Innovation – The more the term is used the less it seems to mean

We listened last week in Nashville as noted Harvard Business School author and professor Clayton Christensen explained the premise of Disrupting Class to the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States. In the Q&A period, he said he has to limit his use of the term “innovation” to those occasions when there’s time to define it.

We’re wondering, like Christensen, if the term “innovation” hasn’t been stretched, twisted, and hijacked into definitional disarray.

For Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, innovation seems to mean grabbing the lessons from schools with records of high performance and grafting them on to problem schools. Finding “what works,” adopting it, spreading it around. Why not call that what it is: replication?

Replication is a worthy effort. But ‘new, here’ is not the same as ‘new, anywhere’. There needs to be room for real innovation. Which means: Letting schools and teachers try things. Which means, in turn, that we will all have to get comfortable with not-knowing, ahead, what the innovators will come up with.

And that, of course, runs head-on into the argument from the research community that no change should be made unless it’s ‘evidence-based’. How can real innovation be ‘evidence-based’?

There’s an argument that replication at least should be evidence-based. But this has to contend with the reality that students differ. People sometimes point to medicine. But even there researchers does not always come to a definitive conclusion; and where they do the conclusions often change with new research a short time later.

Christensen’s career rests on his distinction between “sustaining” innovation—the constant improvements that successful enterprises make in their products or services—and “disruptive” innovation in which a new and different product or business model bursts through from a competitor the established firm cannot emulate.

This highlights a critical problem with ‘innovation’. These disruptive innovations, the truly new models, are never high-quality at first. They appeal just to people not being served well by the mainstream offerings.

Rigorously evaluated against the existing and traditional model, real innovation would be rejected. At any given time most people are not ready for radical change. Progress would stop. As our colleague Joe Graba puts it, “Almost everyone wants schools to be better, but almost no one wants them to be different.”

Education|Evolving has been trying to think this whole puzzlement through. It does seem to us that innovation has to involve trying things not tried before, pushing on the edges, breaking out of the institutional boxes of practices that hold people back and that fasten them to doing the same things in the same way day after day.

Are we wrong about that?

—Guestblogger Curt Johnson, Education|Evolving

12 thoughts on “Innovation – The more the term is used the less it seems to mean

  1. rstanton

    You aren’t wrong.

    There is a legalistic approach to K-12 teaching that rationalizes the most tedious approaches. Students will sit for an hour in front of a worksheet they don’t understand (or have mastered years before), copy the answers at the last minute, and get full “credit” for the “work.” This foolishness is accepted as legitimate.

    This scenario happens all day, every day, all over the place, and it is accepted because it manifests some external qualities of learning: “material” is “covered” and the student is “assessed” and “held accountable.” Time is killed.

    We teachers get bombarded with new instructions, and the old ones are never revoked, just forgotten or vaporized as in 1984.

    There is a moment when everyone knows that the latest new thing has failed, but it’s against decorum to ask what happened to such and such a program.

    True, “innovation” is just another buzzword now. “Initiative” is also a word that makes my skin crawl. “Drilling into the data” is vomitous, too. Nothing wrong with the concepts, but as they filter out to the classroom they become too garbled to be useful.

    My observations make me sound like a typical crank veteran teacher, but I am a cheerful and energetic one who will try anything that might help learning. This whole question of what innovation really means is very interesting. Is there a worksheet?

  2. GGW

    Are you wrong? Hmm.

    1. You say: If achievement is essential, then generating more student and teacher effort is essential. CORRECT.

    2. You say: If effort is essential, then motivation is essential. CORRECT.

    3. You say: We need new models of motivation. CORRECT.

    4. You say: So we need lots more electronics, because young people like cell phones and if they can learn with their cell phones they will be motivated to do algebra homework and read The Scarlet Letter. BZZZZ.

  3. Steve Peha

    Great post with a great insight.

    By definition, we need innovation in schools, and if we want significant change, we need significant innovation. That means doing things that have never been done before or, as I will argue below, doing things that have been around for quite a while but have been pushed to the margins by the standards and testing movements.

    Here’s an interesting personal metric on how standards and testing have hampered innovation. I started working in classrooms in 1995. By 1997, I felt confident enough to begin creating original “innovations” in my own teaching. I tested each of these original practices in front of multiple grade levels of kids and had them used by teachers other than myself. In a three year period ending around 2000, I created and validated about 100 separate original practices. Then testing and standards hit hard, with NCLB coming shortly thereafter.

    Since NCLB started, I have created fewer than 10 original practices. I no longer have classrooms I can work in to validate them because schools simply won’t let someone come in and try something that isn’t “research-based”, and the new practices I create are not allowed to be used anyway — even when they work — because they are not “research-based.” (Even though I have often “researched” them successful in the same schools that won’t let me use them; the irony of “research-based” practice is that at some point someone has to let someone research them BEFORE they are research-based!)

    A standardized curriculum and standardized tests have come to mean standardized teaching, And don’t think for a minute that most teachers are using research-based practices to begin with. I’ve worked in literally thousands of classrooms and believe me they’re not. My favorite consulting situation these days is to be in a room of teachers arguing the merits of one practice or another when I know I’m the only one who has read the research on it. Teachers and principals simply don’t pay attention to research and most don’t know what to do with it even when they have it front of them. Teachers aren’t taught to be teachers with research-based methods nor have their talents and beliefs been cultivated in ways that would lead to research being of much value to them.

    So innovation bares a double burden as we move forward. First, many people in schools today have corrupted the concept of research to be a self-serving proxy for lack of change. Second, our system of testing and standards makes innovation impractical from the standpoint of teachers and administered worried about keeping their test scores up. Where’s the payoff for innovation in our school system? Nowhere. Even merit pay doesn’t reward innovation directly. (As a side note, I have seen a variety of documents describing teacher quality and never have I seen “innovative” as a noted attribute of successful teaching. Personally, I find this astounding on one level – and completely predictable on another.)

    Finally, when most education experts think of innovation, they tend to suggest innovative “structures” like longer school days, or different aggregations of students, or perhaps — as they have in England recently — different structures for school buildings. But the real need for innovation is in instruction and administrative leadership. The ironic thing about these two areas is that they have been highly innovated already. The professional literature in teaching (though not considered research per se), explains in great detail how good practices can achieve spectacular results. A simple visit to Stenhouse, Heinemann, Jossey-Bass, ASCD, etc., will produce a wealth of solutions to even the most complicated educational conundra.

    Case in point: Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. This is probably the world’s the most successful model for literacy instruction — and it’s 30+ years old! Hundreds of wonderful texts exist on this subject. Yet it is used by perhaps 3% of all teachers and is often banned as unholy perversion of classic teaching in about half the districts I’ve worked in. Many people regard it as too innovative or otherwise unsupported by research. It stands out as an innovative simply because, to most teachers, it seems frightening or “too progressive.” But really it’s just a distillation into a system of all the best research on how children learn to read and write. It’s actually old hat. But it comes off to highly conservative fear-driven teachers and ill-prepared semi-paralyzed administrators as risky and unproven. Better to use a publisher-supplied program instead where everyone can teach from the same page on the same day, and all kids can do the same thing the same way. (This is the logic that prevails even though we know that differentiation is the key to leaving no child behind.)

    So how will innovation get a foothold? Currently, at least in public schools, it will not. However, we always have innovative schools among us (and we actually have a large number of innovative classrooms filled by teachers who are strong enough to buck the system). For example, take a look at Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning. True innovators like this will fall within the private system; even most charters will tether themselves to the failed ideas of the past (which is exactly why so few do better than their public school counterparts.)

    Innovation is anathema to school in its current form. And the more we rely on curriculum standards and standardized testing, the less innovative school will become. So how do we get out of this mess?

    The answer is in the generation of new teachers coming into the system. In the next 5-10 years, demographic data suggests that we will turn over 50% or more of our current crop of teachers. That means they will be replaced by new teachers. If we could begin now to have a substantive national dialog (are you listening Arne Duncan?) about changing teacher training, we might at some point in the future produce teachers who are inclined toward innovation, rather than the type of teacher we produce today who is not only poorly prepared but emotionally uncomfortable with stepping outside the boundaries of traditional practice.

    Innovation is not only possible, it is being practiced right now. We’re just not looking for it in the right places. We fly at too high a level. Education policy folks, who haven’t spent much time teaching kids, tend to favor structural reforms, when the truth is that we need down on the ground, in the trenches, cultural reform. You can’t have innovation in a system where the people are immune to or afraid of innovation. The big innovation in education will come when we are training educators in innovative ways that prepare them to achieve the results we’ve laid out for 21st century schools.

  4. Steve Peha

    Exactly, Brad. Two key words there: “transformation” and “practice”. To much of ed reform is “information” not “transformation”. This means giving more to teachers than just a few new tricks; it means showing them a new way of being in the classroom. And “practice” is the key. Until we start focusing our efforts on changing practice, we’ll get nothing more than what we have now: which is nothing more the occasional modest success amid a see of continual failure.

  5. john thompson


    Thank you for an excellent post, a link to an excellent source, and for prompting agreement between GGW and me.

    I’ll start with your post, and see if it restarts the battle with GGW. The biggest problem of supporters of NCLB-type accountability is that they primarily reason by analogy, but they don’t look at the facts on the ground. They take approaches that made sense to them in their fields of finance and law or whatever, and then prescribe them for urban schools. Worse, thinking by analogy they look first at “best practices” that work for lower poverty, elementary, and magnet schools and apply those lessons to the toughest neighborhood schools.

    When I was a lobbyist in an admittedly small state, there was no question that that approach was the norm. Staff sought models from other states to base legislation on, and that was before the horsetrading. (Granted, I’m reasoning by analogy here) But, we weren’t trying to impose our preferences/models on the entire country! I’ve read so many reports by CCCR, DFER, Ed Trust, etc. and they are almost completely devoid of two things: a) evidence that their policies would work in neighborhood schools, and b) a rationale or a plausible explanation of how their proposals would do more good than harm. (As much as I usually disagree with Eduwonk, the Ed Sector is an exception. Their reports always follow the highest standards in the use of evidence)

    Here’s my theory. Accountability hawks have primarily sought to destroy “the status quo,” like a Hurricane Rhee or Hurricane Klein, and consequently pay much less attention to whether their preferred methods of rebuilding would actually work. Why? They believe that “the Market” would unleash “creative destruction” that would somehow create something better.

    For NCLB II, at least, we should look first at the facts of teaching, learning, and the realities of poor NEIGHBORHOOD schools, and then tried to devise solutions for them.

    The best thing about your report was included in the contrast between the “Present” which emphasizes “rigor, multiple-choice tests, testing for accountability, and a mentality of standardization, and covering the material and “make ‘em” in a system where time is fixed.

    We need a “Future” with diagnostic testing for customization and understanding propelled on relevance and motivation.”

    Finally, even though cell phones are suicidal for chaotic neighborhood schools, (why ban guns if you allow technology that encourages fights to become so much more common and serious?) I’d agree with you if I was teaching my same high-poverty kids in summer programs where we had the power to enforce rules. Similarly, look at the abuses of “credit recovery.” Its potential good is just as great. But under high stakes accountability, credit recovery will still do good when implemented with integrity, but it will probably do more harm than good when people constantly have to CYA.

  6. Steve Peha


    As always, you have very intelligent things to say. But what you said about applying “analogous” ideas to different situations strikes me as the heart of the problem.

    Case in point: Let’s say I’ve just been hired to revamp a charter school’s approach to literacy (which I have). Will I borrow from another model and revamp by analogy? No way! Why? Because I have my own model and I already know it works. So we’ll just do that instead. Now, if I didn’t have a model, if I didn’t know what to do, I’d be forced into the analogy route. And the only way I know my model works is that I’ve taught it, I’ve taught it to other teachers, and they’ve taught it to their kids.

    I submit that most of what passes as ed reform is not reform at all but simply form itself. The form of school hasn’t changed much, it’s just been codified because the people in charge had no idea whatsoever about what they were doing. So naturally they chose familiar analogs and went with the “well, it’s better than nothin'” approach. Charter schools are probably the best evidence we have of this. Recent stat: 83% of charter schools are no better or worse than their public school counterparts. And that doesn’t include the 12% of charter schools that have failed completely. You mean to tell me that with all the freedom in the world, the best that can be done is that 17% of charter schools are a little better than the public schools they were supposed to compete against? What kind of batting average is that? More importantly, why did this happen? Because most of the people running charter schools don’t really know much about running schools.

    It is time for those of us with any sanity left to demand real reform. That is, school that takes a radically different form than what we have seen in the last 50 years or so. And it is time that we demand that only those people who know how to do this be allowed to make the big decisions. No more experiments on kids and teachers. No more accountability systems that aren’t even accountable to themselves. No more demands for research-based practice by a system that isn’t based in research itself.

    It’s time we all got ready to walk our chalk.

  7. Tracy W

    I disagree with the idea that we should be happy with not high-quality innnovations in schools. Education quality is really really important, particularly for young kids, for whom it will be their first experience of learning in a formal setting. This is a case where we should expect high quality even first time, or at least first mass roll-out.
    It’s like medicine, or toddlers’ toys, or nuclear power plants. Would you be happy with doctors that just tried things, or toymakers who ignored all past evidence about what toddlers do to toys and how to design safe toys, or nuclear power plant operators who just tried things?
    I am in favour of innovation in education, as it is in medicine. But there are more and less safe ways of rolling out new ideas, and “just trying things” is great for iPhones but not when kids’ futures are at risk.

  8. IDM

    Thought provoking comments. Thank you. A couple of thoughts.

    1) Excellent models abound. Maybe we need high quality replication and not innovation. The emphasis here on high quality.

    2) As a person who came out of the biomedical sciences into education it puzzles me why the education community is so resistant to utilizing research techniques that are employed in medical research. Large population studies are don precisely because they are so successful. As with all research, some studies come up with findings that do not hold in the longterm. Interestingly, finding the errors usually come to light as the orignal smaller sample size is increased. The vast majority of medical population studies drive us to the correct conclusions and often lead us to interesting new unanticipated findings. Hundreds of millions of people would not have had their lives extended by decades thanks to statins that were developed and adopted for use by physicians as valuable in large part as a result of the Framingham Study, a large population study to identify risk factors for heart disease. Perhaps we in the education community have much to learn from the clinical researchers.

  9. Jim Walker

    Curt, at one time years ago I was thought of as an innovative leader. I have dropped out of the education leadership field for many reasons but, mainly because of government intervention known as testing. The old graduation rule imposed from on high stopped site- based innovation and teacher empowerment in its tracks. It was not just the graduation rule but a series of mandates that removed the focus of education in the classroom.

    In the 1960s after the “MN Miracle,” the legislature demanded that certain clock hours be allocated to each subject. I was a young principal at the time and many of the classroom teachers came to me (these teachers came from the old one-room schools that were consolidated) and said reading instruction quality was going to start slipping. They had been teaching reading in their classrooms up to three hours a day in the primary which was reduced by the mandate. They were right: the ability of our students to read started to slip over time.

    Years later our district hired a sub teacher to just walk around the school and go into and out of classrooms to record what the teachers were doing. The amount of time that was spent on non-basic skill teaching was unbelieveable. They were teachiing mandates that were often dealing with the social issues of the time or the current political issue. Hours of instuctiional time were wasted each week just having students moving, changing materials, and the tons of other items that must be carried on in the classroom, and the disruption that is caused by changing classroom focus from one item or mandate to another. The amount of time that was not spent in instruction of skills was greater than the time spent on instruction of skills. This study was presented to the senate education committee and one of the members said a good teacher should be able to incorporate all of these into their basic skill instruction, and we were brushed off. One senator did ask, however, what if we were right? No response and they got into more important issues of bus seat belts or something of that nature. The primary teachers in this study by the way were excellent overworked individuals that always were worried about doiing a good job for their students. If all the political add ons to the curriculum are important maybe the legislature should lengthen the school day or year so they can be taught rather then taking time from the district’s instructionial mission. Other organiztions can deal with many of the political mandates, but very few of the other social institutions know how to teach reading.

    When I was the only superintendent to testify in favor of the Charter School legislation, I did so to try to get schools out of the bureaucratic hands of the state. At best this law has had mixed results. I once sugggested to the principals association that a new superintendent should be able to replace all of his/her building leadership when hired, just as new CEOs in industry can do. Needless to say, that went nowhere.

    Our schools play musical chairs with leadership, board members, and the great school board in the sky called the legislature. School focus has been lost and the mission is always changing.

    Maybe, just maybe, we should try to get back to the one-room school focus where the teacher understands the scope and sequence of the skills needed at all of the levels of instruction, knows what has to be taught and in what order, knows what needs to be mastered and what can be left out of instruction.

    Years ago I was priviledged to go as a representitive of our state to Singapore and view their schools and meet with their leadership. They have large class sizes and old fashion “methods” of teaching, yet their students constantly score high on international tests. Education is important to the society and if the school calls the parent about an issue, the parent “loses face,” which is one of the worst things that can happen. The result is the students work hard to learn so that their parent does not receive a call. They do not have a magic program or “innovative methods” to teach their students. A principal in the district I worked for tried to shorten recess by five or ten minutes to increase reading instruction, and the resulting parent eruption including letters to the editor was unbelieveable.

    The district I worked for was one of the first to have a school building run by the teachers, we were the first to have college classes in the school, we started a program with St. Cloud University to have our classroom teachers teach new potential teachers from day one in our district classrooms. We had site-based schools, we had schools where the state aid was given to the teachers and they could spend the money and hire their own paraprofessiionals as they saw fit. ( This was written up in a “Nation at Risk.”) I could go on and on.

    We are talking about the same things today as we were talking about in the 1960s. We may have renamed them but the retoric is the same. Our hearts are in the right place but in 40 years we have not been as successful as the one-room school teachers who knew their job was to teach a student the basic skills.

    I have often wondered, by the way, why people who teach in other professions do not give up the practice of their profession. Dentists, medical doctors, still carry on the practice of their profession beyond the classroom. How many college instructors in education go back into the K-12 classroom to practice the profession they are teaching? How many administration instructors that train our leadership go back to the district level to practice the leadership that they are teaching others to do. I hold a doctorate in leadership and the majority of my professors (hard working and good people as they were) never lead anyone anywhere. Research and studies have their place, it is in the application of this research where we and the reseachers fail.

    I have reread this and feel like I am a typical resistant public servant who is anti-change. Anyone who knows me and the schools that I have had the priviledge to lead knows I am the opposite. I was a leader but more important I was a practioner.

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