“Without substantial institutional rethinking more students will question what schooling is for.” – UK

To Chris Gerry, innovation isn’t about making small changes – it’s about complete systemic alterations that rebuild and redefine learning. In fact, during Gerry’s 18 years as high school principal – notably as Executive Principal of the Future Schools Trust, which encompasses Cornwallis Academy and New Line Learning Academy  – he completely rebuilt three schools.  “I have been interested in how the teacher work model can be re-formulated to enable teachers to work in teams rather than in social isolation,” says Gerry. “Isolated individuals tend to see their social skills decline over time as they lack feedback.  I have developed larger spaces where pupils have technology to assist them and teachers work in teams.”

With this model in mind, Gerry led the building of a sophisticated metrics model that measures risk factors for children who are not being successful, and attempts measured interventions to ensure that they are.  Additionally, he has focused on measuring student social skills – self-management, work ethic, the ability to work in groups – and correlate deficiencies in these spheres with academic performance.  Taking these and other measures together, Gerry and his team built a “Business Intelligence” system that uses numbers to assess school performance in a variety of domains on a day-to-day basis.  “Insights gained from these approaches have enabled the schools to make significant progress as measured by more conventional exam performance,” says Gerry.

Today, Gerry heads up The Skills Lab, which “brings ideas and people together to test new initiatives in education.
The aim is to create smart, simple and practical tools that facilitate cultural change in education to allow young people to develop the skills they need to access wider life opportunities.”

Here, Gerry shares his thoughts on the best way to reform schools in times of financial austerity, how to best use technology in schools, and what “innovation” really means to him.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

The shape and feel of education within these schools is different but the whole system is designed to usher in more online learning for students as we shift the role of the teacher from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’ Larger flexible spaces enable that shift to take place.

Additionally, schools with this design are cheaper to build (by about 24%) and – potentially – cheaper to operate.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Innovation in school has traditionally been weak because few people think of changing all the variables in the process.  Looking at space, technology, metrics, management, experience and outcomes as a total system enables more effective modernization of the whole rather than individual pieces.  The issue in many school systems around the world is that there is a poor grasp of cost and local schools have limited autonomy to act.  The educational bureaucracies that support schools can be very slow-moving.  The UK is fortunate in having a very minimalist bureaucracy beyond the school itself.  The country has also supported schools by giving them their own budgets and enabling the schools to hire and fire at their own discretion.  This has produced quite agile institutions.

Change does involve risk and one reason we see so few significant innovative approaches is that – in the words of John Maynard Keynes – ‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputations to fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally.’

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Yes, hugely. All our schools have had 1:1 computer access for some years. Recently that has shifted to mobile devices within an all-wireless environment.  We have also invested heavily in screen and projection technologies.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are
receiving a quality education?

The current government has shifted focus away from skill acquisition towards more traditional knowledge acquisition.  I believe this is a mistake as employers do not complain about historical knowledge, but they do complain  about a lack of basic skills, self-anagement skills and work ethic.  With an economy where more than ninety percent of workers are employed in the service sector, we are surely missing something by not focusing on these areas.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

Funding remains positive despite recent cutbacks.  Increasing the autonomy of
individual schools via the Academies program has also been positive. An insistence on academic rigor is no bad thing either – except note my comments above.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

We have to start teaching and measuring skills.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Systematic remodeling of the education system through the deployment of new ways of thinking combined with a shrewd understanding of costs.  We have to do more with less and be more effective.  In austere times, societies tend to become more conservative in their thinking when in fact these are the times to embrace substantial and significant reforms.  In the US it is notable that looming state bankruptcies have forced some rethinking with the consequence that 3 million US students are today receiving some of their learning online.  This ‘disruptive innovation’ – to use Clayton Christensen’s term – needs to be seized upon and thought through.  Additionally we have to think how a 19th century model can be brought into the 21st.  That means changes to curriculum, assessment, where and when students learn, how they learn and links with the world of employment.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

If you are interested in change, then get to a position where you can influence it.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Online developments are helping.  I think that without substantial institutional rethinking more students will question what schooling is for.  This works disproportionally against more deprived groups who have to face daily the privations of poverty.  We have to find better ways to support such groups.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give them a device to connect to the Internet, plus some sites to visit as they can learn a lot from the online world.

About Chris Gerry

Owner and founder of The Skills Lab. Gerry was formerly the Executive Principal at Future Schools Trust Schools in Maidstone Kent UK from 2005 until 2011. He built two new schools based around the concept of “plaza learning”: larger spaces with a great deal of technology (1:1 laptops) and a reorganization of the teaching model.

Birthplace:  Cornwall, UK
Current residence: Tunbridge Wells Kent, UK
Education:  1972: BA(Hons) American History, University of Sussex; Brighton UK
1974: Wien Scholar, Brandeis University, Waltham MA, USA
1976:  MA, History, Brown University Providence RI, USA
1982: PhD American History, University of Sussex
1982: PGCE (teaching qualification) University of Sussex
Website I check every day:  www.bbc.co.uk
Person who inspires me most: Franklin Roosevelt
Favorite childhood memory: I don’t really have one!
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Shanghai in July for work
When was the last time you laughed? Why? All the time. Brits are known for their sense of humor and enjoyment of the absurd.
Favorite book: Good-bye to All That by Robert Graves
Favorite music: Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue
Your  favorite quote or motto: ‘Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.’ – Herb Stein, economic adviser to Richard Nixon

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