Innovation in Education: An Empty Promise?

Technology in learning should be as ubiquitous as air, and there is nothing innovative about students and teachers breathing.
Grant Lichtman

Innovation is among the most abused buzzwords in education today. While few doubt the need for schools to innovate, often, it seems, there is a failure to understand what innovation really means. Horace Dediu has coined the term “innoveracy” to describe those who suffer from innovation illiteracy, the inability to understand the concept and role of innovation. This, he contends, is rooted in a “misuse of the term and the inability to discern the difference between novelty, creation, invention and innovation”. Too often, what is celebrated as innovation is, in reality, mere novelty.

George Couros, who has written extensively and insightfully on this topic, highlights the tendency of the innovation chaser in, “assuming that ‘innovation’ is simply a substitute for the word ‘technology’”. For Couros, the key to innovation is simple: “it is about learning new ideas and creating something new and better for kids.  Sometimes it is invention (a totally new idea) and sometimes it is iteration (remix of an old idea), but it is always better.” The use of technology simply to replicate old practice is hardly innovative. This desire for illusive innovation can become all-consuming.

Labels can blind us from our real purpose. Implicit in the misguided interpretation of innovation is the belief that we always need to be implementing the next new thing. This is the tyranny of novelty and it is rampant in schools today. Couros makes clear that what we need is to develop a clear culture of innovation centred around meaningful change for students. But it is impossible to develop a culture that embraces and supports change unless there is also a focus on student learning, support, dialogue, and time. In many schools teachers are only getting their heads around the last “innovation” when the next one is introduced. The net impact on student learning in such a scenario is negative and, by definition, this is not innovation.

So what is real innovation in schools? It is not about technology alone; we should be well past that shallow thinking. It is not about adopting the newest trend or fad. It is essentially about leading the changes necessary so that our schools still make sense to our students as they live their lives a decade and more from now.

Perhaps the best and simplest analogy is that offered by Grant Lichtman, who contends that, whatever innovation is in schools, students must be at the centre. In doing so, it compares it to a successful sports team: “Leaders who primarily ask what their organisation is doing and how it can improve on that are largely playing defence. Leaders who ask what their organisation could be doing and push their communities into that discussion are playing offense. Over time, offense is going to win.”