Slow Innovation and Research. By Dr Phil Wood.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in playing around with ideas and using them as an excuse to experiment and build things. When I was a young kid this often revolved around using whatever technical Lego I could find to replicate machines or structures I’d seen and liked. When we got our first home computer, a ZX81, this then also involved dreaming up and writing simple programs to move a shape around, or to complete simple calculations, using the full power of the 17k RAM we had to great effect!!!

I think it is this seemingly innate love of playing, tinkering, imagining and exploring that formed the basis of my interest in research, added to at secondary school when we did assessed coursework for O-level, something now being axed by an ill-thought through reform of examination policy. I have been involved in research in both the natural and social sciences, using a range of approaches, but ultimately I find solely evaluative research a little less interesting that exploratory work; it doesn’t have that active involvement in creating, building, reassessing and improving (hopefully). Approaches such as action research and design-based research, however, are couched in a language of change, of innovation. Curriculum development, lesson study, technology in education, all offer great opportunities to develop structured approaches to effecting change, through analysis, explanation and growth.

But whilst I enjoy exploratory projects, I would argue that there are two potential problems with researching change and innovation, one based on bias and the other on time and the desire for success. When I tried to build an automatic gearbox with Lego as a boy I only had the vaguest of ideas of what might be involved. I had come across the idea in an old book which explained how cars worked. Already having a Lego car with a manual gearbox, an alternative sounded like fun. However, all I had was a couple of paragraphs of information and an ink diagram, neither of which I understood. I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing as I tried to build something approaching the diagram I had. As a result, each time I produced a gearbox I was sure would work, it failed completely. In addition, I had no idea why. Likewise, if a program I had written for our ZX81 didn’t work, either nothing happened or something completely unexpected emerged. In each case, even though the will to be innovative and successful was there I couldn’t argue that I had a useful product at the end of the process. However, when innovating in education the context is one of complexity rather than being merely complicated. As a result, if we develop a new approach its relative success, particularly in the short-term, can be difficult to assess clearly, if at all. Unlike a Lego gearbox, if an intervention fails in a seminar room students don’t just seize up and stop working (mostly). But this allows biases to encroach if we are not careful. If we become so invested in the success of the thing we have been involved in developing we might try to claim successes which are circumspect at best.

The second potential problem is a tendency to want to show ‘improvement’ quickly. In education innovation and transformation have become imbued with a secondary characteristic – speed. Implicit in ‘transformative change’ is the idea of rapid improvement. In England, when Ofsted visit a school and they assess it as having serious weaknesses they might insist on rapid, and transformative change in 3 or 6 months. This gives the impression of a process which requires the pulling of a few levers and the twisting of some dials to change an organisation and its culture, something which can be done in no time; it fails totally in recognising the complexity of any organisation and the need for sustainable and long-term viable change – but this is where transformation exists. Innovation becomes synonymous with the idea of rapid shifts in practice, often relating to some form of technology or pedagogy, in turn underpinned by a recourse to a psycho-babble framework. But an accelerated approach to transformation and innovation can result in change built on shifting foundations with little opportunity to gain a depth of understanding and a genuine and reasoned shift in practice. To build lasting transformation and innovation takes time. All too regularly education alights on a new process or perspective and tries to embed it rapidly with little critical assessment and reflection; the flip side of this is that without very rapid ‘improvement’ the intervention is then as rapidly dropped and is characterised as a ‘failure’ even though its complex and deep nature is never really explored or understood.

So if approaches to change and innovation in education are to develop genuine, and new, insights we need to take a different approach. In many ways what is being suggested here is nothing new. Many in the research community already spend large quantities of time developing research insights over long periods of time, it is the foundation of good research. However, increasingly such a slow approach is in conflict with a school system and politicians hungry for fast, certain answers to complex, fuzzy problems. At the level of the seminar or classroom approaches such as action research and design-based research can make a major contribution in developing informed practice. But to do so requires a slow approach. Careful consideration of what is to be developed, how it is to be developed and why. The new practice needs to be tried and understood, not from a perspective of wanting to be right but from a genuine enquiry into the potential (or not) of the approach which has been developed. We need to constantly consider our own biases and at the same time never lose that child-like desire to experiment, to innovate and try out the new.

Underlying an orientation which sees emerging practice as informed by the research of others rather than being driven by it is also important. Development of new practice needs to be built through the lens of professional judgement and experience. We need to think about the ‘why’ of new practice as much as the ‘how’. We will only give time to change and enquiry if the focus of our work aligns with our own ethical frameworks. Change is only truly possible if we believe philosophically and ethically as well as practically in what we are changing. So any research focused on developing and innovating practice is based not only on understanding prior research, considering and reflecting on its transfer to our own situations, but is also attempting to gather honest evidence on which to base honest insights. Ally this to a need to spend time understanding the work we are developing and its emergence in our practice and we develop a process which is slow in nature. It is in the slow that creativity, criticality and the emergence of genuine insight can begin to occur.

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