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Overcoming the barriers to educational innovation

Kieron Kirkland and Dan Sutch

The full version of this literature review is available to download in pdf format. On this page you will find the review's executive summary.

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Overcoming the barriers to educational innovation (pdf, 361KB)

There is evidently a wide variety of innovative teaching and learning practices across the education sectors. This said, the education system hasn’t yet managed to find the route to supporting the sharing of these practices to inspire and aid other teachers. Yet the imperative to support this innovation is clear. New approaches to teaching and learning need to be fostered to respond to, and shape, the changing context with which education interacts. In response to these dynamics, a model of change that requires national strategies to pass down new approaches to teaching and learning is too slow and blunt a mechanism.

It is becoming widely understood that end-user innovation is a crucial approach to developing new practices and approaches. This recognises that the practice of creating solutions to individual problems, on an individual level, is an act of innovation. But also that learning from these individual acts can support wider, system level innovation – not through rolling-out the innovation that occurred on the individual level, but by supporting greater numbers of local level ‘end-user innovators’. This highlights two specific issues: first, that innovations are, by their very nature, defined by the context in which they are carried out; second, that the most effective method for sharing and adopting innovations is through a process of diffusion.

Existing studies have examined barriers to innovation for both institutions and the individuals who operate in them. Increasingly they have highlighted the interactivity of factors that are considered barriers to innovation. As some commentators have indicated, there is a significant body of research of what the barriers are affecting change, but not necessarily the process by which they happen.

At the core of successful innovation in schools is the relationship between the innovation: the capacity and disposition of the innovator, and the environment in which the innovation occurs. The relationship between each of these areas is unique to each school and each innovation. Presented in this review are two models to explore this the ‘Distance and Dependence’ model, and the ‘Layers of Influence’ model. Initially the Distance and Dependence model gives clarity to understanding such educational innovations in context, by depicting how an innovation can be understood as its distance from current practice and dependence on available resources.

One adaptation to this model that we are applying in this paper is that by having multiple authors mapping innovations using this approach, we can begin to understand the different perceptions of the necessary requirements for an innovation to succeed. In identifying barriers to educational innovation, this paper draws on existing literature to identify a number of existing barriers to innovation in schools. As these barriers are frequently intertwined, rather than attempting to create strict categories, they are considered under seven key themes emerging from the literature:

1. Innovation
2. Informal and social support structures
3. Formal environment
4. Risk aversion
5. Leadership
6. Shared vision
7. Change management

Barriers within these themes are explored in relation to a second model, the ‘layers of influence’ that affect and construct classroom practice. These are:

  • Innovation: These are factors associated with the innovation itself
  • Micro level influences: This concerns the influence directly relevant to the innovator themselves, such as their capacity and disposition to act as an innovator. This layer also relates to highly personal relationships, such as those with students and peers
  • Messo level influences: These factors can include local level influences such as school cultures, school management structures, and school infrastructure; and ‘local’ influences from the wider community and local authority
  • Macro level influences: These include government led initiatives, national policy and national curricula and wider research

By examining how each of these layers can influence each theme, it is possible to explore how each of these layers can affect the enabling conditions for an innovation. In exploring factors associated with the innovation itself, core points this paper identifies are:

  • The perception of an innovation can be crucial to its success.
  • This perception can be constructed from all the layers of influence.
  • Successful implementation of an innovation requires a joint understanding of its distance from current practice and dependence on resources from relevant layers of the Layers of Influence model.

Innovation that can be widely disseminated and shared have three core properties:

  • Longevity: the innovation can be sustained over time
  • Fecundity: the innovation can be applied by different practitioners
  • Copy Fidelity: that the innovation can be replicated in local conditions

The immediate context of the innovation and the innovator is the informal social support system. Overall findings from this review suggest that:

  • A supportive informal social environment is crucial to the success of innovations.
  • A supportive atmosphere for innovation can encourage people to try new practice.
  • These descriptors could be broken down further and interrogated to a greater extent, but that would be beyond the scope of this particular piece of work.
  • A supportive social environment can develop capacity for innovative practice through informal training.
  • Being able to create strong social networks is an important skill for teachers’ realising innovations, both inside school and outside through their PLNs.
  • Social capital is unique to each school. Its presence can support innovations and offers an explanation as to why innovations work in some contexts but not others.

The formal environment can be seen as the organisational infrastructure of a school. This includes its formal policies and structures. This paper argues that: The formal environment is key to making resources for innovations accessible through:

  • technical support
  • procurement
  • supportive access policies
  • It has a key role in creating formal systems and space for sharing innovative practice.
  • It can support partnerships both in and across disciplines, internally and externally through team teaching and partnering, and working with external organisations.
  • It has a core role in identifying support and training for staff.
  • It can create or impede staff capacity on every level, whether through wider initiatives that impact on time such as national assessment, or on a local level through working conditions.

Core findings under risk-taking include:

  • Innovation inherently engages in some degree of risk which can make individuals reluctant to innovate.
  • Iterative change management cycles can mitigate some fears which impede innovation, such as fear of failure.
  • To overcome risk aversion there needs to be motivation to innovate – this can be internal motivations, such as teachers wishing to improve the learning experience for pupils, or external motivations, such as pressure from above.
  • Management style is core to supporting risk-taking behaviours, through encouragement and creating a sense of permission to engage in appropriate risktaking. This can be applied on a local level or on a wider national level.
  • Institutional level practices have an important role in mitigating risk-taking, e.g. running pilot programmes and sound evaluation procedures.
  • National level funding has a significant impact of risktaking behaviour.

In identifying the importance of a shared vision this report argues that:

  • A teacher’s perception of pedagogical practices associated with an innovation can influence the success of an innovation.
  • A shared perception of the requirements of an innovation underpins its effective resourcing. Appropriate support requires that all the layers of the influence model (macro, messo, micro) have a mutual vision of its requirements both in terms of shifts in
  • practice, and dependence on resources.
  • A shared vision for an innovation provides a crucial clarity of purpose and direction for those managing innovations.
  • Co-constructing this shared vision engenders a sense of ownership and understanding for all individuals engaging in innovations which can support wider innovative practice.
  • Linking visions from a local and national perspective can be supported through policies which acknowledge the national level policy on a local level and through sharing knowledge such as research and initiatives.

Key points associated with leadership include:

  • Leadership has a significant role in creating a culture conducive to innovation and enabling staff to innovate.
  • Distributed leadership plays a vital role in supporting innovation. It can enable and empower staff at all levels, can support team morale and create a shared responsibility for innovation.
  • Outward looking practice is important to support innovations. For school leaders this may be conferences or working with other schools, for practitioners this is frequently enabled by their PLN.
  • There are core qualities that have been identified in leadership style which can support innovative practice.
  • Macro level leadership has an impact on innovation, through ensuring the longevity of policy direction, and through regulatory bodies supporting the innovations in context.

In examining change management processes in school this paper identifies that:

  • Innovation in schools works best when it is a continuous process that relies on the involvement of staff at all levels of the institution.
  • Flexible project management cycles are well placed to do this, for example the ‘Innovation Cycle’ (Sutch et al 2008).
  • Effective change management requires building an innovator’s capacity through developing relevant skills and freeing up time.
  • Students’ own comfort with innovations needs to be accounted for within a change management strategy.
  • Effectively managing innovative change requires a shared understanding of the organisation as a whole and a shared organisational vision.
  • To support coherent development, macro level policy change needs to be incorporated into the change management cycle of schools, and links to their existing core beliefs and values.

While these are brief extractions, crucially what is outlined below is how each ‘layer of influence’ has the capacity to affect each of these areas. Arising from these explorations are series of policy recommendations, and some suggestions of practical tools that can assist educational professionals at each layer to overcome barriers to educational innovation in schools.