Opinion: Innovation and schools – a policy paradox

by Karen Spiller01 Aug 2016

Schools are identified as key ‘enablers’ in recent federal government initiatives to transform Australia into an ‘innovation nation’.

The National Industry, Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda and the more recent National Innovation and Science Agenda and National STEM School Education Strategy confirm that schools have an important role in producing students who are innovative, entrepreneurial and ready to ‘embrace the digital age’.

To help schools fulfil this role, the federal government will fund a range of programs to increase the number of school students studying STEM subjects, support student participation in coding across different year levels and to provide opportunities for students to engage in national competitions and summer camps. Teachers are to have support in implementing the Technologies component of the Australian Curriculum and school leaders will receive support to ‘drive digital literacy and partnerships to bring scientists and ICT professionals into classrooms’.

All of these initiatives are worthwhile and have been widely welcomed, not least because most are activities already familiar to schools in one form or another. Nonetheless, as a package, these initiatives also reveal a policy paradox: while schools are to be entrusted with developing Australia’s agile, entrepreneurial future workforce, they are not encouraged to be agile or entrepreneurial organisations in their own right.

The funding that comes with initiatives targeting schools under the National Innovation and Science Agenda is largely tied to pre-packaged programs. The message is clear: schools are seen as consumers, not creators; as policy servants, not policy drivers.

Yet many schools are demonstrating that they are not just keeping pace with government policy making, but have already surpassed it.

For example, some schools are incorporating the arts in their delivery of STEM in an approach that has earned the acronym STEAM. STEAM reflects the emerging practice in industry of linking design to engineering at early stages of new product development, and the progressively important role of visual communications in collaborative ideas generation.

Another example is in the development of spatial skills. The use of 3D drawing software and 3D printers, along with ‘tinkering stations’ and other strategies adapted from the ‘makers’ movement’, can be found as early as Kindergarten level in some schools.

Cross-disciplinary approaches are becoming increasingly common as schools seek to help develop in students those attributes that will be needed in a rapidly changing world, including curiosity. As Canadian educator George Couros has pointed out, innovation begins with a question, not an answer. We need our young people to be problem finders as well as problem solvers.

Just as important is the development of attitudes that enable students to embrace challenge and persist with a task even when first attempts fail. Australia is a leader in positive education (the application of positive psychology to education) and our schools have also been quick to embrace the work of Stanford psychologist Professor Carol Dweck on ‘growth mindsets’ to motivate and engage students in their work.

Schools are also engaging in practices involving high levels of collaboration between students, between teachers, between schools, and between schools and universities, businesses and community organisations – supported by innovative developments in facilities design and digital learning and teaching resources.

Many other examples of innovation in schools can be seen in this special issue of The Educator.

Government initiatives to date barely touch the sides of the multi-dimensional pathway that schools are already building for their students to help them step with confidence toward the imminent future.

If the Australian Government wants to turbo charge the capacity of schools to contribute to the future-proofing of their students and the nation, it should trust and encourage them to demonstrate agility, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in their own work.

A first step would be the creation of a national Schools Innovation Fund. Grants could be competitive and open to schools, clusters of schools and/or school systems.

The evidence that schools are already innovating ahead of government policy suggests that the Fund should be broad-based to encourage creativity and innovation in project development. However, such a Fund would still serve to encourage and support innovation if linked only to government-identified strategic priorities, such as student engagement in STEM subjects.

More generally, a simple but sensible step toward better policy making for schools would be for governments to invite educators to contribute to policy making. Governments will find that consulting with principals from all school sectors – government, Catholic and independent – will provide invaluable insights to help define the most pressing issues in school education and the most useful policies and programs to address them.
 

Karen Spiller is National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia and Principal of St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School, Brisbane.
 

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