The paradoxes of school innovation

The forum for innovative teachers: tribune

The forum for innovative teacherscase

Neither taboo nor totem! If the innovation contributes to the mobilization of the pupils, it in no way exempts from the evaluation of what it allows them to learn. A tribune by Philippe Meirieu.

All those who have committed themselves to ambitious school innovation will tell you: the institution practices with as much zeal the injunction to innovate as it does suspicion of innovators. Yesterday, it was Célestin and Elise Freinet pushed, against their will, out of national education… Fernand Oury whose proposals were ridiculed and confined to “crazy classes”… Germaine Tortel who was condescendingly told that the artistic creation that she wanted to put at the heart of school practices should be reserved for kindergarten children, before the serious things began! And, today, while the official discourse – from the highest summit of the State to the smallest constituencies – exalts innovation, the daily practices of the hierarchy systematically slow down its implementation.

This is how innovators are most often reduced to taking advantage of national opportunities: the arrival of a new (rather left-wing) minister who opens the door to a few “experimental establishments”the “discovery” sudden by public opinion of phenomena well known to educational activists (such as the dropout or harassment), the media frenzy for methods that miraculously reconcile scientistic demands for efficiency with mystical-esoteric aspirations for “personal development” (including the Montessori merchandising is a good example) or, again, the release of a circular that suddenly shines the spotlight on issues that had been marginalized until then (such as ecology or conspiracy theories). The innovators then rushed into the breach and tried to gain recognition for what they had been doing until then clandestinely with the secret hope of spreading oil. But they are quickly disillusioned: now they have to provide endless justifications, go through the caudine forks of a multitude of experts and commissions and commit, of course, to having 100% success… While those who camp in the routine will be able to continue, in the greatest comfort, to reproduce traditional practices with random results and rarely evaluated.

Affinity, ideological or social confinement

The funniest thing (if one can say so) is that innovative pedagogues are undoubtedly the most lucid and the most critical with regard to the totemization of innovation. They are the first to say that not all innovation constitutes progress, that depriving children of cultural content so as not to curb their spontaneity increases inequalities… and that putting them under electrodes to monitor their brain activity in real time can hardly contribute to their emancipation. They are aware that innovation contributes to the mobilization of students but that it in no way exempts from the precise evaluation of what it allows them to learn. They are wary of the narrow fixation on tools (even if they are digital) as well as affinity, ideological or social confinement, which threatens many “teaching experiences”. And they denounce the permanent temptation of our institutions to show, thanks to a few beautiful luxury windows, an image “innovative” of their operation when, moreover, they abandon some of their actors in archaic and miserable situations.

This is why they are worried about what is happening today and wonder if the role of the public authorities is to label and finance the innovations of those who know how to “sell themselves”… or to give to those those who are overwhelmed with tasks, who face such problems on a daily basis that they are unable to raise their nose from the handlebars, human and financial resources to reflect on what they are going through and to take back control of their profession. Let us fear, in this respect, that the “school of the future” that we are being told is, in reality, a school of the past, before priority education, before we affirmed (without being capable, it is true, to actually implement it) that“we must give more and better to those who have less”. Indeed, nothing would be worse, in terms of the fight against inequalities, than a distribution of public funds carried out essentially on the basis of “innovative projects” and which, in an unbearable “babelization”, would leave aside those who have neither the time nor the means to innovate.

Considerable stakes

At the end of the day, should we then make school innovation a kind of “Aesop’s language”, the best and the worst of things at the same time, the place where the practices of tomorrow can be invented but also the republican ideal of a school resolutely turned towards access for all to quality education? We must undoubtedly be more vigilant on this issue. But it is also necessary to free oneself from the unhealthy obsession for the novelty of the methods and to substitute for it a collective work on the relevance of these with regard to the finalities which one aims. Innovate why? For who ? To go where together tomorrow?

Today’s educational challenges are considerable: to fight, simultaneously and in the same places, for academic success and social diversity; teach everyone to think for themselves and to resist all forms of manipulation; allow everyone to simultaneously access culture and autonomy; give students the daily means to discover solidarity with each other, with all humans and with the planet. Faced with these goals, national education must give all actors in the school institution the means to invent relevant practices, as close as possible to the difficulties and needs. It must support them with continuous quality training. By never making innovation a prerequisite for state support but a means offered to everyone so that the school finally keeps the promises of the Republic.

Latest books published: Unexpected dictionary of pedagogy (ESF-Human sciences, 2021, 526 pp, €26), Growing in humanity – Free speeches on school and educationdialogue with Abdennour Bidar (Otherwise, 2022, 256 pp, €15)

The paradoxes of school innovation