Approaches to pedagogical innovation and why they matter

Elementary school children are seen in a classroom on the first day of class in the new school year in Nice, September 3, 2013.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (FRANCE - Tags: EDUCATION) - PM1E99310WR01

Across the world there is the outstanding challenge of innovating schools that too often are rigid and old-fashioned. The world is changing rapidly. Far too many students are disengaged and achieve well below their potential. At the same time, global expectations for education systems are growing ever more ambitious. For all these reasons, schools and systems must be ready to move beyond the comfort zone of the traditional and familiar. Innovation is essential.

Major shifts in curriculum policy in turn argue for pedagogical innovation. Curriculum policy strategies in many countries promote the development of competences, as well as knowledge, including those often called “21st century skills.” Competences such as collaboration, persistence, creativity, and innovation are not so much taught as intrinsic to different forms of teaching and learning through pedagogy. If the 21st century competences are to be systematically developed, rather than left to emerge by accident, then pedagogies must deliberately foster them.

Innovation is fundamental, therefore, and it must reach right into the pedagogies practiced in schools and classrooms around the world. Pedagogical expertise is at the core of teacher professionalism, and so promotion of such expertise is fundamental. Patterns of pedagogical practice are extremely hard to grasp at a system level (never mind internationally), however, given the lack of agreed definitions and the sheer number and dynamism of the relationships involved. Yet, it is so important that it cannot be left as a “black box” hidden behind classroom doors.

My former Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) colleague Alejandro Paniagua and I recently addressed these complex issues in a report from the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI): “Teachers as Designers of Learning Environments: The Importance of Innovative Pedagogies.”

A key aim of this work has been to identify concrete clusters or families of innovative pedagogical approaches, while not getting lost in the myriad of diverse teaching methods. The report outlines six approaches, which lie in the middle of the theoretical spectrum between broad principles, such as inclusiveness or cultural relevance, on the one hand, and specific teaching methods, on the other. This permits a more concrete and practice-oriented focus than considering all approaches together as if they were the same; it also focuses squarely on the pedagogies themselves rather than getting snagged on questions of whether they are necessarily innovative (which will vary widely depending on context).

The six clusters of pedagogical approaches

Blended learning rethinks established routines and sequencing of student work and teaching to enhance understanding and relies heavily on digital resources. This approach aims to be engaging and coherent for learners, as well as to optimize access to teacher expertise by reducing routine tasks. The report discusses three main forms of blending: the inverted flipped classroom, lab-based models, and “in-class” blending.

Gamification exploits how games can capture student interest while having serious purpose, such as fostering self-regulation and the abilities to handle complexity and the unfamiliar. These pedagogies explicitly build on features of games such as rapid feedback, badges and goals, participation, and progressive challenge, as well as on the human elements of narratives and identities, collaboration, and competition. The OECD report elaborates on an example of using the “Game of Thrones” series for teaching history.

Computational thinking develops problem-solving by looking at challenges as computers would and then uses technology to resolve them. Its basic elements include logical reasoning, decomposition, algorithms, abstraction, and pattern identification—using techniques such as approximate solutions, parallel processing, model checking, debugging, and search strategies. Computational thinking envisions programming and coding as new forms of literacy.

Experiential learning occurs through active experience, inquiry, and reflection. Its four main components are concrete experience that potentially extends existing understanding, reflective observation, conceptualization, and active experimentation. Guidance and scaffolding play pivotal roles. Pedagogies in this cluster include inquiry-based learning, education for sustainable development, outdoor learning, and service learning.

Embodied learning looks beyond the purely cognitive and content acquisition to connect to the physical, artistic, emotional, and social. Embodied pedagogies promote knowledge acquisition through the natural tendencies of the young toward creativity and expression,  and encourage the development of curiosity, sensitivity, risk-taking, and thinking in metaphors and multiple perspectives. The report identified three main forms: school-based physical culture, arts-integrated learning, and the construction of tools and artefacts. The OECD report illustrates this approach through an example of teaching geometry through dance.

Multiliteracies and discussion-based teaching aims to develop cultural distance and critical capacities. Critical literacies situate knowledge in its different political, cultural, and authorial contexts and deconstruct narratives. Class discussion, always valuable, becomes central in questioning ideas and dominant language. This pedagogical approach uses students’ life experiences to create meaningful classroom activities, constructive critique to create distance from received knowledge, and encouragement of students to extend their horizons. This approach also depends on active teacher scaffolding.

These clusters are not stand-alone approaches, and they can be combined in different ways. Indeed, in our OECD report we discuss the importance of combining pedagogies that work well together as well as of understanding what teachers should do to practice powerful, effective versions of the pedagogy.

In sum, innovation in teaching and learning is increasingly essential for education in the 21st century, and this needs to reach right into the pedagogies practiced in schools and classrooms. Understanding pedagogical innovation presents formidable challenges but represents a black box that must be prised open for advances to happen.