What is (and isn’t) innovation?

All that glitters is not (necessarily) gold. Innovation must significantly disrupt and achieve desired outcomes in better and more productive ways. Not just old ways in a new shiny wrapper.

When I was a child our telephone had a dial, to call I needed to know the number, kept in a separate directory. When calling someone each time a digit was dialled, we waited for the dial to return to its original place before the next digit in he sequence could be selected. Then came the touchpad phone. No more waiting for the dial to make its way back to its place, all I needed to do was touch each digit. These phones could even store the numbers of my 10 chosen contacts.

In the 1990s CD became the new storage solution for music. They were more compact (that’s the ‘C’ in ‘CD’) and each disc could hold more songs than a record.

Not all new technology can be considered an ‘innovation’.

What makes something an innovation?

The touchpad home phone wasn’t an innovation in itself, but the phone with (almost) infinite memory storage is.

The CD wasn’t an innovation, MP3 technology is.

Innovation disrupts. 

We still communicate by phone and listen to music, but innovation significantly changes the way we do it and improves the experience.

Vinyl records packaged music for the market. The performer and/or record company decided the playlist and designed the cover. The consumer bought the complete package, including the songs they may not want/like. The CD didn’t significantly change this for the consumer. MP3 technology changed the landscape completely – now we can just buy a particular song and make our own playlist. The consumer decides.

From telephones with dials to those with touch pads the same problem remained – what’s the number of the person I’m calling? Infinitely greater memory storage in phones means that I no longer need to separately record or remember a phone number.

Innovation in school education seeks to disrupt – to apply the creativity, solve important problems and improve. Yet, ideas are often packaged as innovation, when they are just the equivalent of changing from records to CDs.

Just like listening to music and talking on the phone, the outcome of school remains – educating and preparing young people to aspire to a future that will be personally fulfilling and enable them to make a meaningful and positive contribution to their community. Changes in education can only be considered innovative when they disrupt convention and achieve the outcome to even greater effect.

Here are some examples:

The interactive whiteboard is not an innovation if it reinforces the class facing the front and one person directing the learning.

The open learning space is an innovation when it significantly changes the role of the teacher and his/her interactions with students.

A textbook on CD-ROM is not an innovation when content is selected and packaged by a company that believes it knows what students need to pass exams.

The team approach to teaching a larger cohort of students is an innovation. This requires teachers to plan, teach, coach, guide, assess and evaluate as a group, instead of one teacher to one class ratio.

Digital technology (the computer in all its forms) is and at the same time isn’t necessarily an innovation in education. Not when it is used to sustain existing practices through providing text-based resources, where it doesn’t facilitate collaboration and its use is narrowly directed by the teacher. It is industrial era teaching practices just made to look prettier.

However, when digital technology becomes a platform that enables entrepreneurial thinking, collaborative projects and expressing creativity, then we see the innovative potential that technology brings.

6 thoughts on “What is (and isn’t) innovation?

    • Great point! I would argue that innovation isnt necessarily characterised by radical change but that it achieves the desired outcome more effectively and brings improvement. We would have to see if standardized tests are a means toward the best education we can give our kids.

  1. Hi Anne,
    I enjoyed your post and agree that real innovation may be something different than former ways with more shiny bits. I’ve been talking a lot lately about the need for us, as teachers, to be the ‘human disruptors’ – asking the questions which break the binary pattern which could lead us all to live on suggestion: “If you liked this, you might like…..” ‘That’s great,’ says the human disruptor,’and have you also thought about…’ ‘and I wonder how that would connect with….’ etc. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ‘teaching unplugged’ – stripping back the message to the core: and then adapting tools, techniques and attitudes to benefit the process.

  2. Great post. I wonder whether the impact of any given innovation is relevant. Or do we innovate, even if it makes very little difference?
    At the start of introducing any innovation, it is difficult to predict it’s impact. In a classroom, it may not be desirable to “experiment” and trial something with students. How can you avoid making a potentially costly error when educating young people? It’s a risk, and it involves the learning and development of others.

    And that, for me, is the main difficulty of trying new things in a school. Innovation is a must, and I hope to see it continue every where – but unlike the majority of other workplaces, where you can try innovating without impacting on others, or risking the future individuals, you don’t get a second chance when teaching students.

    Would be interested in hearing the views of others. Thanks for the post – it has really made me think!

    • Thank you, I am very encouraged and love to make people think. I appreciate you taking the time to write such a fantastic response. Now I want to think through your comments. Anne

  3. Thanks Anne. I really enjoyed reading this post and the comments that followed.

    I wanted to respond to this question of whether, knowing our choices directly affect students, it is desirable to ‘experiment’ with teaching and learning? And what about the possibility of costly errors?

    From my perspective, all of teaching (and life!) is an experiment. I feel like I am ‘experimening’ as a teacher on a daily basis. I can never be 100% certain that I am going to get it right for the students I teach. My current practice (innovative or not) is always open to the risk of failure, driven by complex and changing hypotheses, and enacted in world characterized by multiple and constantly changing variables. Do I not, therefore, have a responsibility to continually reconsider the ‘experiment’ I am already a part of, and ask myself if it is time to try something new?

    I get stirred up when I hear teachers describing what they are currently doing as if it were ‘the safe bet’ to ensure students’ success. Although I greatly respect their desire to protect and guard the best interests of their students, I can’t help but want to disrupt this idea that current practices and approaches are a better and safer bet. I think resistance to exploring new ways of teaching can be influenced, at least in part, by an over-emphasising of the risks associated with doing things differently, and an under-emphasising of the risks inherent in sticking within the boundaries of what we already know and think we can ‘prove’? Both choices, to stick with what we know or to explore new ways of approaching our practice, represent a potentially dangerous landscape, both involve risk…. But which choice leads us forward?

    As teachers, we daily ask our students to take risks and embrace uncertainty. We ask them to ‘have a go’, to face their fears and to trust that understanding and confidence will come as they stretch themselves out of their comfort zones. We remind them regularly that failure is a part of learning and that they should never be afraid to make mistakes. I hope that moving forward we can embrace this same expectation for ourselves, and in so doing, begin to expect experimentation and risk as fundamental characteristics of our own learning and practice.

    For me, ‘experimenting’ with what leanring can be like in schools is far from a ‘blind hope’ for a better way forward. Instead, it represents a determined, engaged and intentional choice to approach the future in a manner that allows for new hypotheses, recognises and makes room for complex, multiple and changing variables, and invites us to question and reconsider our current beliefs and approaches. In my mind, this is our safe way forward.

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