Sources of Education Innovation

Earlier, I claimed Ed-Tech is over-rated: It promises too much and delivers too little. Worse, the noise of EdTech obscures Education Innovation, which encompasses lot more than gadgets and apps. My point was that the Education Innovation happening away from the limelight of twenty-somethings, venture capital and conference circuits deserve attention. (See here)

The question is what innovation is really there in Education. Raphael's School of Athens makes a popular slide in Conferences, as the speakers often claim that the classrooms today look exactly as they were in Ancient Greece. That statement is symptomatic: It is instructive to pause at School of Athens and reflect on the claim - what counts and does not count as Innovation in the Conference Circuit.

Surely the classrooms do not look anything like Raphael had painted them. Raphael's school is an Open Portal, and don't have rows of chairs and tables, people seating in neat rows. There were no black, white or smart boards in Raphael's imagination. Jan Comenius created the textbook after Raphael's death. Besides, Raphael's school was also metaphorical (Virtual, we should say): He had philosophers from different ages all together in the same room. People were discussing, brooding, conversing, rather than listening to lectures or writing examinations, unlike a classroom of today. So, except for the fact that the School of Athens had people talking to each other, rather than staring at handheld devices, it is hard to understand what the Ed-Tech crusaders see and why Raphael makes the meme they love to hate.

Apart from pointing out a humourless cliché, my point is that education has changed and continue to change, and the best place to look for innovation is within the educators' practise. Even if we are to see innovation purely from a commercial vantage point, focusing on elements that can be commercially exploited rather than those that improves the engagement or outcome, the best place to find such innovations are within the educational institutions rather than outside. Just as a Historian can't hope to design the next CDO, the Financial whizkid is not best placed to design a better way to teach history. The art of education innovation needs more than plugging numbers on a spreadsheet, and the local innovation emerging out of practise from educators at the chalk-face needs to be taken into account - more, given priority - if we have to meet the educational challenges that we face.

This brings me to another myth - a rather obvious point in context - that Educators don't innovate. There is this stereotype of a bureaucrat when we think of a teacher. Some people will insist that educators don't want to change because they refused to buy into half-baked IT solutions or Online Assessment methods designed by someone who never ever stepped inside a classroom to teach, or because they advocated caution against schemes designed to turn students into lab-rats. But the teachers' insistence that education is a high-stake, human enterprise, has nothing in common with the bureaucrats' insistence on stability: One thing a teacher can never ever be is faceless. The risk-avoidance of a bureaucrat is utterly different from the care of a teacher. In fact, good teachers always know that education is about risk, as they inspire and motivate, push someone to their limits and challenge the learners to do more. For educators, the procedural limits are almost always the minimum, whereas the bureaucrats live their entire lives in holes of procedures.

And, finally, there is this pointless objection about scalability: That the innovations Educators do are too personal, not scalable. The point perhaps need repeating: Education is a personal enterprise. Education is not, as John Ruskin would say, about buckets to be filled - but rather about fires to be lit! If that very essence of education does not fit someone's business model, then the business model is wrong. But that does not mean innovation can not and does not happen.

Therefore, here is my unified theory of Education Innovation: We must engage with Educators' practise to find the new possibilities in Education. All meaningful innovation in Education will be practise-based and locally rooted, and will not be imposed top-down. Ed-Tech's noise will change very little, but technology, employed and tailored to purpose by educators, would indeed create new possibilities in the classroom. And, for investors, particularly after the current private valuation bubble bursts, the task will be to find educators who are changing the education, with vision, passion and commitment, even if they are older and even if they don't want to disrupt - only educate better!



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