Innovation is an interesting concept, perhaps a little like other big ideas such as ‘excellence’ and ‘beauty’ where each person enjoys a slightly different flavour, but all know it when they see it. If people had to define it in the abstract, they would never reach a suitable agreement. People agree that innovations are new ideas, approaches, products or processes; they often help society do, see or think in new ways. Against the backdrop of current norms, innovations standout as ‘different’. But difference is not all that is required to make something truly innovative.

Here is an example. When interactive maps came to the Internet through sites like MapQuest, people could see that getting directions from point A to point B by clicking spots on a web-based map was new and useful. But when the power of Google Maps (with street view, real-time congestion and alternate routes, user-reviewed venues along the way, and so on) arrived in people’s pockets on the same device that ‘plays their records’, ‘flips through their photo albums’ and shares the highlights of their lives with friends around the world, well, that is innovation!

This teaches a few things. Real innovation changes people’s lives. Innovation is often perceived in the present-tense – it is appreciated with a sense of awe – but BIG innovations are perceived in retrospect. Looking back, people see how much things have changed; that ‘the old way’ just does not do it anymore. So there is also a ‘no going back’ aspect to innovation.

Innovation in Education

What does all this have to do with education? For decades, educators have been alert, waiting for the game changer. While schools and classrooms have been touched by technology’s influence – networking and computer labs, software applications, the Internet, gaming, social networking – are these innovations or merely changes? Where is the educational equivalent to Google Maps, the iPhone, Wikipedia or Facebook?

Such life-touching and altering technologies have created a high hurdle for those interested in education. While educators have championed many potential innovations that hit the ‘new’ mark, nothing has fundamentally altered schools or classrooms since the technology revolution really ramped up with the World Wide Web. Many things are different, but school-based learning has not been re-invented. Educators still operate within the old model, an innovation that did change things forever.

The Real Innovation in Education

Education is not immune to fundamental change. If the definition of true innovation is based on the criterion of new processes, products or perspectives that have changed the status quo, educators might be surprised by the last real innovation that has altered education. Just as Henry Ford’s assembly line transformed life in the 20th century, so too did the mass production innovation to schooling: the application of an ‘interchangeable parts’ and ‘delivery’ model that resulted in a codified curriculum. As change forced the one-room schoolhouse to grow exponentially, innovation brought core learning areas (subjects and disciplines), year levels, textbooks and standards. Together, these fuelled an educational explosion that completely passes the no going back criteria of real innovation. With the codified curriculum, teachers could specialise their knowledge and skills and take positions in a human representation of interchangeable parts to deliver manageable knowledge and skills to the awaiting masses. And this innovation didrevolutionise schooling, where graduation rates soared from less than 25 percent to over 75 percent, essentially flipping the matriculation numbers from high schools.

When Good Innovations Go Bad

Like the automobile revolution, the schooling revolution gave society what it needed to grow – and then some. Education’s 20th century innovation has worked to school billions of people around the world, but it has also resulted in education’s equivalents to rush-hour, road-rage and carbon dioxide. The flat-lined results in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measures and stagnated graduation rates, along with the apparent mismatch between what secondary schools provide and what the job market and universities want, are markers for the unintended consequences of innovative scaling of learning. While education achieved the original goals of basic literacy, numeracy and enculturation, unfortunate by-products evidenced in students might be apathy, uniformity, passivity and disaffection. This is not to discount that each and every day, schools and teachers make a positive difference to some students. But in today’s era of personalisation, any one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably miss the mark each and every day for a percentage of students.

What is the Fix?

To start with, begin by recognising that no silver-bullet technology will save education. No iPad program, bring your own device (BYOD) initiative, or Apps for Education integration will truly innovate unless it transforms the last great innovation: the codified curriculum. This does not mean that the curriculum and its components are the enemy – just as dirt roads were not the enemy of the automobile, but the means that, after improvements, actually enabled the automobile revolution. So the imperative shifts from an abstract ‘innovate education’ to an achievable challenge: How must the last great educational innovation change to better support the new devices applied to it?

Any change that does not significantly alter the current model is merely ‘trend’ or ‘churn’, not innovation. Worthy targets for change of the status quo include shifts from:

  • teaching to learning
  • calendars to accomplishment
  • uniform consistency to individual excellence
  • teacher-directed to student-shaped.

These might be self-evident, but a few words of elaboration could be warranted. Educators must see their jobs not as teachers, but as optimisers of student learning. It is not what teachers do that counts, but what learners demonstrate as a result of what teachers do. Then the pacing of learning should not be determined by the date, but by students’ accomplishment of what is needed to progress to the next level. Thus a continuum of competencies is a better framework for student progression than a calendar-based scope and sequence. Also, whereas a mass production model is measured against uniform consistency, when an individualised lens is applied to learning, should not all students achieve their own highest levels of excellence? Finally, if the above points define and frame learning, it makes sense that the people who shape the experience should be the students within whom the cognition and learning occur, not an external director.

Start a Revolution?

This all sounds like a lot to do and maybe overwhelming if thinking about where to start. However, there is a simple starting point to address the big changes just identified; one that will connect, naturally, to all inevitable next steps, that will modify the codified curriculum model, just as wooden planks laid on boggy roads got the Model T traffic moving and launched a revolution.

Pulling ‘The Big Lever’

What is the single, revolutionary, world-altering innovation that can lead education from mass-produced schooling to personally meaningful learning? Tests. Yes, tests; rich and authentic data on significant student learning. Of course, the trick is in what is measured. A revealing case study relates to The Melbourne Declaration, the vision document upon which the codified Australian Curriculum is based. In examining its goals for Successful Learners, there is lots of potential for innovation. Look carefully at the descriptors in the side box and focus on how many of these worthy goals can actually be taught, meaning they represent knowledge or skills that can be acquired or developed as opposed to characteristics, traits, approaches or choices. When this challenge has been posed in the past, educators invariably identify only essential skills in literacy and numeracy. Clearly, these can be taught and done so with great effectiveness. What percentage of the total list of goals do they represent? Very small, indeed. This brings up a couple of critical points. First, how can these goals be achieved if educators cannot ‘teach their way to them’? This is the kind of design challenge that prompts innovation! In other words, if teachers cannot ‘teach’ students to be motivated to reach their potential then they should explore and assess many of the evidence-based strategies that already exist, and invent any more that are needed. Second, by choosing to test for only literacy and numeracy (for example, NAPLAN), education ineffectively abandons all the other goals. Thus, although education begins with a powerful vision, it is undermined by reinforcing the old paradigm that targets basic skills rather than uses this as an inspiration to change or improve the out-dated model.

The next instalment of this series will highlight a variety of evidence-based, intuitively valid and energising examples of how education replaces the quest for better basic skills test scores with amazing alternatives. Let the revolution begin (with true innovation).

Successful learners:

  • develop their capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
  • have the essential skills in literacy and numeracy and are creative and productive users of technology, especially ICT, as a foundation for success in all learning areas
  • are able to think deeply and logically, and obtain and evaluate evidence in a disciplined way as the result of studying fundamental disciplines
  • are creative, innovative and resourceful, and are able to solve problems in ways that draw upon a range of learning areas and disciplines
  • are able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas
  • are able to make sense of their world and think about how things have become the way they are
  • are on a pathway towards continued success in further education, training or employment, and acquire the skills to make informed learning and employment decisions throughout their lives
  • are motivated to reach their full potential.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2016 on 


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