My job often brings me to schools where I talk with teachers and students about technology and innovative pedagogies. Some time ago, approximately at the beginning of my career as an educational researcher in England, I made a visit that left a lasting impression on me. With a colleague, I went to observe how a secondary school was using its physical spaces to promote collaborative work, inquiry-based activities and other “innovative” pedagogies. The whole thing had been described to us as an example of a progressive alternative to traditional classroom-based instruction.

What we saw was genuinely interesting — the highlight of the visit was the new flexible space that had all but replaced the old library. Students still had access to books, but were also allowed to use a range of connected devices (even their own) to carry out other tasks, and the space could be reconfigured through partitions to create small group work areas. We asked how the space was actually being used by students and teachers, and the response we received was slightly unexpected. All students had access to the space during time slots allocated to individual study. However, the more exciting, collaborative activities — those that were cross-curricular in nature and often based on student-led projects — were reserved to a small number of struggling students from various age groups.

This was part of a specific school strategy to re-engage “difficult” students with formal education through a more learner-centred pedagogic style. The aim was to bring them back on the traditional academic track once teachers deemed them ready. To me it sounded like the pedagogic equivalent of those forced training vacations that some earnest employers impose on their staff — a pleasant distraction which paradoxically makes coming back to the daily drudgery of “real” work even harder to stomach.

The most interesting thing about our conversation with the school leaders was their complete candour. They acknowledged that the strategy was limited in scope and that its benefits were only gauged in terms of how well students did at traditional exams. Most importantly, and despite the large investment to renovate the library, only a handful of relatively young teachers had been given the task to coordinate these activities. The school simply could not afford to deploy its best resources to what was, for all intents and purposes, a low-priority experiment. While the new techno-library helped to advertise the school as innovative and capable of providing state-of-the-art facilities, its uses had no bearing on the organisation of the core curriculum and its largely traditional delivery. As for strategic priorities, the head teacher was much more focused on the recently introduced programme of “controlled assessments”, where “exam-ready” students were put in simulated testing conditions with a high degree of supervision.

A few years have passed, but I have had many similar experiences since that visit. In fact, I confess that while I am still passionate about technology, I have grown mildly suspicious of the whole “discourse” of innovation, especially in relation to schools. More recently, I have tried to approach the phenomenon as a research topic in its own right. I found that a historical perspective and an appreciation for the “big picture” can be rewarding and can lead to thought provoking outcomes. In particular, I discovered that my interest in Italian history and politics (I am Italian) offers an original angle from which “innovation in education” could be understood. I’ll try to explain.

The Rhetoric and the Reality of Educational Reform
In 1923 the fascist government in Italy announced what the dictator Benito Mussolini called “the most fascist” of all reforms. It was a significant overhaul of the Italian secondary education system engineered by a leading idealist philosopher: Giovanni Gentile. The “Riforma Gentile”, as it came to be known, initially introduced a number of fairly uncontroversial changes, such as the rise of the compulsory age to 14 and five years of primary instruction for young children. However the core structure of the reform was later modified or “touched up” (ritoccata) to forcefully introduce a number of typically fascist attributes: discipline, order, propagandistic emphasis, militarism and, of course, religious fervour. It should be noted that Gentile himself was forced to resign after six months from the launch of the reform.

A few years later, in 1932, Antonio Gramsci, a political prisoner of the regime, articulated in his famous notebooks a sharp socio-historical and realist critique of the Riforma Gentile. Gramsci was opposed to the idealistic, utopian view of education asserted through the Riforma. Instead, he believed that education should foster in the young minds of students a voluntary appreciation of the real, historical dimensions that shape natural and social life. Gramsci’s critique of the Riforma Gentile rests upon one crucial principle: any attempt to reform schooling that does not account for the socio-historical conditions in which students, teachers and schools are immersed is bound to be an exercise in rhetoric. By re-introducing those conditions in the educational phenomenology, Gramsci uncovered the rhetorical, utopian nature of the Riforma Gentile. Although the Riforma appeared in many respects well-meaning, at least in its first iteration, it was in fact doomed from the start by its “wonderfully utopian” (“bellissimo utopistico” as Gramsci put it in Italian) character, which for Gramsci concealed the actual inequalities, paradoxes and contradictions of lived-in-the-world education — not least that learning is often hard, repetitive, boring and tiring.

Interestingly, Gramsci called learning a “mestiere”, the Italian word for trade or craft, implying doing, acting and a degree of routine and repetitiveness. Gramsci believed that such realist features of education were missing in the Riforma which, in the name of a utopian ideal, had introduced an artificial separation between academic instruction for the elite — the “free spirits” destined to become “masters of their own thinking” — and inferior forms of vocational training for the rest of the student population. Behind a facade of rhetoric and idealism, the Riforma worked in fact to crystallise once and for all the social divisions that allowed the fascist regime to sustain itself.

What is Gramsci’s contribution to our understanding of today’s education? For me, it’s a critical method of analysis. In his critique, Gramsci tried to uncover the relations between the rhetoric of “unavoidable” educational reform and the concrete, socio-historical conditions of the school of his time.

I must stress at this point that I am not equating the educational politics of fascist Italy with those of contemporary western democracies — modern western democracies do not rely on institutional forms of violence and coercion to silence dissent and diversity. Nevertheless, I do believe there are striking similarities in how certain themes become hegemonic, that is, dominant and sustained by uncritical forms of consensus. The point I am trying to make is that the notion of hegemony can be applied to a range of social and educational phenomena, not only those that relate to the rise of totalitarian regimes. In this sense, the enthusiastic rhetoric of unstoppable, technology-enhanced innovation can be seen as a smokescreen that hides a number of problems — not unlike the “bellissimo utopistico” of the Riforma Gentile.

Now, as in Gramsci’s time, I believe that a critical, socio-historical analysis of our educational cultures can help to bring into focus a number of contradictions. For instance, the hegemonic discourses about educational success and quality articulated at individual and collective level. When analysed, these discourses invariably seem to chime with the preferences of the more affluent and privileged groups in society, hence they reflect dominant positions that shape the expectations heaped upon the shoulders of young people and educators, ultimately informing individual beliefs as well as national and school-level assessment systems.

Smoke and Mirrors
Against such a contradictory background, it should come as no surprise that “Innovation in education” is often used as part of a rhetorical exercise (or strategy) at an individual as well as institutional level, to convey a positive self-, institutional and even societal, image, not necessarily associated with a genuine wish for reform, or with significant and meaningful changes in actual educational practice. As a result, many schools often resort to using the rhetoric of innovation as a marketing stratagem or, indeed, as an alibi: a form of window dressing to shape their intake as much as possible through image presentation.

This suggestion is supported by critical research on “parental choice”, which often has been found to exacerbate differences between schools on the basis of class, race and ethnicity, without encouraging diversity and experimentation in organisation, curriculum, and pedagogy. In contrast with the view of innovation as an emerging feature of competitive free markets, several studies have highlighted that the introduction of market-like elements (school autonomy, choice, competition for student pools, and so forth) in education systems did not lead to the expected increases in innovation. Emphasis on choice as a means to introduce market elements in education seems inevitably to lead to conformity around dominant images of a “good school”, characterised by academic excellence, uniformity, and discipline.

Today’s mantra is that schools “must” innovate to equip future workers with the skills required by employers in the 21st century global economy; to conform to the ubiquity of computers; to adapt to young people’s uses of digital media, and so forth. The most recent and high-profile example of how such imperative is articulated is the National Educational Plan (NETP) — or Strategy for American Innovation — launched by the Obama administration in the US. This plan presents a model of 21st century learning “powered by technology” which aims to “transform” education to stimulate growth in a faltering economy. Similar views can be found in almost all policy documents and educational strategies around the globe.

Here lies the contradiction I am interested in: the fact that such strong, evocative ideas (transformation, empowerment, etc.) always seem to coexist without trouble with unquestioned utilitarianism. Utilitarianism in education means that the ultimate measure of educational performance is invariably the amount of economic benefits it brings to individuals and to society. Now there is nothing wrong with the idea of education making people wealthier, and I do not wish to frame this article within a simplistic condemnation of individualistic morals in education. The problem, rather, lies in the consequences of an unfettered excess of utilitarianism, such as the tendency to draw unwarranted parallels between socioeconomic performance and levels of educational achievement.

Whenever a linear, unproblematic causal relationship is assumed to take place (e.g. educational performance = economic performance) the need to measure, compare, monitor and predict becomes paramount and undermines education at its very core. The assessment cultures that derive from this “control mentality” have had a very conservative impact on school practice in many countries, narrowing curricula, disempowering teachers and students, and encouraging an instrumental and strategic use of test scores and examination results. The line separating control mentality from extreme cases of “juking the stats” is still very easy to cross.

At this point, I think we begin to realise the slightly schizophrenic nature of the public debate around educational reform and innovation. Faced with conflicting messages and expectations, many schools have no choice but to play a game of smoke and mirrors. Lavish facilities and investments in the latest educational technologies (assuming they are even possible in the current economic climate) help position the school favourably in the “competitive education market”, while at the same time they hide a staggeringly resilient conservatism. As a result vulnerable groups, like the young inexperienced teachers and the disadvantaged students described in my introduction, become trapped within an unresolvable tension. They are told that they are part of innovative, trailblazing programmes, while at the same time they are placed at the margins, physically and pedagogically removed from the school’ s core business — from those strategic areas upon which the school’s success actually depends.  This state of affairs can only exacerbate the precariousness and the disadvantage of those groups, without alleviating any of problems that caused their marginalisation in the first place.

I strongly believe that part of our job as researchers and educators is to acknowledge that there is often a rift between the rhetoric of school-based innovation — e.g. student-centred pedagogies, constructivism, personalisation — and the dominant, socio-historical conditions in education that actually shape accountability frameworks and assessment cultures. The conclusion is that the deeply political nature of education makes it very likely that the aspirational rhetoric will be “hijacked” to serve a variety of ideological, political and economic agendas. It follows that true impetus for educational reform should be based less on techno-romantic “solutionism” and more on broader democratic debates that call into question the underlying values and ideologies in education and in society at large: utilitarianism, neoliberalism and the commodification of culture.

[Photo by Thomas Hawk]