23 (118) 2016
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Innovation: new is not necessarily better!

by Christopher Nicholls, principal, British Primary School of Wilanow
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Innovation comes in more than one form. There’s technological innovation, for example. Today, the camera in your phone may have more pixels than a high-spec digital camera had 15 years ago. But there’s also fashion innovation, which gives you a sense of superiority over what came before but without such definable or genuine improvements.

This summer’s clothing may feature innovative use of colour or shape but probably won’t perform any better as clothing than last summer’s did. I’m a teacher, so please allow me to point out a lesson here: ‘innovation = improvement’ is not necessarily the case.  It’s a fallacy called argumentum ad novitatem, or ‘appeal to novelty’.  New is not always better.

In education, we are confronted with innovation of one type or the other very often.  Many years ago when I was studying in London I asked one of my lecturers whether the new (innovative) approach to pedagogy he was explaining actually improved learning outcomes. ‘No real evidence of that,’ he said blithely, ‘but we academics have to do something: at least it’s new, so we don’t know for sure that it won’t work.’

Part of a school principal’s job these days involves shielding staff and students from the often frenzied onslaught of educational innovations. Don’t leap at every twinkling bait like some fat-headed fish. Innovations are usually enormously expensive, very annoying in the adoption phase and often they don’t make actual outcomes any better.  Fairly recent innovations with nebulous overall benefits include Interactive Whiteboards, One-to-One iPads, Seamless Mac Environments, Blended Learning and the Flipped Classroom (this one isn’t even an innovation, as it happens).  And I hear that the Robot Teacher is on its way again (unlikely though it may seem, this was originally invented in the 1920s!).

But even though these things may not directly enhance learning as much as we’d like – or at all – there may still be a very good reason for adopting them anyway.  If a big set of very shiny new devices costs €x and their shiny (‘fashion’) innovativeness encourages more parents to sign up to the school, leading to extra income €y, and if y>x, then I get more money.  And this is a good thing for education because more money means I can invest in things that definitely will help: more instruments for the music department; a wider range of sports equipment; a set of data loggers for the science department and so on.

Now this is straightforward common sense and, in any area of business which is not ethically-loaded, it’s a no-brainer.  But education is not fundamentally a sales business, no matter how financially successful a school is.  Our ultimate purpose has to be maximisation of the wellbeing of every student through educational endeavour and the easy victory of style over substance may, in the end, be hollow.  What if short-term shininess (“our paperless school has Macs in every toilet!”) actually damages long-term outcomes (“today’s digital-native school leavers are less employable than ever!”)?

Fortunately, there are properly positive innovations as well.  One of the most fundamental of these has been perhaps the most organic: the decline in the currency of knowledge precipitated by the omnipresence of the search engine has led to what is (for most schools) a new way of approaching learning altogether.  It’s not as important as it used to be to hold vast numbers of facts in one’s head, since we can access them very quickly via our phones, tablets and so on.  In response to this change, education today focuses much more carefully on encouraging young people to think rather than just to know.  Good schools have always done this, but now all schools are following suit.  So critical thinking skills (the application of logic – scientific principles – and consequent questioning) are now taught as a matter of course.

A bad school, incidentally, will misrepresent this point as a battle between ‘thinking’ and ‘rote learning’.  That’s not it at all.  Thinking doesn’t really work unless you know things first – and it’s still better actually to know something than to spend even a moment looking it up.  But producing well-educated independent thinkers is the goal of an increasing number of schools around the world today and that’s a very good thing.

So, despite the risk of fallacious thinking, it’s important to recognise the part innovation plays in improvement.  But if you’re thinking about what school to choose for your child, I recommend you look for the one that will focus most carefully on giving him or her the best opportunities to be successful, fulfilled and happy, rather than the one that seems to be at the forefront of every new development.  Innovation ought to serve progress, not the other way round.

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