The innovation game

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Nothing new under the sun? Teachers don’t seem to think so – in a recent national survey 84 per cent agreed that they had the opportunity to innovate in the classroom.
These figures seemed high, as teachers often talk about some of the constraints on the practice of their craft. So, commissioned by the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) and the Innovation Unit, researchers from the Office for Public Management set out to investigate.

This investigation took the form of a small, qualitative study to follow up on some of the findings of the national survey of teachers.  It was intended to provide evidence on a number of themes and questions. What did teachers mean when they said that teachers had the opportunity to innovate in their classrooms? Did they think of innovation as a significant and radical or a minor and small scale change?

Was it something ‘invented’ by them, or something new to them but in practice elsewhere? Or did they perceive innovation as rhetoric?

Most importantly, what are the environments in which purposeful innovative practices flourish? What do those who support teachers – school leaders, professional bodies, national bodies – need to know about how to foster these environments?

The researchers gathered and analysed data in three ways. The first was to conduct a literature review to source some frameworks which they could then draw on in their analyses. The second was to interview 35 teachers – in different roles and from different parts of the country – by telephone. The third was to generate ten case studies from a series of school visits to primary, secondary and special schools across the country. These case studies form part of the project report, and help the researcher and reader to explore and understand factors contributing to innovative practice in more depth and context.

What does ‘innovative practice’ mean?  Perhaps unsurprisingly, teachers and headteachers spoke differently about their understandings of innovative practices. The researchers categorised these understandings into two broad definitions.  Teachers tended to perceive innovative practice as “responding spontaneously and opportunistically to the needs of their pupils and the environment to enhance learning”. They focused on being creative with the curriculum and seizing opportunities with the pupils right in front of them.  School leaders tended to view innovation as the deliberate introduction of certain strategies to improve aspects of their school. The researchers defined this as “trying something new in the planning and execution of lessons, as part of a systemic approach to improving teaching and learning”.
There is by no means a shared definition or vocabulary of innovative practice. Some headteachers used the language of ‘improvement’ when speaking to the researchers, for example. But school leaders can take two points away from the research on this matter. Firstly, the case study schools that feature in the report understand innovation in the latter of the two ways – a ‘systemic’ way. Secondly, the literature reviewed by the researchers on innovative practices makes an important point:  innovative practice is not necessarily new practice, but it must be new in a particular context. The experiences of both teachers and heads chimed with this – most experiences of innovative practice were of ideas and strategies adapted from elsewhere rather than wholly new ideas.

The changing world

Why innovate?  “Because the world is changing and pedagogy must reflect that,” finds the report. This was a motivation that both teachers and school leaders – particularly in schools that were performing well – had in common when questioned about their motivations to innovate in their classrooms and schools.

Teachers were also motivated to innovate:
• because creating successful lessons is energising and inspiring
• to respond to the needs of their pupils
• to meet the expectations of their head & in response to encouragement from colleagues.

For school leaders other reasons and motivations included:
• to improve results – particularly in struggling schools
• to create new opportunities for pupils, and increase their self-belief
• to develop and use the skills and education of staff fully
• to keep pace with the changing needs of  pupils and parents.

Almost all research participants identified strong and reflective, and sometimes distributive, leadership as a core aspect of creating an environment in which innovative practices thrive.

School leaders in the report often deliberately spent time searching for new ideas outside their own school as well as reflecting on practices within school. Heads cited working for or within external award or recognition schemes. Examples included the Eco-Schools Award, the Artsmark Award, and professional learning frameworks such as the GTC Teacher Learning Academy,  and university partnerships, such as one hosted by Goldsmiths University placing French teaching assistants in schools.

For the case study schools and interviewees, a strong and reflective leadership ultimately meant having and communicating a clear vision about the school’s goals, and getting all those with a stake in the school to believe in them. The evidence base and rationale for change, planned intervention, and potential participation in the evaluation of this change had to be discussed with and communicated to governors, teachers, pupils, parents and carers.

To convince teachers meant being inspirational and persuasive, having a clear evidence base for change and crucially, providing security for the risks individual teachers were taking.  “I discussed risk issues with staff,” said one headteacher. “I said ‘I will take the blame’ – it will be me who gets into trouble if this all goes wrong!”

No fear of failure
Both the researchers’ report and the literature review found that fostering a culture in which there is no fear of failure was another building block central to creating an environment in which innovative practices flourish. As the literature review shows, Professor David Hargreaves goes so far as to say that failure is a key component of successful innovation. This might make many leaders of schools nervous. However, it doesn’t mean that inappropriate risks should be taken, but it does serve to illustrate how difficult – and important – it is to take a mitigated risk.

School leaders need to support and encourage these decisions explicitly in order to help teachers feel permitted to innovate. And in these decisions, the possibility of a degree of failure needs to be acceptable.

The report also highlights the importance of trusting in teachers’ professionalism as a vital element in creating the environment for innovative practice. In a culture in which risks are supported, teachers’ professional judgments both drive and check a planned improvement.

The schools in which innovative practices have taken root showed a strong commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) – and structures in place for internal sharing and refection. These structures were often formal, and sometimes set up with the express purpose of tackling particular problems in the school. Examples include the use of an observation suite for lessons, and a fortnightly entitlement for teachers to observe lessons in their and other schools. School leaders also created formal time and space for development – by employing part-time teachers for additional non-contact time or innovative timetabling, for example. 

One of the challenges that teacher and head teacher participants grappled with was how best to evaluate the innovative practices they had introduced into their classrooms and schools. Within classrooms little evidence was available to help the researchers understand or measure formal processes that teachers might have been using to evaluate innovative practices. There was more evidence of formal evaluation processes for systemic or whole-school innovation – although this could well be because headteachers are skilled at using existing processes and structures to multiple ends.

Although some headteachers said they did take other indicators into account, many viewed exam attainment as a main indicator of successful innovative practice. Teachers had mixed opinions about the extent to which the success of innovative teaching and schooling could be measured through improved performance in SATs, GCSEs and A-levels.

Some argued that the use of other forms of feedback – pupil and parent interviews and questionnaires; formal appraisal processes; pupils using ‘reflective academic diaries’; and lesson observations by teachers and pupils – contributed to more reliable and contextualised evaluations of changed practice. As some headteachers pointed out, the danger of using only attainment data as a gauge of change was that school leaders were nervous about trying innovative practices at all in secondary contexts.

Although participants might not have agreed on any one approach (nor, perhaps, should they), all school leaders seemed to agree on the centrality of evaluation to future success in changing practice in their schools. As one head teacher put it: “Keep it simple, keep it workable and evaluate everything… Never move forward until you have evaluated the impact of what was done.”

Nadia Majeed is research analyst at the General Teaching Council for England. The ten case studies and the full research report are available at:

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