Too Much Innovation Can Be A Liability To The System

I'm paid to be impatient. In a role like Teaching & Learning Technologies Coordinator, I'm impatient for staff to pick up new pedagogy and to utilise the teaching and learning opportunities that our school's technology can provide. I'm impatient for change - for the school to become a better place, one that services students better, one that is more rewarding and meaningful for staff to work at and where students graduate with a base of skills, knowledge and dispositions to make their own way in our society and be well placed to take up whatever opportunities open up.

I'm sure many of you have seen this graphic somewhere.

I've most recently seen it used as part of a research conversation with teachers about their use of technology in the classroom, but it is used in a wide range of professions and situations around the globe. But it is very contextual. Ask my staff where I might sit on the bell curve and many of them will place me in the category of Innovator. But I've been reading connected educators' work for too long to know that would be very wrong. I think I'm actually in the Early Adopters (in the field of K-12 education) which means that most teachers I know within my own system don't see as big a picture as I can. The old adage of "the more you learn, the more you realise how little you actually know" is very true. Even so, I'm still in a category of impatience, wishing that others would or could see the compelling necessity (from my perspective) to really push to evolve and continually change practice, to trial new things and be creative.

Many teachers that I know don't share my sense of urgency. They have a different, slower pace and are harder to move from one mode of doing things to another. They feel anxious about new ways of doing things and sometimes are affronted by the suggestion of change. ("I'm an accomplished teacher. I've had plenty of happy, successful students doing things my way. Who are you challenging me to change? Leave me be to do my own thing.") This de-privatisation of practice is very threatening to some, not because they doubt their own choices in methodology and curricular delivery but they fear the judgement of impatient folk like me. And if one takes a broader look, what is the incentive to fast track change? What is the payoff for creative teachers?

Bill Kerr points out that the system we go through in order to become educators and then the system that employs us has a focus on "general skill level and adaptability but not brilliance or excellence in any particular area."

It's a bit of a double edged sword. We need creative educators to open new possibilities - I would say that all educators blogging or using social media for education would have be considered as creative and innovative - but we have mandated curriculum to cover. The popular thought is that time spent on creative new approaches is at the expense of focus on curriculum delivery by traditional pedagogy. I believe that you can still cover the curriculum requirements while pushing the boundaries but the other conundrum that I've experienced is the most creative and innovative teachers are often the most filled with doubt about their own (often exemplary practice) while there are many self satisfied teachers working in much the same manner they have used over the bulk of their career. I'm not trying to paint one group as superior to the other but to merely point out that these two groups exist (along with various shades of others in between) and that moving together as a unified group towards a collectively improved vision of education is a very difficult process.

Not that long ago, primary school teachers here in South Australia generally were left alone to make their own sense of the curriculum (as inconsistent and hard to decipher as it was at times) and run their own show within their classroom. This culture worked for most teachers in terms of comfort because you relied on your own self motivation for change and improvement in the craft of teaching and learning. Those who thought they had it figured out ran a similar program year in and year out, often never sharing their ideas with anyone. Often these teachers were loved by parents who had a nostalgic affinity with their child's description of their school days - so that status was guarded jealously shutting out too much professional interaction with younger, less experienced teachers. Leadership tended to leave teachers alone to "get on with it" and attend to the pressing needs of the budget, the constantly changing staffing formula and dealing with those problem kids who wouldn't comply in some of these more traditional classrooms. My own evolving practice was boosted by ending up next door in an open space unit ("good" teachers couldn't wait to get out of those into a closed wall room where their methods weren't so public) next to another never-satisfied-with-how-I'm-doing-things teacher who became my mentor, my team mate, my subversive conspirator and friend while constantly trying to reinvent a better way of enabling learning for the students in our charge. So, interestingly, progressive schools are now characterised by team work, co-planning, common vision, professional development targeted against that vision and leadership geared towards that continually improved future. Even less than ten years ago, that was a rarity. Educators looking for that sort of environment had to create it themselves.

From my observation, progressive schools are still a minority. There are still plenty of schools that could fit into the Late Majority or Laggards section of our system. Teachers at those schools are either frustrated and looking to find a place where their innovation and creativity will be applauded or be part of the "way things are done around here" but many others are quite content in the comfort of predictability and comparatively lower expectations of their practice. One might not even notice the difference here in South Australia if it weren't for the ten year appointment rule that shoehorns teachers out of one school and into another. I've seen teachers suffering culture shock as they come into environments that embrace change, pilot new approaches and emphasise team work and open examination of each other's classroom practice. They complain of unreasonable workloads, of grappling with new technologies far beyond their comfort zone and see the requirement of working in teams or buddies as a slight on their years of experience. [Those annoying teachers who are always trying new things are just putting unnecessary pressure on us to do more.] Success in one site does not translate to that same status in a new environment. But it's adapt or move on as these schools with clearly defined goals and vision cannot be held to ransom by individuals dragging their heels.

As one expands the view and steps back and look across a system, it's hard to see how valued these innovative schools are. Sure, every now and then, a school with a particular program or achievement is held up to the spotlight and applauded for its efforts but I don't see the compulsion or incentive (stick or carrot) for every school to be expected to keep up with the pace setters. Maybe, a system as large as a state public school department can only fund so much progression or just accepts that the Categories of Innovativeness is just a fact of life, a natural social system anomaly that can't be changed. I don't know. But in my role, in my impatient role, the larger view influences the smaller. There are many teachers who don't see the urgency, don't see how our rapidly changing world and society impacts in their classroom and just wish people like me would just back off and let them get on with the job.

From where I sit, these educators and these schools, are still the majority. Maybe the "tall poppy syndrome" that Australians are famous for is a reality in education. In the same way that teachers have their work cut out with students whose person is shaped by their life outside the classroom, maybe educational innovators are hard pressed to do more than just show possible pathways. Bill pointed to Tom Hoffmann's post about how US innovative educators are no safer in their jobs than anyone else maintaining the status quo, despite a nation-wide mantra of weeding out the laggards. With our own education debate being increasingly hijacked by politicians, it would be foolish to think that the same couldn't happen here. What constitutes an outstanding or innovative educator is very open to debate, depending on where you sit in Australian society.

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3 thoughts on “Too Much Innovation Can Be A Liability To The System

  1. pluke

    Nice post Graham. Like you, I too am feeling an increasing sense of impatience with colleagues slow on the uptake of ‘innovativeness’ in using technology to leverage learning. Wouldn’t it be great if innovative teachers were rewarded / remunerated appropriately – unlike the soon to be introduced Step 9 award for teachers in SA which seems to me to be just a thinly disguised payrise rewarding mediocrity.

  2. Bill Kerr

    hi Graham,

    Thanks. The original subject of Tom’s post was about Beth Aviv, an exemplary English teacher who was highly skilled in particular areas, for example, teaching about the Holocaust, a difficult and sensitive subject to teach.

    I did refer to IT a little in my post (since it’s a speciality of mine, too) but didn’t elaborate on it much. Without going into too much detail what you could say is that some IT skills are now regarded by “the system” as essential – eg. teacher’s word processing reports, systematic collecting and processing data for Julia etc. – whereas the creative aspects of IT – eg. creative blogging or developing computer programmming skills using scratch for starters or other innovative ideas – are optional.

    Some older teachers are uncomfortable with many aspects of IT because it is relatively new, it came about after they were born. I just wanted to differentiate out that side of the equation from my general point that the system does not encourage creativity beyond the point of when it becomes irreplaceable. So, all the system will expect you to do as a Teaching & Learning Technologies Coordinator is bread and butter stuff. No one will think (except you perhaps) you are not doing your job beyond that point. The system won’t pressure or encourage teachers in general beyond that. It’s really just luck if you find other teachers who will take up your more creative ideas. Good luck 😉

    I don’t say this from a cynical standpoint – I don’t feel cynical about people – but just trying to point out the reality of how the system works.

    1. Graham Wegner

      Bill, I did go back through and read Tom’s original post but in my usual fashion I selectively quoted a slab of your post to compliment the particular sidetrack my mind took with the combination of those posts plus my own experiences of late at school. You are right about system expectations being what they are – I think that reading and connecting widely with exceptional educators and what they manage to achieve sort of raises my expectations about what should be “essential”. In the world I inhabit via my laptop, I am one of the least exceptional people I know which really makes me feel like the “pretend expert” when back in my day job.


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