For the last 18 months, I have been co-authoring a book with Becky Allen and Ben White. It is called The Next Big Thing in School Improvement. The book is about the perpetual novelty that we experience in education. In the run up to publication, we will be publishing a series of blog posts which draw out some themes from the book.
Ideas are sticky. At least some are. They appear to rise out of nowhere and before you know it, everyone is talking about them. If you are not careful you will be left behind. Then one day they fall from favour and the Next Big Thing becomes the Last Big Thing.
Of course not all ideas are so transient. Some live on for centuries, often embedded in religion or philosophy, and change the way we see things. Others, as scientific or technological breakthroughs, change the world in a more direct way. Longevity is perhaps a sign that we should take these ideas seriously.
However, for every idea that lasts, there are many more whose grip on us is short-lived. These are the fads that proliferate in many aspects of our lives. For a while they dominate our thought and action. We will signal our commitment to the Next Big Thing by buying the product, by amending our behaviour, or by saying the right thing on social media.
Education is a breeding ground for Next Big Things. They wash over schools like waves. Sometimes these ideas are formalised in Government policy or legitimised by influential agencies. At other times there is a swell of sentiment towards a particular ideology or perspective, the origins of which we cannot pinpoint. These waves are perpetual, each one rising above the last; each one leaving sediment in its wake.
Where do these ideas come from? To some extent, ideas come of age. There is a moment when the world is ready for the idea. The evidence for this is firstly that so many breakthrough ideas are ‘discovered’ by more than one person at about the same time (see here). Examples include the formulation of calculus, the invention of the crossbow, and the articulation of a theory of evolution. These ideas were not merely the product of a genius mind, but the inevitable consequence of the accumulation of human knowledge up until that point.
Secondly, we can point to the innovations that were technically possible long before they became reality, almost as if they were waiting for the right time to emerge and fulfil a pressing purpose (see here). Both wheels and luggage were around for centuries before someone had the idea of combining the two!
Ideas may also be evolutionary in that they emerge in response to what came before. The economist Terry Burns suggested that we have a searing memory of events which steers us towards certain ideas which we believe will soothe our discomfort. For example, the searing memory of rampant inflation made the idea of an independent central bank with a remit for controlling inflation an attractive proposition. In this way, the flaws in the Last Big Thing determine what makes the Next Big Thing attractive to us.
Attraction is important because ideas only thrive when they are sufficiently appealing to a range of advocates simultaneously. And not just any advocates, but those with the influence and credibility to have these ideas accepted by others. These coalitions of advocates are the wind that builds the wave.
What can we learn about the rise and fall of ideas that might be instructive to us in schools?
Education may be more prone to fads than many other industries. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there are significant gaps in our knowledge about education, despite centuries of theorising and decades of research. Secondly, there are fundamental problems in education, not least the difficulties caused by the invisibility of the very thing we set out to achieve: learning;. Thirdly, the system is extremely complex. This complexity arises from diversity, uncertainty, and moral ambiguity, among other things. And yet we are driven by a desire to do something to make schools as good as they can be. Is it any wonder we enthusiastically reach for solutions which promise to solve the educational conundrum?
If we are to succeed in improving schools, we must face up to the perpetual novelty which gives rise to the Next Big Thing. This means understanding the mechanisms by which ideas take hold, recognising when we are in the grip of a faddish idea, and knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do.
The current Big Thing will not last. Are we ready for the Next Big Thing?