By John Galloway
"The time has never been more right for innovators to act, because the system is broken and needs major change." That's the belief shared by Dan Buckley (right), research and development director of consultancy firm Cambridge Education, when he's talking about education in the 21st century.

He gained his reputation for a systemic approach to innovation, along with several awards for his creative use of ICT to transform the curriculum when he was teaching. But being singled out for recognition does not fit easily with his approach to innovation. "We are defining innovation wrongly," he explains. We've got a hero innovation model."

"What we need is recognition of 'innovativeness' – getting systems to innovate. Our innovators should be gauged by the number of people they enable to create effective change rather than as individual heroes." It is an analogy with a certain resonance, as Dan Buckley shares his name with the publisher of Marvel comics, and there are shades of the archetypal comic-strip hero in his unassuming manner.

His innovations have been systematic, most notably Personalisation by Pieces, the process he devised for providing a progression route for recording achievement in developing skills. This was initially focused on pupils, but now, in the soon-to-be released version 2.0, also on staff. He believes that teachers should set the example in learning.

"For me the minimum requirement of a teacher is that they are seen to be learning by the children," he says, although he acknowledges that there will inevitably be setbacks. "Failure is a really good thing," he states, emphatically. "Failure is essential for learning."

By this he means that teachers can help to demonstrate resilience when their own efforts to develop skills go amiss. "The evidence is that even when teachers are unsuccessful in their attempts, outcomes still improve. That is because they are being a role model. Children can see that teachers fail as well."

Innovation should be ingrained in schools, in fact it should be what schools are about

As well as believing that teachers should be learners in everyday practice, Dan Buckley also believes that the process of innovation – seeking new ideas, applying them then reflecting on their effectiveness – should be ingrained in schools, in fact it should be what schools are about. "If you were searching for new ideas, trying to apply them, then reflecting on them, that process should be education. That is what education should be.

"That should be the norm. We could describe things that do that better or worse, as more innovative or less innovative that generate more rapid change as being more innovative, that generates less change as being less innovative; but the notion of people not innovating should be a strangeness."

It is also a process that should involve everyone in the school community, not just those in the classroom. This communal approach is one of the characteristics of successful schools, says Dan. "Ofsted have told us that schools that are consistently outstanding have got a well explained set of three or four objectives that the whole school are aware of that they are working towards, so there are clearly defined innovation outcomes that are pointing innovators in a common direction. This all-inclusive approach extends to "focusing children as innovators, and their parents".

While there are clearly schools following a collaborative approach to changing practice, Dan Buckley  believes that much of what we have called innovative in schools in recent years has been anything but. As an example he views interactive whiteboards as "a huge backward step".

For him the priority needs to be changing the relationships in classrooms: "It is a question of whether you try to change the relationship between teachers and pupils as your main priority to something that is more collaborative, or whether you try and empower the teachers to stay in their current roles. I think the latter is the wrong decision."  It is the use of technology rather than the equipment itself that is the issue because it is  "nothing but a tool that can just as easily be used badly as well".

'When the children can give a presentation from the front it's fabulous, it inspires others'

In the case of a whiteboard this can depend on who is using it: "When the children can give a presentation from the front it's fabulous, it inspires the other children." However, for teachers, "It's a method that we use too much at the moment, and I don't think that putting extra money into doing it more is a smart move."

In his own work, across the UK and overseas, he applies the principles of involving pupils and changing relationships by using peer assessment and mentoring, with teachers acting as moderators. Having set their own learning goals for developing their skills, and determined what evidence will demonstrate achievement, pupils then submit this into the community and it goes to someone in a different school – who has already demonstrated that skill at that level – for them to offer verification and support.

With the forthcoming version, teachers will agree their personal goals then pupil surveys will be used as part of the evidence of impact and as the basis for reflection and evaluation, changing the traditional classroom relationship.

"What I am working on," he explains, "Is how can you, first of all, make it systemic?" His intention is to involve all teachers in working for the identified school priorities, and publishing the outcomes online - with their agreement - as a shared resource for the whole school community to learn from.

Dan Buckley is quietly seeking a revolution to develop institutions wherein innovation is commonplace, collaborative and bringing about effective change. Where teachers are no longer having to "make a square peg fit a round hole". Beneath his mild-mannered exterior it is something he feels strongly about. "We just need to change the system and that's what makes me angry," he declares, still with a big grin on his face.

Conditions for Innovation

"I think there is a certain impatience about innovators because change is not going fast enough." Although, on reflection he decides that it is not impatience, but passion, deciding that in reality, "You have got to have immense patience." He also believes innovators have to be prepared to work collaboratively, and to be reflective and open to criticism, "not dismissing ideas because they are inconvenient."  Beyond that is a need for, "A clear understanding of your goals, of what you are aiming to achieve." And when things go wrong there is a need for, "resilience, seeing problems as a kind of exciting challenge."

In summary:

  • Passion for the area you are working in
  • Patience to see things through
  • Desire to work collaboratively
  • Ability to reflect on how things are proceeding
  • A set of clear goals that can be used to evaluate progress and success
  • Resilience to cope with the hurdles along the way, and to learn from failure


Sources of Inspiration

"If you are not inspired by children then you have no chance of inspiring them," Dan insists. "The source of practically all of my drive and all of my inspiration comes from what I know, and from what I can see them doing."

He is reluctant to pick out individuals as innovators because he has a problem with, "the hero and celebrity stuff," preferring situations in which, "the true innovators sit well behind the scene," where they are "empowering people" and "fostering ideas." As examples he quotes the Edge Partnership, a community of schools in Birmingham,  and the Noise Organisation in Manchester.

When pushed, he identifies those who show confidence in children's own abilities to learn and to overcome problems, such as Sugata Mitra, who showed, "huge faith" in children when he founded the Hole in the Wall Project providing technology in the streets of developing countries for children to educate themselves. Similarly he cites the work of Stephen Heppell.

A project that illustrates many of the ideas he seeks to promote in schools is King's Wings, where, at the suggestion of their pupils, Kingsland Primary School in Staffordshire bought a redundant airliner body to use as a classroom. "The innovators there are behind the scenes, they are listening, they are empowering other people, they are facing the challenges with solutions," concludes Dan Buckley.

John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.

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