Our Community

Creating an innovation culture in schools and universities

January 26, 2021

Innovation as a concept is often misunderstood, misrepresented and, quite honestly, easy to write off as a buzzword that's just not applicable to the day in, day out operation of a school or university. That's understandable. We are surrounded by stories of revolutionary new innovations in technology, transport, medicine and yes, in education too. The stories are big and bold tales of something totally new and exciting.

Danny Crichton writes on Techcrunch that "Few areas have been as hopeful and as disappointing as innovation in education. Education is probably the single most important function in our society today, ... with the rise of the internet, it seemed like education was on the cusp of a complete revolution. Today, though, you would be excused for not seeing much of a difference between the way we learn and how we did so twenty years ago”

But Crichton is really talking about large scale disruption, instead of smaller scale transformations. As a teacher in a K12 school in Italy, or a business school in Malaysia, there is just too much to focus on in supporting learners within the existing system, to really spare time and energy to game out how it might be disrupted entirely. Education in every school and university is part of a wider, systemic supersystem, which generally hands down the instruction or impulse to change from the top and, according to Fullan, most often just frustrates the teachers as "another new initiative" that misses the point. No wonder innovation is getting bad PR in the grass roots of education.

Innovation is not always a world changing new app or a levitating train. Innovation can be as simple as a fresh take on an established process, a twist on the familiar that reframes its purpose and capacity. This is what we are looking at here today; innovations that improve things for the stakeholders in your organisation or institution are absolutely possible, and actually add to a wider culture of progress in education as these ideas spread and culminate.

Creating and sustaining a culture that supports this level of innovation doesn't come from a guest speaker who does a two-hour design thinking workshop then shuttles off to the next school. There has to be more. A lot more.

Whether the innovations are to happen in teaching and learning, marketing and admissions, or communication and administration, the institution-wide structures and culture must be there to support it. Here are some ideas on how to build towards that.

All on the same page?

Creating an innovation culture starts with making sure the whole team understands where the organisation is headed. If there is no strong understanding of organisational values, mission and vision, then innovation has no spark.

To ensure there is a supportive culture around new ideas, there needs to be a shared sense of direction, which gives team members the confidence to speak up and suggest new approaches, or even to know which exisiting areas, process, courses or products might need to be revamped.

This is a central part of sustaining a collaborative culture of innovation, but certainly just the start.

An innovation culture needs to breathe

Rigidity is the enemy of iteration. The more people are boxed into tight-fitting job descriptions, and carry out the same tasks with the same people, the less chance there is of innovation. Decision-making at the top, filtering to action down "below", creates a top-down culture that separates people by department and fails to build a transversal picture of how the organization actually works.

By looking more at skills, interests, passions, and competences in your team, it will be apparent that Emma and Alice would make a great team to look at how the teaching workload could be lessened, but Emma and Sergio together have the best skill set for setting up a new feedback system for the students. People move around, cross collaborate, and get out of their silos with each and every shift.

Bring in diverse team members and start with a problem, not an idea.

Rigidity also means answering the question before you've given people room to think about it, and when we are talking we are simply repeating what we already know. Listen, create space, and see what comes of it. "How can we reduce the attrition rate in the law degree program", or " how can we involve parents more in the grade 7 reading project"? When fluidity becomes a constant, we start to see the possibilities around us.

This all means giving people space. Time to reflect, and time to discuss and share. This is certainly not the staff meeting that Jason Fried has tried for years to get us to avoid at all costs. This is a working environment in which informal bouncing of ideas is encouraged among staff, and spaces are available in which to do it. This is an organization where structures facilitate engagement and not just compliance.

How will the seed grow?

So many good ideas just never see the light of day: the suggestion boxes that are rarely opened, the naysaying culture that finds problems in anything new and dresses it up as "just being practical". There must be support from the leadership to give good ideas the oxygen and nourishment they need to grow. Remember that even in ideas that objectively won't work, there is sometimes the seed of something that will.

A lot of literature is devoted to creating a reward culture to recognise great ideas, but what does that recognition means if your idea is eventually just quietly parked or, worse still, never even gets out of the garage to start with. Most of us would much rather see our idea being properly explored and implemented than getting a pat on the back and an employee of the month mug. Follow through on new ideas and bring in others to flesh it all out.

Support all voices, and ensure that those voices can reach you. Making sure your team are not rigidly siloed in fixed roles is one thing, but those barriers can be vertical as well as horizontal. Ensuring there is an effective communication and feedback system that is taken seriously is one way to make sure that there is no ivory tower syndrome that stifles innovation before it even has a chance.

Finally, be prepared to take risks. Jeff Bezos said that Amazon had developed the tolerance to get it wrong 9 times out of ten, in order to reap the rewards of that one great idea. Now Jeff is not short of a few dollars, and in education we are talking about a real human impact of getting things wrong, rather than a few cents off Amazon’s share price.

Nonetheless, a risk-averse environment is where great change will happen.

Someone in a leadership role has to be willing to champion ideas that are perhaps unpopular at first or will cause disruption before there are results. This is where a common goal, sense of purpose and shared values will pay dividends. Participative, values-based decision-making is not always right, but it's never wrong.

An innovation culture means a more resilient organisation

The same people in the same meetings come up with the same ideas, but the world is changing quickly around us and just won't wait. Education reform is coming, and whether we are talking about education 4.0 or a wider systemic disruption to a new, learner directed paradigm, a team that can step back, think, change and adapt will always be the one you want around you.

As we started out by saying, innovation can be at all levels, and doesn't mean reinventing the wheel. By starting small and building in space to get creative, you never know what your school, college or university could find. At NEO Academy, we are constantly changing and adapting; helping to provide fresh ideas for our partners, or opening up space to hear from them in return. It is the most rewarding feeling to share that learning with others, through the many ways we help our partners succeed.

Check back later for a #NEOchats video, where we discuss these ideas and more with an innovation expert in the education area.

This is some text inside of a div block.