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From 3D printing and robotics lessons in Silicon Valley’s futuristic schools, to text messages that boost UK students’ morale before their exams, educational innovation comes in many forms. Each experiment has its place, education reformers say, if schools are to adapt to a rapidly changing global economy in which jobs are under threat from automation. Sir Michael Barber, a British adviser on public service reform, believes global education systems are at a critical moment. He warns of a disastrous mismatch between the skills that schools currently provide and those that young people will need to thrive in the workplaces of the future. “The word ‘crisis’ may be overused in the modern world, but it is surely appropriate here,” he writes in a new report for the World Innovation Summit on Education (Wise), an international forum established by the Qatar Foundation. Youth unemployment is high in developed and developing countries, he adds. “Failure to tackle these problems is already fuelling unrest and disaffection across the globe.” Funding is not always the problem. Calls for more investment, which are often loudest from teachers, fail to acknowledge that more money does not always produce better outcomes. The Wise report notes that in the US, spending per student has increased by 300 per cent since 1966, but this investment has failed to translate into comparable improvements in outcomes. Experimentation is essential for driving positive change, says Sir Michael, as long as it is backed by evidence and integrated into wider improvements to school systems. However, establishing which experiments work, then rolling them out into the education system as a whole, is difficult to achieve at speed. One reason is the sheer variety of initiatives that need to be tracked and evaluated, from projects targeted at children who have no access to school, such as refugees or those living in remote areas, to initiatives for under-achievers, to elite programmes that groom small groups of students for specific jobs. At one school on the tech company Oracle’s campus in California, a route into interesting, well-paid work is inbuilt, with coding integral to students’ day-to-day learning. Design Tech High School’s co-founder Ken Montgomery says he wants to encourage the students to have “wild ideas”. Eventually they will be channelled into internships at Oracle, which wants to build a chain of similar schools to supply each of its campuses with recruits. At the other end of the scale, the UK’s exam text message project sought to help struggling students about to re-sit their exams, by improving their motivation. The project was the brainchild of the Behavioural Insights Team, a UK government spin-off popularly known as the “nudge unit”. It successfully helped candidates who had previously done poorly in English or maths exams to achieve better grades. Students in the study nominated a mentor (such as a parent) who was sent texts, prompting him or her to talk through topics or revision with the student. The messages were measured as increasing student attainment by six percentage points. Such approaches, which might seem basic, aim to support young people at risk of educational failure that might have further negative consequences for their career prospects. Exam re-sits have a poor success rate in the UK — only a quarter of those who retake maths at GCSE (usually taken at age 15 or 16) achieve a pass. Yet the maths certificate is necessary for a host of jobs or further education courses. Sir Kevan Collins, head of the Education Endowment Foundation, which funded the research into the text message programme, says the experiment is part of an effort to find “more and better evidence” about what is effective. Natalie Perera, research director at the Education Policy Institute, a data-driven think-tank based in London, applauds such efforts to evaluate independently small-scale initiatives before scaling them up. However, she sees barriers to innovation at both the top and the bottom of the system. “Very often governments are looking for quick fixes and if they don’t get [them], they very quickly come under pressure,” she says. Ever vigilant about their position in international rankings, such as the OECD’s influential Pisa tests, education ministers often feel they cannot afford to experiment on a national scale because of fears that their record will be interrogated at election time, she says.Please use the sharing tools found via the email icon at the top of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email [email protected] to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found here.
Educators in schools feel similarly hemmed in. While there may be “glimpses of innovation”, Ms Perera believes the accountability measures that are put in place by governments, albeit for good reasons, can be a disincentive to experiment with new ideas. “The system has such high stakes that it makes schools risk-averse,” she says. “The consequences of two or three years of bad data are quite serious.” Technology evangelists are growing impatient with slow, incremental change at the margins. Some see even the traditional set-up of a classroom or a lecture hall, with a teacher standing at the front imparting knowledge to a captive audience, as redundant. Another California-based company, the consultancy Ideo, advocates greater use of “design thinking” in a separate report for Wise. For pupils, this can mean working in groups on problem-solving challenges, with the risk of failure as the price for chasing fresh discoveries. For policymakers, it means devising curriculums and school buildings that meet specific local needs. Meanwhile, traditionalists are wary of revolutionary talk and are unwilling to take radical steps before evidence can support a dramatic overhaul. “There is no agreed answer on how schools can meet this challenge,” says Ms Perera. The internet has already revolutionised the ways in which knowledge can be accessed but, for now, educators continue to search for appropriate methods of adapting schools to the demands of the 21st century. The threat of failure often looms large. As Sir Michael Barber puts it: “Even the best school systems in the world are not yet ready; the worst are dangerously adrift.”