Executive summary

This background report for the 3rd Global Education Industry Summit examines the role of schools within a broader ecosystem of innovation and learning. These summits bring together ministers and high-level education officials with representatives of industry and business, specifically the growing education industry, to discuss innovation in education and how policy makers and industry leaders can jointly contribute towards fostering it.

Many people do not see education as one of contemporary society’s more innovative sectors. While this perception is not entirely accurate – much innovation is indeed happening in schools and education systems around the world – there is a powerful case for driving innovation forward and scaling up innovative approaches. The “innovation imperative” for education is driven by the rapidly changing technological, economic and social conditions of the early 21st century and the resulting need to meet the demand for new skills. At the same time technology provides opportunities to improve effectiveness and productivity in learning, opportunities that have not yet been sufficiently exploited. Despite many efforts, pioneering initiatives around the world, well-intentioned government policies, and initiatives from business and industry, innovation still is not a systemic feature of education.

As in other sectors, ecological approaches to innovation in education have increased awareness that schools cannot do it alone. While there are examples of innovative approaches in schools, they are rather isolated from the surrounding social and economic environment. Sustainable and systemic forms of innovation have more chance in open environments, in “ecosystems” of learning and innovation. The idea that effective and high-quality education requires seclusion in both time and space, which might have been effective in the early days of public education, should now be abandoned. Opening up schools to their local economies and communities now seems to be part of creating the right kind of environment for innovation to happen. As in other sectors, openness becomes a condition for sustainable innovation. New governance arrangements giving stakeholders more legitimacy to play an active role, and more horizontal forms of accountability, can help create such ecosystems.

This recognition of the importance of ecosystems coincides with a growing awareness that innovation in general is happening predominantly at the regional and local level. The regional level really matters for innovation through the proximity, networking and partnerships which are increasingly important for creating the conditions for innovation to happen. Human capital plays a significant role in successful innovation, so schools, non-formal and informal learning opportunities – and skills systems in general – are an idispensable part of the innovation ecosystem.

Recent OECD/CERI work on innovative learning environments, based on extensive case studies, has improved our knowledge and understanding of innovation in schools. Innovative schools rethink and reorganise some or all components of their “pedagogical core”: learners, educators, content and resources. In many cases, this means rethinking the organisational patterns forming the backbone of most schools today: the lone teacher; the separate classroom, each with its own teacher; the familiar timetable and bureaucratic units; and traditional approaches to teaching and classroom organisation. Innovation in schools also requires them to become real “learning organisations” themselves by developing and sharing a vision centred on the learning of all students; creating and supporting continuous learning opportunities for all staff; promoting team learning and collaboration among all staff; establishing a culture of inquiry, innovation and exploration; embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning; learning with and from the external environment and broader learning system; and modelling and growing learning leadership.

Technology can be a very powerful tool for innovation, and it is difficult to see innovation happening in schools without the smart use of technology. Yet, a supply-driven and hardware-focused approach to technology does not help, and may even be counterproductive. The mere presence of technology is not by itself enough for innovation. Going digital may only reproduce traditional methods and pedagogies in a different form. Recent evidence from the PISA 2015 science assessment found a rapid increase in the availiblity of computers in schools, but with mixed effects on students’ science proficiency.

The relationships between schools and their regional and local environment runs in two directions. Schools can play a very important role in driving progress and well-being in their own communities. Innovative schools open up to their communities and engage in various kinds of partnerships with regional and local stakeholders. In today’s societies schools are not the sole providers of learning, but learning environments become multidimensional. Schools have every incentive to strengthen their horizontal connections. Serving the community through extracurricular activities or service-learning also improves conditions for learners themselves. Students develop the skills for lifelong volunteering and social engagement. In developing their horizontal connections, schools become networking organisations, strongly embedded in learning ecosystems.

In the other direction, regional economies and local communities can do a lot to support schools. Businesses can offer cost-sharing arrangements or opportunities for learning, such as workplace learning, internships and apprenticeships. Engaging employers more effectively can support the quality and relevance of learning, and can also drive innovation. The benefits are often mutual. Obviously, engaging businesses in ecosystems of learning and innovation is more likely to be effective if they themselves put learning at the centre of their culture, and become “learning organisations ”. Employers are showing increasing interest in educational reform, especially in modernising curricula to make them future-proof and better adjusted to current and future skills needs. Engaging employers in education is a sensitive issue in many countries, but there are clear benefits for schools when critically important stakeholders such as business and industry take a more active role in the broader ecosystem of innovation and learning.

Opening up schools to their environment, developing real ecosystems of change and innovation, and promoting a more active role for stakeholders and communities seem to be critically important steps in the process of innovation in education. The regional and local dimension is very important: learning cities and regions create an environment where innovative schools will flourish and learners get the best possible opportunities to acquire the skills that matter.