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