Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Innovation in Education

Written by johnleemk on 11:48:43 am Jun 24, 2007.

One thing which really strikes me about education is that we have not made significant progress since modern pedagogical methods were first conceived. Until today, we continue to herd students into classrooms and teach them in pretty much the same way our great-grandparents learnt.

What explains the lack of innovation? To me, the main reason seems clear — a government monopoly on education. In most countries, the public education system is how most people earn their education, simply because they can't afford anything else.

When there is no effective competition, it's easy to see how schools can get complacent. Things worsen when (as in some countries) the public education system is centralised and controlled by a bureaucracy.

Is what we have at the moment a perfect education system? Is it even anything close to perfect? I don't think so. The weaknesses of how we educate our young are probably innumerable, but one thing which really stands out is how unadaptable education often is to different needs of different students.

When schools treat all students the same way, it is not a given that all students get the same education. Different students learn in different ways; different students advance at different paces.

How we educate students has not changed at all to reflect this simple reality, and I cannot conceive of a logical reason for why this is so. There has to be a better way, but there just seems to be no innovation in education.

This is why my ideal litmus test for a government's education policy would to look at how much this policy allows experimentation and innovation to spread throughout the education system.

All innovation and experimentation starts small, in the hands of one or two people who decide to try something new. A teacher might experiment with roleplaying to teach his students history, for instance.

For such experimentation to occur in the first place, there has to be autonomy for teachers to control how they run things — there cannot be interference from a bureaucracy. Centralising control of the education system is thus obviously not a good idea.

But for this experimentation to take off, if its hypothesis proves to be correct, it needs to be able to spread to other schools and other teachers. But for other educators to adopt something, there has to be an incentive to do so.

At the moment, as long as everyone sticks with the status quo, they will be fine. Nobody ever got fired for teaching the oldfashioned way. Why would they want to take a risk on a new idea? How substantial are the rewards for an effective teacher, or an effective school?

Without competition, there is simply no incentive for experimentation to be practical. The innovative educator cannot start a new school to try out his ideas — the operational costs alone will kill him. Even if his school is effective, by the time those who can afford to pay find out, it may be too late for the nascent startup.

Thinking about education in economic terms is not palatable to many people because education is placed on a pedestal. It is a sacred cow, a special interest. But we have to think about education in a new way if we want a new kind of education.

I believe the answer to the problems of innovation in education lies in a market system. But the free market alone will never be able to provide for those who cannot afford the immense costs of education, even if you account for economies of scale which would bring costs down.

That is why I think the ideal solution would be school vouchers. The government provides a certain amount for each student's education (possibly indexed according to tax bracket so the rich must still pay their own way), and then each family decides where to send their child.

Under this system, schools would have no choice but to offer the best education possible, or perish in the face of stout competition. The natural result would be innovation, because whoever can improve on the existing system has an incentive to do so, rather than stick with what is tried and true. That is how we will see innovation in education.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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