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Aurora Institute

An OECD Career in Innovation and Educational Futures

Education Domain Blog

Authors: David Istance

Issues: Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation


Innovation in education and learning and the future of schooling have been my professional preoccupations for the past 20 years. It has been my privilege to have been encouraged to engage in “big picture” thinking and, better still, many of these reflections were published and used by others on their innovation journeys. It has been quite a thrilling challenge to work in the international arena at OECD, rubbing shoulders with some of the best brains and creative innovators in the world. Our work lay in the fertile interaction of research, policy and practice, seeking to be the catalysts for these interactions and offering tools and frameworks to get the most from them.

I had originally gone from college to the OECD in the 1970s for what I thought would be a brief assignment. A short contract turned into 15 years, as I acquired an invaluable apprenticeship in such areas as lifelong learning, equity, and the international condition of teachers. By then I felt the need to get closer to people and issues on the ground and spent the next six years in teaching, research and consultancies in universities in Wales. But an invitation towards the end of the 1990s to return to lead a new project on educational futures – Schooling for Tomorrow – in OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) proved irresistible and back I went.

A word or two on innovation. We took it as a point of departure that the rapidity of change and the persistent evidence of widespread disengagement from schooling, among other factors, mean that schools and systems must be open to innovation. Our understanding of educational innovation was simple and wide-ranging: fresh approaches to longstanding challenges in a spirit of disciplined experimentation. The effects of such approaches are not universal but importantly shaped by context and expert implementation. Not everything labelled as ‘new’ should be thought of as innovative, nor could innovation be reduced to particular practices (for example, those associated with digital technology).

What began in 1997 and only now drawing to a close was a major strand of OECD work at the heart of the CERI mission.  It comprised three sequential projects that I had the privilege to lead: Schooling for Tomorrow, Innovative Learning Environments, and Innovative Pedagogies for Powerful Learning. Based on this work, we published another book in the series every two years or so with titles such as What Schools for the Future? (2001), Personalising Education (2006), The Nature of Learning (2010), Innovative Learning Environments (2013), Schooling Redesigned (2015), and Teachers as Designers of Learning Environments: the Importance of Innovative Pedagogies (2018).

Around 2000, I constructed a scenario set intended to stimulate education leaders at all levels, including lead teachers, to clarify both their preferred schooling futures and their best-guess likely futures. But it became clear that we needed to focus intensively on learning, not just the institutions and systems of schools, and hence the follow-up projects after Schooling for Tomorrow. We needed to understand learning holistically in its different environments and ecosystems, and how these might best be promoted. And, we needed to privilege the role of teachers and address the key role of pedagogy in the dynamic interactions between educators, learners, content and resources, no matter what the setting.

A key value of these different projects, in my view, lay in creating frameworks to inform the design by others of powerful practice and policy, rather than proposing international “solutions” ourselves. A good example is the concluding chapter in ‘The Nature of Learning’ volume, in which complex research summaries by leading international experts were honed down to seven guiding design principles for classrooms, schools, even whole systems:

  • Make learning and engagement central.
  • Understand that learning is social and often best done collaboratively.
  • Be highly attuned to learner emotions.
  • Be acutely sensitive to individual differences.
  • Be demanding for each learner but without excessive overload.
  • Promote horizontal connectedness across learning activities and subjects, in- and out-of-school.
  • Use assessments that support these principles, with strong emphasis on formative feedback.

They were extended in 2013 in the “7+3 framework” for powerful, innovative learning environments:

  • Apply the 7 ILE learning design principles, while:
  • Innovating the elements and dynamics of the “pedagogical core”
  • Engaging in learning leadership as a “design/redesign” formative cycle,
  • Extending capacity through partnerships.

Other framework formulations include the “4 Ds” of learning leadership – Drive, Direction, Design, Dialogue. There is the typology of pedagogies in the most recent 2018 report featuring Blended Learning, Gamification, Computational Thinking, Experiential Learning, Embodied Learning, and Teaching Multiliteracies through Discussion. I will be elaborating some of these in Nashville during my keynote.


David Istance headed the Schooling for Tomorrow project at the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) for a decade, before leading another of its long-running programs – Innovative Learning Environments – and its follow-up Innovative Pedagogies for Powerful Learning. This work has spanned systems change and future thinking, through local strategies and innovations, to research and practice on teaching and learning. 

Please join us at this year’s iNACOL Symposium where David will keynote on An International Perspective on Innovation and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Reflections on a Decade of OECD Insights and Research.