Picture: David Lewis Photography

Annika Small

By John Galloway

Annika Small (above) clearly relishes the challenge offered by guiding nascent organisations in their development. Having taken Futurelab through its independence from NESTA to become an institution with a worldwide reputation for innovative research into education and the use of technology, she is now with The Tony Blair Faith Foundation (TTBF) as its director of education.

Despite the continuing comitment to working with young people learning with ICT,  the two outfits have quite different approaches.

Annika Small explains, "Futurelab was trying to be a thorn in the system's side, saying, 'Why are you doing it that way?' and, 'Couldn't you do it differently?'" With the TTBF, however, "The ambition is to contribute to significant changes to the education system from within by mobilising an innovative global programme."

To illustrate the differences she refers to initiatives from each organisation: Face to Faith from TTBF, which seeks to improve religious literacy by connecting young people of different faiths to learn directly with, from and about each other; and Enquiring Minds, a curriculum approach developed by Futurelab that puts young people in charge of their own learning.

"With the Face to Faith project you are taking a range of pedagogical innovations and integrating them in the various curricula of education systems around the world. With Enquiring Minds you are taking an approach that shakes up the current curriculum. It's the difference between disruptive innovation and what is effectively innovation from within."

Methods may vary but there are constants for innovation

However, while the methods may be different, Annika believes that there are a number of constants that help the process of innovation. "Curiousity is key to innovation. Asking 'What next?' And 'How else can it be done?' And not closing one's mind too quickly," which can happen, especially when succumbing to the sense of "It's been tried before and it didn't work."

She also believes that coming at something new, perhaps from a different tack, helps bring a “certain level of freshness to the problem”. “As we get older we tend to get set in our patterns. We make assumptions."

To create the conditions to come at it anew she looks for opportunities to inject freshness, "relocating the problem to somewhere else" perhaps, both in terms of time and place, as a way to "fill the discussion with stimulus and not the set patterns". These conditions also include, "Finding a space and a culture to greenhouse ideas, to give them life. To allow ideas to flourish." “This,” she acknowledges, "is so much easier to say than do."

Sometimes, though, it is not finding ideas that is the problem, but working with them. "Often ideas aren't the problem," explains Annika, the issue can be how they are presented, or whether they address the question that is being considered. In this situation there is a need to be "more disciplined in our thinking rather than just too expansive”. She adds: “You need that practical element of it."

This disciplined, structured approach needs clarity, "Being clear about the why,” she continues. “Why are you innovating? What are you trying to solve? Do differently? Transform? What are the steps and how are you going to know whether you get there?" There is, of course, a seeming paradox, Annika admits, in attempting to be free thinking and to work within certain constraints. "That sounds almost contradictory to the spirit of innovation, which should be blue skies creative," although she does not consider it to be an inconsistency, "They are not mutually exclusive. You can have disciplined, demand-led innovation."

'Successful ideas are about time and place.. an idea may not be right for now'

Another constraint she identifies is that of catching the moment. "Successful ideas are all about time and place, so an idea may genuinely not be right for now." The important thing is not to give up on it, "Don't discard it, close the lid on it. Come back to it in six months. Come back to it in a year. It doesn't need to take long, but just do another check on it.'"

As well as getting the timing right there are other barriers to innovation, not least the general attitude towards change. "A definite inhibitor is the UK's culture of risk aversion. We are not comfortable with the word 'failure'. We are not comfortable with trying things out. It is not seen as a badge of success to try something that doesn't work." To try to shift this view she speculates whether innovation could be on Ofsted's inspection schedule, because "the process [of innovation] is so important."

Were this to be the case it might help address another problem, that of spreading the impact of any particular initiative, and the sense of frustration and isolation that many people feel. "I think that may be a barrier in that people do innovate and then they feel that that has made a difference to 30 students. Maybe a whole school. But there is a desire to have a greater impact. To go beyond."

For this reason Annika is keen to bring people together, to overcome some of the isolation of being "a lone teacher, a lone school”. She advocates working collectively. "It's that sense of creating a community of innovators. Partly to give that boost, and that extra bit of courage that you need. And partly to build a critical mass in that sense that the innovation will scale and will really make an impact." Indeed, when asked what she is proudest of in her work it is this aspect that she chooses.

"Bringing people together to discuss a problem and then seeing that process of genuine collaboration, whereby people go away changed from the experience, back into their own worlds, and take a fresh approach." This is one of the approaches used with The Tony Blair Foundation. "The time I am most stimulated is when a group of teachers come together, with some multimedia producers, with some students, and we are talking about a very specific problem and it is just very energising to get very different perspectives, different experiences to solve practical problems."

Despite such initiatives there is still a chasm between practitioners and politicians: "I think we all have the capacity for innovation. However, a lot of creative ideas in education will see the light of day in a single classroom or school, but not beyond in terms of radical, systemic change. That disconnect between policy-makers and practice is very disappointing."

One way she tries to bridge that divide is to demonstrate that new approaches can work, as she does in her latest role. "We are going to places like the Middle East with a programme that is very learner centred, and that is likely to be the first opportunity that they will have experienced an approach where the teacher is not just delivering information.

“We are going in with a very specific niche programme, and with a very different pedagogy. When that is successful we will have proven, with a tangible example on a global scale, how education can be very different."

Conditions for innovation

  • Remain curious.
  • Create a fresh approach, come at it from a different time or place, or a different angle. Use a range of disciplines.
  • Generate a culture of openness that allows ideas to flourish.
  • Recognise that now might not be the right time for some ideas. Put them to one side, but review them regularly.
  • Collaborate and communicate.
  • Create a community of support to let ideas flourish.
  • Adopt a mindset that is open to change.
  • Be prepared to take risks.
  • Try to maintain clarity about the problem, and the steps to be taken to put your ideas in to place.
  • Be a disciplined innovator, keeping the project on-track.

Sources of inspiration

A number of people have influenced Annika Small in her work, helping her to "look at everything and challenge everything". Some for their provocative thinking, others for putting creative ideas into practice. One or two of them are known internationally, such as Sir Ken Robinson (www.sirkenrobinson.com) author of The Element, and Jonathan Drori, who led on the creation of the BBC website.

Both contributed to another source of inspiration – TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design www.ted.com). This international conference showcases provocative, contemporary, thinkers and is a source of many inspirational ideas.

Then there are those with a particular focus on education, like Gareth Mills and Mick Waters, known for their work at the QCA, and the development of the idea of "contagious creativity”. Or Guy Claxton, co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, who has recently published What's the point of school?

Among those who have put their ideas into practice are Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project, and Dan Buckley creator of Personalisation by Pieces, who Annika describes as, "a phenomenal thinker, with a keen ability to put the creative ideas into practice".

Annika Small is also an advocate of looking at what engages children and young people, citing the work of those who have explored the use of video games in education, such as Jim Gee of the University of Winsconsin-Madison, and the games designer Will Wright, creator of The Sims, and, more recently, Spore.

John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.