Innovation: What Does it Really Mean in Schools?

“Learning in most conventional education settings is a passive experience: The students listen. But at the most innovative schools, classes are ‘hands-on,’ and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding.”Tony Wagner

Innovation is a way of thinking that seeks, through the use of a set of core skills and dispositions, to create new or improved solutions to challenges that face us in our daily and future lives. The words innovation and creativity are often interchangeable. The innovator strives to bring about significant change in positive ways, with the intent of bringing about an improved outcome for the general good.

Innovation is less about the tools and technologies of the 21st century, but more, as author George Couros contends, “about how we use those things.” We need to prepare our students for a rapidly changing world (today) and to empower them to understand the potential they have as innovators themselves. School leaders and school culture need to model and nurture these approaches. We must commit to developing the following skills and character dispositions and provide our students with the opportunities to apply these skills in authentic contexts.

Tony Wagner: Skills of Innovators

George Couros: Innovator’s Mindset

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving


Collaboration Across Networks

Problem Finders

Agility and Adaptability


Initiative and Entrepreneurship


Accessing and Analyzing Information


Effective Oral and Written Communication


Curiosity and Imagination



“Innovation” is often, quite correctly, regarded as a buzzword, but when defined clearly, I believe, it is a word that holds abundant power. We tend to be quick to point out that innovation is not about technology and this sometimes makes me wonder – when we use the “it’s not about technology” line – if we are not inadvertently slipping into the dangerous territory that Couros describes: “[This] can sometimes provide an easy ‘out’ for many educators …. Sometimes when the statement is made, ‘it is not about technology … off we go on our merry way with nothing changing for many students.”

Lindsey Own has collated some outstanding ideas on this topic that can be located here. The result of her work provides a definition of innovation as follows: Innovation is about “mindsets, design processes, and teaching practices that challenge traditional norms and assumptions. These can take the form of new strategies or iterations or remixes of existing strategies.”

I tend to largely agree with the perspective of Ken Robinson, who highlights that imagination and creativity are the foundation of innovation, but technology has always been a major driver. According to Robinson:

Technology has been one of the major drivers of human innovation… Using other things to help us get something done has always being a driving force of human innovation… Because tools do two things. They literally extend our reach… they enable us to do things we simply cannot do. But they do something else: they extend our imagination. [and] allow us to think of things that we couldn’t do before. But the tools themselves don’t provide the answer. We still have to think of how to use them in the most creative way. In the end, a cupboard full of musical instruments has no music in it. We need to cultivate people’s imagination and creativity so they can see the potential of the tool.

I have previously written about how the development of a school culture that provides the conditions in which creativity and imagination can flourish is the most critical aspect of meaningful school change and innovation. Technology alone will not make it happen. Indeed, the technology will achieve little unless the ecology of learning and the purpose of technology have been clearly established. It’s about culture, imagination, creativity, risk-taking, failure, learning, questioning and the amplification of this entire process – especially the innovation piece – through the appropriate use of tools and technologies that help extend our ambition and learning outcomes. It’s about how we use those things.

Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.
George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset; Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity
Ken Robinson, How to Build a Culture of Innovation