Creative Public Leadership

World of Work October 13, 2015

How School System Leaders Can Create the Conditions for System-wide Innovation

This article is the executive summary of the 2015 WISE Research Report “Creative Public Leadership“.

Find out more about the 2015 WISE Research series.

This interim report explores how school systems can create the conditions for successful innovation that transform outcomes for all learners. The focus of this report is on learners of primary and secondary age.

The rhetoric of ‘education revolution’ can close down discussions about innovation before they have even begun, confining debates to the converted rather than the sceptical, and reassuring the confident rather than inspiring the constrained. We need to break through unhelpful divisions between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ and make a compelling case for ways to achieve the kinds of outcomes all learners will need in the coming decades.

Our report analyses how school systems are performing in and responding to a changing global context. We then offer a brief tour on the science of social and system innovation. Finally, we report on the current state of education innovation, outlining the barriers to progress.

In conclusion, we argue that if we are to improve performance overall, ensure equity, and develop and a wider set of outcomes, then serious, disciplined and radical innovation is required at all levels. Whilst the role of government remains crucial, we need to draw on resources from both within and beyond traditional public institutions.

To move further, faster, we believe that school systems should create intentional platforms for innovation that are future-focused, equity-centered, and teacher-powered. In doing this, leaders should reinforce the fact that the process of learning should be a humanizing experience, and that profound learning and great teaching are ultimately predicated on the power of human relationships. We therefore need to aspire towards a humanizing innovation, defined by Chappell as “an active process of change guided by compassion and reference to shared value”.

If transformation is to come from within education systems themselves, rather than left to market forces or developments in technology, then it will depend upon the emergence of a different kind of leadership. System leaders need to support schools to think more often, more deeply and more radically about their mission. Whilst systems can be far better at creating the enabling conditions and cultures for innovation, schools need to take ultimate responsibility for their own ethos. Inevitably, this points to a significant leadership challenge at all levels. We need leadership which has authentic conviction about the potential for education as humanity’s best hope; and which can both assemble and communicate a compelling case for change. We need leaders who understand that this is not a quest to converge on a single solution; leaders who have the political savvy to create the legitimacy for radical change, and who draw on international networks as a source of imaginative ideas rather than prefabricated policies.

Policymakers and other system leaders need to create platforms for collective agency amongst schools and teachers, incentivizing them to use this agency to innovate in collaboration with others in a school community – including learners and parents, and also with the wider world of local communities, employers, and ‘edupreneurs’. The aim must be to return teachers to the front and center of the innovation process, but within a context that challenges both systems and teachers to grasp how public education must change to enable learners and institutions to thrive in the new conditions which confront them.

We believe that this will require a move towards a new concept of Creative Public Leadership. In essence this positions the state as an authorizing, facilitative and supportive platform for systemic innovation. Our final report will further develop the Creative Public Leadership concept. To test our emergent thinking, we set out some first steps to re-orient the role public system leaders might play.

  1. Build the case for change
  2. Desist from waves of centrally-driven short-term ‘reforms’
  3. Develop outward as well as upward accountability, to learners and localities
  4. Create and protect genuine space for local curriculum designs
  5. Prioritize innovation in assessment and metrics
  6. Place intentional, rigorous focus on the development of teachers’ innovation capabilities, throughout their careers
  7. Redirect some proportion of a jurisdiction’s education spending to an explicit incubator program, tasked with radically innovating on behalf of the system as a whole
  8. Build systems of collaborative peer learning to support the adaptive scaling of innovation
  9. Put system entrepreneurship at the heart of system leadership


We offer these proposed first steps as suggestions for those frustrated with the rate of change, but who feel locked into a resilient ‘system’ seemingly impermeable to shift. Each one of them can be instanced by exemplars across the globe – few in numbers but increasingly influential. WISE creates the space for debate about the viability of our proposals – what resonates, what has been omitted, and how momentum can be built. A movement for radical innovation in publicly-funded education is overdue, and we need a road map. This interim report offers a sketch.