Thursday, March 31, 2011

Innovation, Education, AISI and Alberta

Canada is not very good at innovation. While we spend a lot on research and development as a nation – around $14 billion a year and close to $1 billion from the Alberta Government – we are not very good at turning research into new goods or services which people want to buy or to significant and sustainable improvements in health and education. Indeed, our ability to do so is declining as we become less productive and less competitive as a nation over time.

One of the reasons we are not good at innovation is that the innovation agenda is being driven by Universities. Universities do tremendous work in producing high quality people and in basic research, but have a poor track record in converting research into goods and services or to changes in health, education and social services which last and make a sustainable difference. They are also in general poor at applied research undertaken in partnership with the private sector or with health or educational practitioners, though this is something they are trying to get better at.

In education, the gap between what university researchers in general focus on and what schools need, do and care about is evident. There is an in-built tension between the systematic school improvement focused research needed by school systems versus the individual research interests of particular scholars. This is reinforced by the reward structure of Universities, which puts weight on publications and conference presentations by educational researchers rather than the impact their work has had on student engagement, learning outcomes or teaching quality. Researchers are rewarded for process achievements rather than outcomes.

The attempt to reposition an applied and systematic approach to school improvement as within the scope of university research in Faculties of education suggests three things. First, it is the end of bottom-up teacher driven research. Universities will want, over time, to reify this work. They always do. Look what has happened to the bulk of research in business schools to see how relevant most of this is to the needs of firms. Second, it will slow the pace of research. The term “fast, focused, results oriented research” which has characterised AISI since its inception does not fit within the culture of universities. Finally, we can expect an increase in competition between Universities for research opportunities as opposed to increased service from the Universities to school based researchers seeking to make a difference to the wellbeing and learning of students.

In the “pre 2011 budget” version of AISI, most of the work of Universities was that of providing educational support to in school applied researchers, as collaborators on specific projects or as mentors, coaches and guides to teams doing applied work in schools. While some of this will continue, over time we will see funding for action oriented research erode and Universities increasingly driving the AISI agenda. This is not a good thing. The real authorities on what is needed in schools and what the agenda for change and development should be are teachers and in school administrators: those nearest to the challenges and opportunities.

A world class model of how to do this has been developed, recognized and well resourced in the past. This model has been the engine of continuous improvement (and in some cases transformation) and it has led to significant gains in learning outcomes. This model is AISI as it was, recognized by many as one of the leading programs of its kind in the world and the envy of many jurisdictions. Programs can always be improved and developed, but when Universities take them on they are rarely improved.

Let me be clear. Some Professors at some Universities have done outstanding work in education and in schools and some have also developed collaborative programs that have made a tremendous impact. The Galileo Educational Network within the University of Calgary is one example. But such individuals and such focused and systematic programs are few and far between. Anyone who has worked in Universities knows that they are not adaptive and responsive cultures. Over time, AISI will change and not for the better.

Alberta needs an innovation agenda for change driven by teachers and in school administrators; it needs a process by which those best able to deliver sustainable change in response to that agenda receive support on condition that they share their results in a way that promotes best practice; it needs to see true collaborative partnerships between teachers, administrators, researchers and communities that lead to school improvement; and it needs to see nimble, flexible approaches to how innovation is done. Whatever happens to the next version of AISI and whatever the rhetoric, we should judge the work in terms of impact and outcome.

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