As teachers across the country return to school for a new academic, they return recharged and motivated to improve on the previous year’s progress and determined to boost their classroom success with new strategies and teaching innovation. While these new year resolutions are most admirable, the unfortunately reality is that many teachers will find their good intentions shot down by the stresses and pressures of the modern school environment.
In this fast changing modern world, educational innovation has become an essential apparatus by which schools and educators adapt and improve teaching to ensure that they fully prepare students with the skills and competencies which are relevant for life in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that schools in England are no longer fostering atmospheres which are conductive for educational innovation, as local authorities, school inspectors and school administrators are focused predominantly on administrative tasks and short term results in standardised assessments and school rankings.
This demand for tangible results in standardised assessments, and year-on-year improvement in school rankings, has led teachers to be wary of adopting new teaching innovations which may have benefits which are not easily measured and which do not have a direct impact on the students’ results in standardised assessments. This negative attitude towards innovation is certain to have a detrimental impact to the long term development of education in the UK.
The importance of teachers having the confidence and autonomy to innovate in the classroom is well documented. Research by Glatter (2005) and Bell (2002) argues convincingly that classroom educators should have the freedom to develop teaching innovations in order to accurately meet their students’ needs. Birch (2007) also championed the empowerment of classroom teachers to develop teaching and learning within schools, arguing that by involving teachers in the process of school development, these teachers will become more committed to their students’ success. Harris’ (2012) research concluded that, ‘systems with a successful track record of improvement have tended to focus on internally-generated change, rather than relying at solutions’.
Countries with some of the most highly regarded education systems in the world, such as Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, foster environments where schools and teachers have sufficient trust and autonomy to adopt new teaching approaches, take risks and embrace innovation in the classroom. The positive environments in these schools encourage the teachers to fully commit to their students development, and seek out new innovations and approaches which will benefit each specific group of learners.
The current climate in schools across the UK is very different to that in Finland and the Netherlands. In the UK, teachers are wary of committing to new teaching approaches because many teachers fear that change may disrupt student learning and the results of the innovation may not be recognised using traditional methods of assessment. Measuring the success of educational innovations, and accurately providing a link between change and performance
outcomes, is fraught with difficulties as Petigrew (2001) explained, ‘‘evaluating the success of change initiatives is replete with practical difficulties’ because, ‘Judgments about success are also likely to be conditional on who is doing the assessment and when the judgments are made’. Pressures in modern schools have amplified the need for clear indicators to measure the impact of educational change on student progress, but innovations generally take time before any kind of quantifiable improvements can be clearly identified. This creates difficulties for teachers and schools leaders who are required to provide evidence of short-term success in the form of clear, quantifiable data. This tension between the need for short term results and the reality of long term improvements is problematic. Policy makers and school leaders need to recognise that the shortsightedness of current policies will have long term disadvantages.
If things are to improve, the manner by which educational success is measured needs to be reconsidered and realigned with the realities of modern school life. It unrealistic to design innovative 21st century learning environments, and then measure students’ progress in these environments by administering 19th century style assessments.
Until the current obsession with administration, evidence, and quantifiable data is brought to an end, teachers across the UK will continue to avoid ‘risky’ innovations, and the country will fall further behind Europe’s progressive education systems.