'The next new thing?'- do you need it?
I have just been asked to talk about ‘the next new thing’ in education to a group of educators. My reply was that I’d be happy to talk about the topic but my perspective on this topic may not be what they expected. In my view, ‘the next new thing’ is the problem we have in education; that is, there is always something new, but if you wait two years (in most cases) it is gone and replaced by ‘the next new thing’. Meanwhile there has frequently been a lot of ‘churn’ – time spent, work done, stress felt – and when you look back later, you wonder why you bothered, because the next, ‘next new thing’ has just come along to distract you.
A key role for leaders is buffering ‘the next new thing’ and keeping staff’s eyes strongly on the goal focus of the school because, despite the fashions, fads and policies that come and go, our core role does not change. The ‘next new thing’ is probably not going to help you if you are struggling with lower than desirable achievement rates with groups of students, community relationship problems or personal stress that impacts negatively on your job.
There is a place for innovation, but in my view it is not desirable in and of itself – it is only desirable if the new thing that is being trialled, is monitored and tested for positive educational effects. We cannot always rely on research to tell us if something new is effective because the world is changing quickly and the research won’t always be there in a timely way to support practitioners. So, innovation and ‘new things’ are desirable – but their effects need to be checked. Furthermore, you can’t wait a year to check the effects – otherwise you could be wasting your time. The trick with ‘innovation’ is to build into your plan a means of measuring that ‘the latest new thing’ that you are trying, is having a positive impact on student outcomes and not having some perverse effect on groups of students, parents or teachers, that outweighs the benefits.
The big risk in schools is that we often ‘take for granted’ that an innovation is positive. The innovation often impacts teacher time and workload negatively because anything new means spending time learning how to do something– so the question always has to be asked, ‘will it be worth the effort?’. That can only be answered by knowing what outcomes you need to measure in order to assess the impact of the innovation. School leaders are not statisticians and in the turmoil of day-to-day work rarely seem to find the space to contemplate these questions let alone answer them – but answering them is critical. If something is worth doing, it’s worth checking that it makes an impact on students in the short term, and that the impact is indeed positive. The test of that impact can be through monitoring ‘hard to teach’ students. This does not have to take a lot of time but it does need to be planned (see previous Perspectives newsletter on Measuring Intermediate Outcomes).
So, in summary: Of course there are new trends that can be very desirable. The BYOD trend, for example, is frequently viewed as highly positive – and it may be – or not. It may just be a distraction from core learning, as recently argued by one principal who was quoted in the media. There are many downsides to innovation that are frequently observable:
- Workload – every new ‘thing’ that comes along means more meetings and more time spent learning how to do or use new things effectively.
- Lack of proof of effectiveness – many schools invest enormous amounts of time, money and human resource on the ‘latest new thing’, but few, in my experience, have ways of testing for any impact on student learning.
- ‘Initiativitis’ – the very movement of schools from initiative to initiative causes cynicism and weariness in staff as they rightly reflect “this too will pass”. That weariness results in loss of trust and energy to do the job well.
- There are also positives:
- Behavioural Engagement – new ways of learning material can be very engaging for students (though remember – behavioural engagement of students is not the same as cognitive engagement. Students who appear to be “on-task” may not be learning anything).
- Cognitive Engagement – new ways of learning may engage students’ minds and stretch them to go further and faster than is otherwise possible with more traditional methods.
- Making progress as a society - We must innovate if the world is to progress – otherwise we would still be writing with sticks in the mud.
My point, however, is that we need to be wary of innovation for the sake of innovation because every new thing has a cost and that cost may outweigh the benefits. Further, all too often, the results of the innovation are left unmeasured and unevaluated. Let’s not fall into either of those traps. Just because the school down the road is doing something, does not mean you have to. Just because you have been to a conference and heard about some new approach, does not mean it will be just what your school needs now. Your school board’s vision for education in your community should be the filter you use to judge whether anything new is worth investing a lot of time and energy in. And if you are doing that, what is it that you are already doing that you have proof is ineffective, so that you can stop doing it? All too often people stop doing something that has been shown to work, in favour of ‘the latest unproven new thing’. Beware – effective “innovation floats on a sea of inquiry” (Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2014).