Will Richardson has a very thought-provoking post up where he asks“Does Your School Have a Culture of Curiosity and Trust?” He speculates that “Schools are by and large incurious and risk averse.”. He suggests that “We incrementally, safely try to get “better” as opposed to bravely innovating our way to becoming decidedly “different” in our vision of what modern teaching and learning best supports our students.”. This idea isn’t new to me, but I still don’t know exactly what I think.
It’s probably correct to say that schools are somewhat risk-averse… and I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing. The greater the consequences of something going “all the way wrong”, the more adverse we should be to taking that risk. That’s just living up to the trust that the public places in us. The thing about risk, though, is that it can be mitigated. Being risk-averse doesn’t mean never taking risks. It means embarking on something with eyes open and managing the risk. A good plan goes a long way towards doing that, especially if the plan includes how to recover from failure. There’s also something to be said for doing things on a small scale first… running a “pilot” often helps initiatives to ultimately be more successful.
I’d like to think that having an innovative idea and doing the work to develop a plan for implementing that idea should lead to a favourable result. I usually try a couple of new things every year. Most of my ideas have met with approval and support, and most of them have worked out. I think trust is somewhat of a feedback loop, being able to pull something off makes it more likely that your next project will meet with a favourable response. I have also been told “no” a few times… not often, and if I’m being completely honest, I probably deserve to be told “no” sometimes. And “no” often means “not right now” or “you need to do more work on this idea first”, both of which can be valid.
I have two major questions about going down unproven roads. First of all, while it would be nice to think that all innovations will be positive, what if they aren’t? There is research out there that says it takes students two years to recover from one ineffective year of instruction. What if an idea fails colossally? I’m not saying we should never try new things, but that the responsible thing is monitoring how well they’re working and being prepared to pull the plug when necessary.
My second question, which I fortunately don’t have to deal with at the moment because I’m not an administrator, is when it is justified to pursue a new, unknown idea when the alternative has proven itself effective in research? That is, if there is a solid body of evidence suggesting that certain practices improve outcomes for students, shouldn’t there be some resistance to going in a completely different direction?
If it sounds like I’m still processing the whole balance between innovation and responsibility, that’s because I am. Thanks for getting me to think about this more deeply, our society certainly has changed since our current model of public schooling was developed, so it makes sense that how we “do” school might need to change too.