Smart Innovation Set

coordinated by
Dimitri Uzunidis

Volume 15

Innovation and Society

Françoise Cros

Wiley Logo


Education and training are implicated in all society’s important questions, to the extent that, in France, school has become a focus for social tensions and difficulties such as drugs, authority, respect for others, violence, harassment, religious faith, sustainable development, social and ethnic inequalities.

Is it not said that every society gets the school that it deserves?

In fact, education is deeply entwined with our uncertainty faced with a future whose shape we can only see poorly. And yet, we never cease to want the best for our children, and so we work towards this goal by providing everything that we consider good for them, with a deep desire to intervene in the present so as to accomplish this worthy wish. The present is interpreted as offering possibilities for the future, and school is thus the melting pot for interventions among the youth, still malleable and subject to the beliefs and intentions of adults1. Adults believe that they can work with these possibilities and inscribe their dreams on them: it is from this that pedagogical innovations emerge, as containers without specific content2.

In a way, the world of schooling is imbued with a passion: that of wanting to change the present, bend it towards a very different society to come, always considered the bearer of a brighter future than the present, that the adults will open before the first steps of children.

This is the issue with schooling; we cannot observe it without tainting our observation with the urge to reform it. However, this observation has changed over the years, and it is clear that more than a century ago, school was a luxury for many and represented the hope of social and cultural upward mobility. The corollary of this was the development of an elite, or rather a caste, which was very much linked to the social level of the family. Now that schooling is compulsory, it has become more banal, the source of growing criticism, and considered a consumer good. It is hard to see schools once more being closed to the majority for the benefit of a minority (although…) and we will see how this is reflected in the facts, notably through the prism of innovation.

And yet, make no mistake: when we survey the landscape of schooling, many great changes have taken place. This does not, however, mean the disappearance of social division, which indeed seems more insidious in its process, while being more visible and felt less clearly. It is often described as counter-intuitive, an involuntary outcome, the result of the implementation of certain innovations which have in practice had a preferential impact on already-favored student populations. However, as some would say: school changes! Again, we must examine how this happens, the place and the role of the “factory” of innovation in transformation3.

For more than half a century, in France, after having invaded the territory of the economy and of technology, innovation has conquered education, including schools. The exponential use of the term to designate different activities has often confused matters. We must at least recognize that using the term allows the user to find themselves in a position to create something new, to reply to a need emanating from multiple sources, a need which is felt and must be filled. Innovation is on the whole considered positive – with magical consequences.

According to intellectuals, our current society appears confronted with a multiplicity of movements and changes, faced with the acceleration of time (have you noticed how our young people speak more quickly than their parents and how the immediacy of Twitter entertains their thought?).

If innovation at school is invoked more and more as a way of escaping the difficulties linked to the complex objectives and purposes of school, it nonetheless remains the case that this innovation has never really benefited from serious work on its meaning, its sense and its impact. Is this not primarily due to the new identity that contemporary schools have taken on? How would we define an ideal school so as to achieve a consensus?

And yet, this is not for lack of focusing on the problem and suggesting all sorts of remedies, or rather informed advice!4

Innovation is most often invoked in business in conjunction with a creative spirit, which is able to develop new products for the presumed greater benefit of the company to which it belongs. It is thus understood as the original appearance of a tangible object, often perfected by technology. To understand this form of innovation, therefore, we only need to follow the trajectory of the emergence of the prototype up to its testing and its generalization, a trajectory which is certainly complex, but which is difficult to follow in the case of social innovation, the category to which innovation in schools belongs.

Over the last 10 years, innovation has conquered the economic domain, faced with a world of investors who seek consistent financial profit from new production. The permeability of innovation with regard to the ecosystem has rendered it frugal – that is, less costly in energy, requiring the marketing of products which are less energy-hungry, while still improving their performance. The often-criticized consumer society produces innovations which are more ecologically friendly, while still being more useful (for example, electric cars). Is innovation, then, no more than an adaptive response to social transformation?

Innovation has also been – somewhat less valued in its infancy than technical innovation – introduced to the associative social network in the form of social innovation. This takes the form of a perceived response to unmet social needs such as health, the aging of the population or food supplies. It seems that innovation at school is closer to the nature of social innovation than technical innovation. We can then ask why, among the many social innovations studied through reports and publications, innovation at school is so seldom mentioned. What might be so specific and particular about innovation in education that it fails to excite debate?

What justifies such caution? Given that words become worn out more quickly than their content, this is doubtless due to its longevity compared to more recent words such as educational transition or pedagogical experimentation or alternative schooling, in various registers. In the end, it is enough to give an unchanging social activity a new name for it to become something different (at least, for those with little memory). There is thus some aspect of educational transition which proves its value in the very goal of innovation: to create a more just world through schooling. Utopia5?

What differentiates Freinet’s pedagogy from a contemporary innovative pedagogy based on written correspondence organized between students at two distant schools? Is it the fact of using tablets or computers? Sending mail to correspondents on the other side of the world via the Internet? What constitutes the quiddity of innovation in education, especially in pedagogy, where after centuries the fundamental question remains: how does a small human being learn, and how do they develop socially and intellectually? Does the explanation lie in the unceasingly changing context, and – if so – do the multiple questions at the heart of education remain the same in the face of sometimes contrasting ideologies, convinced of their righteousness? However, revisiting the pedagogies of certain precursors, considered by many to be obsolete and outdated, may be a salutary reminder for certain pedagogies which claim to be innovative. Did Durkheim not write:

“I believe that it is only in studying the past that we become able to anticipate the future and to understand the present, and that, consequently, a history of teaching is the best of pedagogical studies”6.

This book attempts to shed light on this question by laying out the origins, directions and issues of innovation when occurring in schools, including in the pedagogical relationship.

To do this, we will discuss the socio-historical context of innovation while explaining it in the context of school. We will then survey the different levels and fields of innovation (from the organizational to the personalized pedagogical relationship), to lead to an analysis of innovation occurring in public or private schools, with its political and ideological consequences.

The conclusion of this work will take the form of a question: in the end, what makes us want to innovate, without going backwards, amid the strong politicization of new activities, given the current profusion of alternative schools with different pedagogies, which seem at first sight to possess the same conceptual ingredients and rhetorical register, and which, fundamentally, in their actual organization, obey different social ideologies? What is the meaning of the growing role of foundations, of alternative schools and of sponsorship, faced with schools which declare themselves to be innovative? Is this a sign of a neoliberalism which dares not speak its name in schools? The enthusiasm with which politicians take schooling and proposals for innovation hostage shows the extent to which no-one has any interest in clarifying this notion, and what it hides in terms of implications and explanations. Is innovation therefore a gimmick for amusing the spectators, or a necessity for the real evolution of schools?