Josie Fraser talks to Stephen Heppell about ingenious schools and the 'culture of incrementalism'

Stephen HeppellStephen Heppell: 'Learning needs to be seductive and engaging'Josie Fraser: "Let's start with a bit about you Stephen. What are you working on at the moment?"
Stephen Heppell: "I have this rather interesting life now, as Professor of New Media Environments [at Bournemouth University]. I'm on the BAFTA Council and sit on SkillSet's board, helping steer qualifications and training in the creative industries. I still have a strong geek streak and have always been involved in really pioneering work – with CD-Roms, with the early days of the World Wide Web, Google APIs and phones now, and so on.

"I'm hugely involved in architecture - the design of learning spaces - and many architects think this is all I do!. And of course at the intersection of all these, and underpinning everything, is Learning.

"People who know me really well know that this is all the hobby – what I actually do is race competitive sailboats! But even there I can't help but be involved in the pedagogy – of Olympic coaching, in teamwork and so on. It's all always about learning really."

Josie Fraser: "I'd like to start with what you think about the term 'innovation'. One of my concerns is that we don't really have strong, shared understanding of what innovation means or might mean within learning, and that innovation can appear as yet another invective – our teachers must now 'be innovative', as if it were a box-ticking exercise. Innovation seems to be consistently represented something very good, or obvious and straight forwardly benefit to learners."
Stephen Heppell: "We have all suffered in education from the 'box ticking' as you call it. As a result, we have rather inherited a culture of incrementalism too – perhaps this will be Michael Barber's legacy – where a little better is seen as enough, so that people constantly focus on the little improvements that might creep them up the league tables (ie, just focus on getting the Ds up to Cs).

"My experience worldwide is that when you are properly ambitious for children their performance – however you assess it or judge it – can be simply stellar. Once you see this, you start thinking 'I wonder how good our students might be?' And then, of course, you look for real change and real alternatives rather than just finessing existing practice a bit. And then of course the real progress starts.

'We asked ourselves as a community: How good might our children really be?'

"I'm now the lead sponsor of an Academy in Portland Dorset. My granddaughter will go to the school, so it matters even more than usual to me! Starting with a clean sheet of paper is interesting and together we are developing a 0-21+ institution where you crawl in as a baby, so to speak, then stagger out as a higher education graduate at the end. Students will be in little Home Bases, vertically structured so there will be no phase breaks at all. We are doing much there that is radical, but doing with the existing teachers, children, parents, community. I believe the progress we will demonstrate there will be remarkable. We asked ourselves as a community 'How good might our children really be?' And we are planning to show everyone.

"I think innovation is a fairly empty word – it lack purpose. We talk a lot about 'creativity' too, but I prefer 'ingenuity'. It has a ring of purpose. Being ingenious in our teaching means not just new for new's sake, but properly reflecting on what works better for our community, our culture, our context, our children and our needs."

Josie Fraser: "Could you tell me a bit more about your view of innovation, or ingenuity, at the level of the classroom and school? Sometimes it seems as if teachers who attempt to do things differently, attempt to be innovative, very often find themselves restricted by the institution – by the way 'curriculum delivery' is understood and implemented, or by senior management concerns over reputation or culpability. Those teachers who do want to try and approach their practice differently don't necessarily find themselves properly supported."
Stephen Heppell: "Well I hope you are wrong! But I have seen often enough of what you describe to know that it certainly can happen. On the other hand, once the kind of things above start to happen then systems and schools, at whatever level of seniority, get on board – when you see children leaping ahead so fast, all worries about 'a little bit better' and 'mind your back' disappear.

"In the end we all came into education because we wanted to see that progress. Sadly, the old 20th century, factory-school model resulted in teachers being told what to think, not asked what was effective – with the result that you describe. But it can and often is overcome by the excitement of progress. 'You should see our kids now!' is a phrase I hear often when I return to places.

"Learning needs to be seductive and engaging – for everyone, but especially for the teachers who are mostly there for life. Sometimes staff forget to have fun with their own learning too. Ingenious schools are constantly looking out for new 'ingredients' that others have tested, tried and proven, so that they can add them to the local "'recipe' for learning. Most important, ingenious schools have moved on from the old "'met before' model of curriculum delivery ('Is it on the exam paper Miss?') to one of surprising and challenging everyone with new approaches and tasks. The world we are in is full of surprises, our learning should be too."

Josie Fraser: "I'm sure you can't have failed to notice how a transparent equation of innovation with technology has informed a lot of thinking and talking about education. There seems to be a kind of confidence that practices that were previously, perhaps, 'good enough' will be somehow transformed by the use of technology into something extraordinary. To my mind there are obvious limitations with this, but there are also compelling examples showing that the use of the social technology (as a tool for participation and creation, rather than reception) is in fact facilitating some of the most innovative, game changing practice."
Stephen Heppell: "Well, self evidently, technology has been a great Trojan horse at getting real change through the door. In the early days it was only 'Can I get technology to do anything useful?' Now it is 'Technology will do anything you want, what would you like to do?!' And of course when you stir in a little bit of vision, that is a wonderful challenge to teachers and students alike.

'Technologies raced beyond appropriation and we are in a new place. Hurrah!'

"I've often commented that education doesn't have a very good track record with innovative technologies. Some readers will remember being banned from using the 'new' ballpoint pens for fear that their cursive script handwriting might be ruined. Others may have been prevented from using their slide rules, or in still later years yet had their calculators confiscated, or told that it was the 'wrong type' ('We don't allow programmable functions here I'm afraid').

"Education has had a track record of first confiscating, and then appropriating, emerging technologies. Even the remarkable, free, open world offered by the World Wide Web was rapidly closed off by massively filtered internet provision and by parallel 'equivalent' services. What is happening now of course is that we are in among the first post-appropriation technologies – schools can't build a 'School Phone' or control Facebook. These technologies have raced out of reach of educational appropriation and we are in a very new place as a result. Hurrah!

"My worry is for the rapidly growing gap between the 'innovators' and the 'appropriators'. I'm not sure that gap will ever now be closed."

Josie Fraser: "To finish up, I'll just ask if there's anything else you'd like to highlight in terms of innovation – either at the level of theory and policy, or at the practical level of example and implementation?
Stephen Heppell: "I guess I've sort of answered that, but let me say this in closing. We seem to have an education system built on 'met before' practice. Children in the exam room hoping there will be no surprises, teachers outside hoping they have prepared the children for everything. In practice we are in a world where we have not met before any of the current challenges: global warming, economic collapse, etc. And when these unexpected things happen, all folk seem to be able to do is carry on as before: the banks paying bonuses, people burning fuel etc.

"To solve the 21st century's problems will take all our ingenuity, innovation, creativity and delight. And will need every single learner. The only certainty is that to carry on doing the 'old' way would be a reckless and foolish gamble. That is why I can be so certain that learning will and can change..."

Stephen Heppell's conditions for innovation:

I can't stress enough that this is complex – a hundred things all make a difference – so these are just a few items from the pack of change conditions, that are necessary, but not sufficient. Anyway, we certainly won't make progress without:

  • Harnessing the learners' own voices in evolving new approaches that are properly engaging – listening is not enough, we need to act on what we hear;
  • Proper reflective practice as learning professionals  including research ("Let's try..."), scholarship ("What have others done...?"), and iteration ("Let's learn from that and do even better the second time...");
  • Working as a team– and that means opening up the class "room" to team approaches, working with parents and students in building our vision, finding other schools to be our innovation partners;
  • Being hypercritical of all and any existing practices – for example, "Why have these these timetable blocks?" "What happens if we have a two-block teaching day?" "Why 25 children not 60, or 10?" "Why not mix ages?" "Why age not stage?" "Why did we waste so much money building corridors when the children don't need to move any more?"
  • And remembering which century you are in...

Related resources:

  • Building Cayman's Future: History in the making as the Cayman Islands take a holistic approach to the transformation of i's entire government education system and blaze the trail towards building 21st century learning spaces. Read the blog
  • Building Portland's Future: steps towards the creation of a world class Academy for all Portland learners
  • The Mumology project: a support plan to take a young mum through to the potential of graduation by the time her child reaches primary education age, regardless of her own educational starting point
  • Beyond Current Horizons: exploring the future for education, beyond 2025

Josie FraserJosie Fraser is a freelance, UK-based social and educational technologist. You can find her blog here and her Twitter profile here

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