the educational vision changes everything else is cosmetic. When companies present innovation to educators they are often thinking about the dissemination of product. What educators often require when it comes to innovation is a new shared understanding and agreement that the goals of education, and the outcomes by which student and teacher performance will be measured, are what is most in need of change. This is not the message of most workshops and certainly not what is factored into most apps and websites. When innovation is required in education the transformations required are usually ones that can only be fostered with complete institutional support, encouragement, and incentives.

All this to say, that innovation in education remains necessary and difficult. The models and processes from other industries, most notably those where the creation of products is the measure of success, are insufficient in education. It is not that educators do not want to innovate. It’s just that when challenged to innovate educators must be approached in the right tone, provided with the necessary resources, and be asked to tackle the right questions. In 2018, the optimistic educator today remain one of society’s greatest assets. Empowered in in the right ways these educators will continue to innovate in order to ensure that they continue to transform the lives of individuals, society, and the world in which we live.

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David BryfmanDr. David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project. David completed his PhD in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU, focusing on the identity development of adolescents in formal and informal educational settings. Prior to moving to New York, David worked in educational institutions in Australia, Israel, and North America. His current work focuses on bringing innovative pedagogy and practices to educational settings across North America.