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Innovation in education – Moving deliberately to build a better future

Nick Alchin, Head of East Campus
10 August 2021

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Historian Benot Godin recounts the tale that in 1636, Henry Burton, a Church of England minister was found guilty of innovating, against King Edwards VI’s earlier Proclamation against Those that Doeth Innovate. While Burton had his ears cut and was sentenced to life imprisonment, innovation is now a central value of our society—and this small tale shows how attitudes can utterly transform over time.

It’s not just attitudes, however, that change—most social and economic norms do, and we are all living the results. One innovation, for example, has been the move from general to highly specialised work. As author Matt Ridley writes, we sometimes forget the vast benefits that this brings us; we now only need work for a fraction of a second so as to be able to afford to turn on an electric lamp for an hour, providing the quantity of light that would have required a whole day’s work if you had to make it yourself (by collecting and refining sesame oil or lamb fat to burn in a simple lamp), as much of humanity did in the not so distant past.

Innovation makes this possible; and the modern world could not be built without meaningful innovation. The trick is in the world ‘meaningful’—because of course in any marketplace of ideas there are some that are not worth following; Adrian Daub writes one of the internet age’s greatest works of collective satire may be the 5,875 Amazon reviews for the Hutzler 571 banana slicer, which make mockery of the mania for buzzy innovative solutions in search of a problem and remind us that new is not necessarily better.

I’m always looking at other sectors, because something that works in manufacturing, finance or tech may also work for education. Or it may not. The current preoccupation with ‘disruptive innovation’ created by the tech boom seems to have become the model for how many think about innovation. Of course, some things about the tech industry are indeed unprecedented (the technology bit, for instance); others are business as usual (the industry bit). It seems to me that while we rejoice in the opportunities provided by technology, we should also note the downsides, for example in exacerbating rather than closing existing inequalities, or being used to empower extremists. Caveat emptor!

So in that light, we can cast Mark Zuckerburg’s famous motto of move fast and break things as a marketing slogan applying more to software (or arguably, democracy, sadly!) than to the physical world of things and people. It may not, for example, apply to the design of a new elevator, bridge, aeroplane or surgical procedure. Might it apply to schools?

Sectors as different as education, power generation, finance and software deal with things as different as children’s minds, factories, balance sheets and programming languages; there are natural and appropriate differences. So there are questions to ask when we are (frequently) contacted by tech wizards selling innovation and disruption; or by those in other industries encouraging us to copy what they are doing because it works in their sector. Sometimes it works (thank goodness for video conferencing) but often it does not (we really do not want to track students’ typing rates on laptops).

Rather than moving fast and breaking things, schools take the approach of building things. Which is usually slower— and a good deal harder—than breaking them. But that’s okay because it’s how innovation works over the long haul. In How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley compellingly draws on examples from agriculture to artificial intelligence in demonstrating that, in general, we expect too much of an innovation in the first 10 years—and too little in the first 20. The reason for this, he suggests, is that until the innovation is made practical, reliable, and affordable—a process of many years—its promise remains unfulfilled.

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So what does innovation look like in schools?

A lot depends on what level you are thinking about. A school that travels in a boat from country to country is highly innovative in one sense—but might have a very traditional curriculum or very traditional teacher-student relationships. Similarly, a more traditional looking school (classrooms and desks) might hide a lot of innovation in these areas. I’d suggest that this is often the case; that schools have been through a lot of innovation, despite the sometimes similar physical spaces. If you are over 40, then what you will find in many schools today is likely to be very different from what you experienced, the results of many interlocking innovations. Much of this will be invisible to the casual observer but together it has formed a quiet revolution. If we are to name them, these changes include:

  • greater freedom for students
  • more focus on growth and less on control
  • far greater attention to wellbeing and overall health
  • more explicit attention to values and ethics
  • much less individual work, and much more group work
  • more presentations and projects
  • discussion of global problems such as sustainability, inequality and development
  • a conceptual focus that seeks to create transferable skills and understandings
  • a desire for student agency and input
  • a move from punishment to restorative justice
  • a move to develop critical skills
  • a rebalancing toward mastery/competence from simply knowledge acquisition
  • a rebalancing toward interdisciplinary learning from pure subject specialism
  • a move towards personalised over standardised education
  • less hierarchical student-teacher relationships

There may be no one thing that’s utterly different from the past—good teachers have often embraced these ideas in their classrooms—but they are now explicit, embedded, and very much the topic of conversation and foci for deliberate, incremental improvement. That’s not to say we have gotten things completely right; of course there is plenty to do and improve; but these and other things really do add up to a radically improved experience and outcomes for our students over time. And that, as much as anything else, is innovation.
Over this year a series of events involving our students and global thinkers in education explored some key ideas and examined some of the ways that UWCSEA has brought innovation to our educational model:

  • Event 1: Navigating Learning in the 21st Century
  • Event 2: Digital learning and disruption
  • Event 3: If not now, when? From access to equity
  • Event 4: Human-centred curriculum: redefining measures of success

Scan the QR code to find out more and watch our webinars:



Daub, A,. (2020) What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley FSG Original. | Rogers, E. (2003) Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press. | Godin, B (2010) ’Meddle Not With Them That Are Given to Change’: Innovation as Evil Project on the Intellectual History of Innovation Working Paper No. 6 | Ridley, M (2020). How Innovation Works and why it Flourishes in Freedom. Harper Books. | Vinsel, L. and Russell, A. (2020) The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. Currency Books.
Adapted from original blog post on 3 February 2021—visit Nicks blog Education, Schools and Culture to explore more: