George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

As I read and hear about education change, this is one of the most common phrases I hear: "We need innovative approaches to our educational crisis." But what do we mean exactly when we say innovation? 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 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.

Was this useful?

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." (A. Einstein)
In order to cope with today's teenagers and to change the dismal state of my students' math knowledge and understanding I teach in a way that is beyond innovative; it is revolutionary. I know of no one who does it the way I do.
I developed my techniques as a substitute teacher in many assignments, many subjects, for about three years. When I finally found a contract, I talked about my math program as being different, student-centered, while others are teacher-centered. I spoke of the dismal state of math education in the country and the poor test results in our own school. I quoted Mark Twain: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got." I talked a lot about how new and innovative my class is. I got only opposition from students and parents; fortunately I got support from my principal and school board.
If you have a good idea, sell it as a good idea, not as a new idea. Now when I describe my math class, I just describe my math class. I describe how it works, what the students do, what I do. I describe what the assignments are, how I administer the quizzes and tests, how the grades are determined. Claiming that it was new and different was vanity. Claiming that it is new and different invites violent opposition from the mediocre minds.

Monica Larssen's picture
Monica Larssen
Elementary School Teacher,Doctoral Student

Please tell us your revolutionary approach to teaching math. I am most interested. Thank you very much.

Patricia Kokinos's picture
Patricia Kokinos
Author, speaker, former teacher/admin., school change activist

A great question, Bob, and really the key to what we want to accomplish with "school reform." While I am delighted that so many people are creating new schools that are, indeed, "triumphs of execution," eventually those same people realize (as with many of my charter school friends)that we are all trapped in the box. It's a 90-year-old box in some ways, but certainly one that calcified in the 1950s.

While we made great gains with new ideas in the '70s and '80s, by the mid-'80s the country was beginning the stampede "back to basics," pushing us all into the "standardized testing" rut that has now reached its endgame. Innovation is not really possible while all of the "reformers" and the public believe that statistics tell us the real story about educational excellence.

Beyond testing is a whole universe of (pardon the expression) "authentic assessment," most of it detailed here on Edutopia. So much for "accountability." The real issue is how we can REINVENT, RE-VISION, and REPURPOSE schools to match more closely the needs of kids, the future, and even the evolving economy. Innovation means taking a new look, a bigger-picture look, at education as a system and reconceptualizing what we want our schools to be. I promise not to go on and on, since I do that interminably on my own website ( ); but I would invite everyone who sees this to a brand-new campaign on Facebook that aims to bring parents, teachers, and kids together in a grassroots effort to RE-EDUCATE our legislators, leaders, and the public about what school needs to become in this new era:

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Thanks for asking.
I design learning opportunities, organize them into a lesson plan, and then give the lesson to the students.
One learning opportunity (and probably the best) is the worked-out example in the book (in my-speak a dfu done for you example). They copy this, but I emphasize that learning it is more important. Another is a couple of examples just like the dfu (a udo you do example). There is vocabulary. There are other things in the book like key points, constructions, etc. Quizzes and tests are learning opportunities because they can use the book and ask me questions. Also, they get an opportunity to learn by correcting their mistakes on tests and quizzes. The homework is another opportunity to learn. Throughout this process I also do some direct instruction (only after they tried the problem, or by request) and answer questions.
I think that the teacher talking is poor teaching. That is why project-based learning works, student-centered works, and the minimalist theories coming from the hole-in-the-wall experiments will also work. I hope that someone has more ideas for learning opportunities that get the teacher to stop talking.
P.S. K-3 kids need their teacher to talk a lot, 4-6 less, 7+ see above.

Lynn Jackson's picture
Lynn Jackson
Business Owner, Author, Consultant

In Innovate the Pixar Way, we feature a Pixar-like innovative student achievement program called Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA) in Tucson. OMA was created around children's neurological development and brain-based learning theories. The program employs teaching artists - professionals from Tucson's cultural institutions - who use music, dance, and visual arts to teach concepts and skills applied in academic subjects like reading, writing, math and science.

Jim Brodie Brazell's picture
Jim Brodie Brazell
Radical Platypus

The distinguishing characteristic of the "Innovation movement" in K-12 schools is situating learning within real world problem solving/DESIGN. This is a movement from teaching specialized knowledge to integrating and creating new knowledge--from disciplinarity to transdisciplinarity. It is a movement from content-based education (nouns) to process-centered learning (verbs). It is a movement from pedagogy (child-centered learning) to andragogy (human-centered learning).

Formal Learning Examples Include:

1) Project Lead the Way -

2) The Academic/CTE Integration Movement in 100's of Courses Nationally -

Examples in Informal Ed Include:

1) The rethink schools movement in New Orleans where students are designing school reform -

2) Edutopia's Do Something Grant (deadline rolling; $500 for students under age 25 who have created a community action project, program, or organization)

3) PTC's Real World Design Challenge -

4) DARPA MENTOR where students will design electro mechanical systems -

5) Cyber Patriot where students compete in a defensive hacker competition -

Laura Bordow's picture
Laura Bordow
Consciousness-Based Education

Students today are under a lot of pressure, loaded up with tons of homework, many extracurricular activities, possibly needing to hold a part-time job, and trying to get good enough grades to get into that dream college. They are influenced by peer pressure and media pressure. An alarming number of students are on medication for stress-related disorders, such as ADHD or depression. Every school has their share of bullying, truancy, and failing student achievement.

In a small town in southeast Iowa, Maharishi School ( has entered the 21st century with a radically different and innovative solution to the problems students face today. Picture students sitting quietly in a group, eyes closed, practicing a meditation technique that gets rid of stress and enlivens the hidden reserves of the brain physiology. Then watch as students actively learn, pay attention, collaborate, communicate, respect their teachers and each other, and share responsibility.

Even the name Maharishi School implies something radically different, and with a school-wide program that teaches even the youngest children a simple technique of meditation, the results are remarkable. While there are many forms of meditation, the one most widely practiced around the world and in Fairfield is the Transcendental Meditation technique. Research-based and practical, Maharishi School has children of all religions and nationalities experiencing stress-free education.

The inclusion of TM into the curriculum at Maharishi School in Fairfield has set the standard for other educational institutions to follow. Now with the support of the David Lynch Foundation (, the Quiet Time Program with the Transcendental Meditation technique has already been incorporated into hundreds of public, charter, and private schools throughout the United States and around the world. Meditating students show reduced stress levels, anxiety, depression, violence, and substance abuse. This results in reduced absenteeism, dropout rates, suspensions, and expulsions.

All schools are proud of their successes. At Maharishi School, we are no different. When walking through the hall, one may initially notice:
* School uniforms
* Single-gender classrooms
* 4,100 sq. ft. greenhouse, with a school-wide focus on
sustainable living
* Nature Explore Classroom certified by the Arbor Day Foundation
* Numerous academic, sports, and creative-problem solving trophies
and banners lining the display cases
* Organic vegetarian lunches served in the school's cafeteria
* 28 flags lining the school's entrance representing the diversity
of the student body

Any school would be proud to say that these initiatives are innovative. But it is simply the feeling of happiness on each child's face that is most important, and this comes from an inner sense of self, an inner confidence. The truth about Maharishi School's success is simple, where children realize that real success comes from within. We invite you to visit Fairfield so that we can share our stories and celebrate happy, engaged children.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.