Is innovation necessarily a good thing in youth work? Jon Ord reflects

In this stimulating piece Jon Ord challenges the often unquestioning, uncritical use of the idea of innovation.

Jon Ord flanked by Tony Taylor and Janet Batsleet takes notes at an IDYW conference

Is innovation necessarily a good thing in youth work?

Jon Ord* 

Institute of Education, Plymouth Marjon University, UK

I became interested in the concept of innovation as a result of leading a large Erasmus+ funded project under Key Action 2 ‘Cooperation for Innovation and Exchange of Good Practices’, and then subsequently being asked to provide an overview of the 60 best practice examples of innovative youth work at the KA2 Now conference in Berlin in February 2019. I soon realised that all was not as it seemed with the concept of innovation in youth work. 

Firstly although innovation invariably has positive connotations and it increasingly appears in policy discourses of both formal and informal education (both in the UK as well as across Europe) it has a ‘taken for granted’ notion, and rarely if ever is it defined or explained. More worryingly still, beneath this taken for granted notion is a business model of innovation, where solutions are sought to identified problems, and these are ‘mainstreamed’, ‘rolled out’ and ‘upscaled’. Practice is framed therefore in technological terms as a product formulated to resolve perceived problems. This business model of innovation it is believed will provide a ‘silver bullet’ for a wide range of social and political problems. 

One of the initial problems with this business model of innovation is how do we decide what is innovative. Unsurprisingly in the neoliberal world within which we operate the ‘citizen consumer’ is the ultimate arbiter (Giroux, 2008, p. 171), so the solution to this problem would be to let the young people themselves decide. So, if innovative youth work meets the needs of young people it is successful and to be ‘rolled out’, if not it withers on the vine. However, despite the initially seductive appearance of this solution it is flawed. An example of ‘innovative’ youth work from the DCFS ‘Aiming High for Young People’ (2009) illustrates this. The South Devon Youth Nights project was lauded as a resulting reduction in crime was achieved through the supervision of large numbers of young people in leisure centres on Friday evenings by youth workers. Although, as anyone knows who was involved in such projects there was very little if any youth work going on, and if the leisure nights ceased the crime figures would no doubt return to previous levels as no developmental process has been undertaken with the young people who had been responsible.

What this demonstrates is that youth work contains a set of established educational practices, grounded in what Eruat (1994) calls professional knowledge. The enactment of these practices is fundamental to successful youth work. These practices include a commitment to the participation of young people, using conversation to understand and engage with young people’s experience of the world, ‘starting where young people are’ and appreciating their needs, concerns and issues as expressed and articulated by the them, and responding appropriately.

The cumulative effects of the business model of innovation is that it has the tendency to run counter to these established practices and undermine them by trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Implicitly within the concept of innovation is a belief in – ‘out with the old and in with the new’ – the inherent value of doing something different, new or original. This approach tends to denigrate the old, the traditional and the ‘tried and tested’. Before we innovate, we must be very careful that we are not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ and losing exactly what has made youth work successful in the first place.

What the above example also demonstrates is that a judgement is required as to whether something is both innovative and merited. This is in part because innovation in youth work is context dependant. The KA2 Now conference illustrated this very well with a range of examples from creating a MOOC to beekeeping, from the creation of a charter for youth friendly cities to a camp with Roma young people. Importantly each of these examples was only innovative within its own context. The context of youth work practice varies across a range of contexts including personal, social, political, geographic, historic etc.  So Between Ages’ (Enger et al., 2018) a project involving a 3 month trek with just one young person and one youth worker with no means of contacting the outside world, initially appeared really innovative to me as it appealed to my personal context, but actually wilderness treks have a long history and in many US or New Zealand contexts are quite mainstream. Similarly, ‘#unexcited’ (2019), a sexual health and safe sex project in Hungary can appear very unoriginal but in the context of right-wing populism in Hungary, this youth work is regarded as highly innovative and challenging.

This appreciation of context highlights a further distinction which must be appreciated when considering innovation in youth work – the micro and macro. The variety of contexts within which youth work operates relate to what could be described as the macro. And youth work must be aware of and respond to these wider macro challenges. However, youth work also operates on the micro level. Youth work is flexible, responsive, dynamic spontaneous, creative and uncertain – with this comes the inevitability of innovation – adapting to fluctuating demands of practice as it develops and unfolds, what is sometimes referred to as improvisation.

.Innovation is also contested.  Considerations about how youth workers engage with the digital world provide good examples of this. Should youth workers encourage young people offline and try to enrich their lives away from screens, as Kirby (2001) argues conversations online are limited, or create digital projects where youth workers meet young people in digital spaces (Natari, 2019). 

To conclude innovation is often presented in simplistic almost exclusively positive terms and as a ‘silver bullet’ to resolve problems. However, it is not only more complicated than this, given it is context dependant and contested, but its neoliberal business model has the potential to undermine established practices of youth work.

 *Email: jord@marjon.ac.uk

The ideas contained here formed the basis of a paper published in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. A limited number of the full version of this paper are available to be downloaded at:

https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/ZZZXII6CMMWCMDWEX4KX/full?target=10.1080/01596306.2020.1812053

References 

DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (2009). Aiming high for young people. London: HM publications.

Enger, S., Hoffmann, A., König K., & Nouvel, J. (2018). Between ages. Retrieved from  http://www.betweenages-project.eu/files/BANetwork2018/Outputs/BA_Network_13_ger.pdf

Eruat, M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: Falmer Press.

Giroux, H. (2008). Against the terror of neoliberalism: Politics beyond the age of greed. London: Routledge.

Kirby, R. (2001). Conversation in cyberspace: Informal education and new technology. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 6(3), 277–283.

Natari (2019). Habbo – Online youth club. Retrieved from https://www.habbo.fi/.

#unexcited’ (2019). Let’s talk about sexual health seriously. Retrieved from https://sexeducationinfo.com/

One comment

  1. Thanks Jon, really enjoyed this
    dissection and contextualisation of
    the myth of innovation.
    I’d argue it is the disdain for purpose as the starting point.For work with young people, that is it’s fatal flaw.As a useful concept/tool.
    Alongside , the slight of hand of deciding what the agenda should be.What it is that will be provided, as opposed to the negotiation of
    activity and purpose.From different starting points,aspirations and ethos.
    This attempt, largely successful, to disregard choice, voice and purpose,ethos in the name of managerial and technocratic neutrality and rigour.
    Does negate,as you say, the very basis of the creative ,educational
    and transformative element of our work.
    That part of the tradition, perhaps personified by Milson Fairborn and their key contention: we can’t decide what kind of youth work we want until we know what kind of society we want to create.
    The current neo liberal economy
    and funding/ outcome regime prevalent in youth work.Is deeply shy about this.And deeply antagonistic to being honest/upfront about the kind of society it is wanting to create.
    Hence the continuing tensions, diatribes and spurious rigour and claims to neutrality.And our wish to critique, make explicit, our rejection of these tenets/touchstones and insistence on ethos ,rationale and purpose.
    In Struggle :Another World is Possible
    Mal

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