By Dr Nina Hood
That innovation and research are often positioned as in tension with each other in education is not necessarily surprising. Innovation is focused on the new whereas research, as Dewey tells us, is inherently backwards looking, able to tell us what has worked but not what works or what will work (although I would argue that research often can provide useful suggestions as to what is likely to work).
The term innovation proliferates in the education space (indeed The Education Hub has used it somewhat liberally). It frequently is used uncritically, with an apparent underlying assumption that innovation is always better than what came before. However, innovation in education has a chequered history. Few innovations in education can be classified as what Clayton Christensen terms ‘disruptive innovation’, a practice or product that eventually completely replaces an existing practice or model. Instead, education is characterised by what Larry Cuban and David Tyack have referred to as “tinkering”, the often piecemeal process of school reform, where the underlying structures and systems are not fundamentally changed. So-called innovations in education also frequently are a re-hashing of an earlier idea, such as the current student-centred models, which have their roots in the progressive education movement of the 1920s. And finally, too little of the innovation occurring in education today is accompanied by rigorous evaluation or research, to ascertain whether it actually is leading to improvement.
Research on the other hand often gets a bad rap in education. It frequently is seen as being overly academic and irrelevant to the needs and concerns of educators, while the application and widespread implementation of research findings is further constrained by the context-rich nature of education. As Vivian Tseng of the W.T. Grant Foundation and Sandra Nutley, a Professor and the Director of the Research Unit for Research Utilisation at the University of St Andrews, explain, ‘it is relatively rare for research findings to provide clear-cut solutions that can simply be adopted and implemented across a range of contexts. More often, research findings suggest a direction of travel, but specific actions are negotiated locally’. The absence of rigorous implementation and improvement methods in education, which enable schools (and teachers) to negotiate research evidence, and to adopt, adapt and iteratively refine new practices in their own contexts, contributes to limited research use.
When thinking about innovation and research in education, perhaps one of the greatest issues is that they so infrequently occur together. That is, it is relatively rare for a research programme to run alongside the development of a new approach or practice in education. Unlike other sectors, education lacks a coherent research and development (R&D) system. As a result, too often we do not know if an innovation is leading to improvement, or for whom and in what contexts improvement is occurring. Without rigorous evaluation, it is difficult to iteratively improve and strengthen an innovation. And without robust evidence to demonstrate that an innovation is leading to improved outcomes, it is difficult to make a case for it to be scaled up.
The Bright Spots Awards are The Education Hub’s initiative to bring together innovation and research, to support the design, implementation, evaluation and potential scaling of teacher-led innovations in schools and ECE centres. Research evidence is used from the outset to inform the new practices being developed. Then, throughout the development and implementation process we work with each of our awardees to devise an evaluation framework, which is designed to support the continuous improvement and refinement of the project and to evaluate its impact on students. We are endeavouring to apply the principles we outlined in our research report The Quest for Scale in our Bright Spots work. We encourage each of our awardees to use rapid learning cycles to develop practice-based evidence, and to use this evidence to reinforce and inform iterative improvement. We also bring together a range of stakeholders, including educators, researchers and other experts, to collaborate on the projects. We are continuing to refine our model, while also exploring how we can support successful Bright Spots projects to scale their new ways of working beyond their own context.
We are preparing for the 2020 Bright Spots Awards now. We are grateful to NEXT Foundation and Cognition Education Trust for their generous support of the Bright Spots Awards. More information about the awards, is available here.