School Innovation Myths

 We are quick to call something innovative in education (afterall the Brookings Institute has compiled a list of over 3,000 “Innovations” in education). This tendency to call something “innovative” in our daily work or in the media has resulted in some myths about “innovation”.

Myth #1 – Innovation In Education is About Technology

Technology doesn’t matter.  Innovation is a matter of coming up with new ways to solve existing problems.  Sometimes it involves technology, but the reality is that this is rare.  Sure, most educators will say “duh”, but the reality is that a lot of technology-focused solutions are labeled “innovative” and treated as such by teachers and the public alike before ever showing evidence of success.  For example, personalized learning (or personalized content) or blended learning do not have convincing evidence of success, but they are routinely lauded as “innovative”.  One to one laptop programs are explicitly technology-focused and considered “innovative”, but they do not have wide-spread evidence of solving a real-world problem (except the problem of how we put more technology in the hands of students).  Just because a solution uses cutting edge technology, it is not “innovative”. 

Myth #2 – Innovation is Sexy

Teachers and solution developers that have their idea labeled “innovative” do become the darlings of media.  Here’s the rub, these darlings of the media that make innovation seem sexy are rarely successful at solving a real-world problem.  A couple of quick examples.  First, Alt School was widely covered in 2017 as a breakthrough idea that was going to disrupt and solve education.  In 2019 Alt School was reported to be closing in on going out of business despite x million in investment from Silicon Valley hotshots.  Second, Summit Schools, a California-based charter network, developed a personalized learning platform with the help of Facebook developers.  The CEO of Summit was widely covered in the media for their work and ambition.  More recently Summit and their learning platform have been assailed by teachers, parents, and others because it has failed to deliver on the promise.  The reality is that innovation is slow, iterative work that is not sexy.  It is rewarding, but innovation in teaching and learning takes discipline, patience, and a deep understanding of the problem.  This work is not sexy, but it is rewarding (and frustrating). 

Myth #3 – Innovation is about great ideas. 

There seems to be this view in education that innovation is about new ideas.  All we need is a good idea to make a breakthrough.  The reality is that ideas are cheap (even good ideas).  What we need to is to implement approaches to improvement that focus on designing ways to test ideas. 

Myth # 4- Innovation is Expensive

Big bets equal big returns.  For example, in 2014 Baltimore County School District launched an ambitious laptop program that cost $147M.  In late 2018 an evaluation showed that the program had no impact on student achievement.   Big bet little impact.  Alt School is another example of a big investment ($174M) that seems to have paid no dividends in student outcomes (or as a business venture for that matter).  On the other hand, small investments in innovative ideas may have greater potential for impact.  For example, peer tutoring has been shown to work in a variety of settings for very little investment.  Why not invest in peer tutoring approach tailored to the local needs and evaluate the results.  Or, even better, why not frame the strategic issue that is most urgent and invest in teachers to develop and test ideas to address the problem?  Innovation does not have to be expensive or be about big bets. 

Myth #5 – It’s Can’t Be Taught

In my time in education I have heard leaders repeatedly refer to teachers a “innovative” in a way that made it seem innate.  There always seems to be mystery around “being innovative”.  Instead of teaching teachers how to be “innovative”, we focus on teaching them “innovative” techniques.  We treat innovation as if it is something that cannot be taught.  The reality is that innovation is a process that proceeds from framing a problem to designing and testing solutions.  It is messy and non-linear, but it can be taught.