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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Education Speak: Defining Innovation

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
According to Merriam Webster, it's defined as: 1) the introduction of something new, 2) a new idea, method, or device: novelty.

This week in Doha, Qatar, the Qatar Foundation is holding the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). Earlier this year, the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the US Department of Education held a $600 million competition for the Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3 grants.

When considering innovation and our work at Envision Schools, I have been reflecting on two of my favorite educational thinkers/writers: Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and publisher of Education Sector, and writer of the blog Eduwonk.com. Then there's Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning. I'm not sure if these two writers are often quoted together but their following words about innovation really resonate and have stuck with me.

Last month, Rotherham wrote this in a blog, The New York State of Mind, about New York's Equity Project Charter School:

"But if you define innovation as doing things radically differently rather than just doing them well, right now many of the best charters are triumphs of execution rather than innovation."

And the following comes from Washor's piece for The Huffington Post, published in October, 2009:

"From our perspective, innovation means first different, then better. That is, innovating is a fundamentally different way of doing things that result in considerably better, and perhaps different, outcomes. Both the 'different' and the 'better' must be significant and substantial. Educators need to think of innovating as those actions that significantly challenge key assumptions about schools and the way they operate. Therefore, to innovate is to question the 'box' in which we operate and to innovate outside of it as well as within."

Improvement vs. Innovation

While many of the charter schools and charter organizations are making huge improvements in traditional outcomes for students, most are not new or different. Many of the proposed improvements in teacher education and evaluation, student assessment, and school design in traditional public schools do not seem to be novel. Yet the challenges that we face in improving learning and life outcomes require true innovation. As Washor states, we need solutions that are both different and better.

If we redesign schools to get better results on 20th-century outcomes, our students will be poorly served. Innovation requires risk and it requires patience -- most inventions that are commonplace today are the results of thousands of iterations based both on success and failure.

Is it better for our students to be involved in innovative practices that need to be modified than participate in highly effective traditional programs? Or should we play it safe and have our students attend schools that look like the schools I attended 30 years ago and my parents attended 60 years ago and grandparents, 90 years ago? Currently, most schools are not much different than the one my grandparents attended in the 1920s.

When it comes to education, what does the word innovation mean to you? Please share your thoughts and ideas with us.

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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