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Innovation Nonsense

We are awash in a world of absolute nonsense insofar as the word innovation is concerned. There exists a remarkable euphoria in education around the term, intertwined with an ignorance as to its meaning, and therefore, usage. What do I mean?

First and foremost, as a concept, innovation is too often confounded with invention. They are not synonymous. Invention deals with the creation of something (product, process, etc) for the first time. It has not existed previously. Innovation, by contrast, is about utilising (new or existing) inventions (products, processes, services, etc.) in such a way that results in an improvement to that product, process, or a service. The reason that innovation is undertaken, to begin with, is because there is a specific need to be met, or a problem to be solved.

Confounding identities aside, though, there is further complication with the misuse of theories of innovation; a case in point would be the phrase “disruptive innovation.” In 1995, a business school professor named Clayton Christensen put forward a theory of disruption, identifying a pattern he studied as a particular type of innovation that he referred to as disruptive innovation. Basically, it holds that innovations of this type are not incremental improvements, as are the overwhelming majority of innovations. Rather, they occur in spaces unoccupied by existing providers (businesses, schools, providers of any kind), and result in the creation of a new market and value network.

When (well-meaning) educators (including leaders) refer to something their school is doing as a “disruptive innovation,” I tend to cringe, for the simple reason that the evidence at hand (if there is any at all) demonstrates quite clearly that the school is not creating an entirely new market and value network. Rather, the school tends to be engaged in what are called sustaining innovations; in other words, the school is making incremental (but important and worthy) improvements to existing processes, etc. However, by using the phrase “disruptive innovation” in order to sound informed and at the leading edge of things, the potency (and specificity) of Christensen’s theory is diminished. We need to change this.

To be clear: if a school is truly engaged in disruptive innovation, then the school would have a plan that identifies specific milestones of transformation from the business model it inhabits/utilises currently to an entirely new model. Those who pay the school fees (e.g., parents) would be legitimate partners in its design. Resources would be allocated at the governance level in order to be deployed in such a way to make the disruptive innovation become the operative reality. The point is to make the existing model obsolete, so that an entirely new market is open, resulting in a rate of market penetration that is faster than anything encountered previously, and that creates a far more profound impact. I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see tweaks to the (comfortable) status quo; some are sustaining innovations, but many are not. They are simply incremental improvements.

Let us return to that euphoria around the term, though, as a final thought, and allow me to offer some advice:

  • Let’s focus on the impact to the learner first and foremost, as this should be the foundational element behind any innovation a school might undertake. Don’t focus first on fanciful activities. Think: backward design. Start with the end in mind, and start with learner impact in mind even before school mission. If you begin with impact, you’ll surely end up being aligned to mission. Mission is a false start.

  • Innovation is a process. Don’t diminish its potency by weaving it into the verbiage of your school’s mission statement. Innovation is not a mission.

  • Innovation meets a specific need and/or solves an acute problem. It is not a thoughtful or intentional effort to do something different. Doing something different is the act of differentiation. The organising principle behind innovation is the idea that there exists a problem to be solved. Consider this when contemplating whether to build something like an “innovation campus.” Are you really going to solve that many problems? Or are you creating one by building this thing?

Let’s just crack on with the business of education — transforming lives so that the future of our planet will be in good hands, those who can make decisions thanks to informed moral compasses in an age of profound anxiety. If you innovate along the way, great.

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