Expanding the Portfolio of School Innovations

Innovation is the current coin of the realm, pursued by the private and public sectors as the fountain of youth that will revive our ailing economy and improve our quality of life. It is the Holy Grail for educators as well, who have embraced creativity, innovation, and design thinking as core 21st century skills for students and as essential tools for redesigning schools. Both President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have called for more innovation in education.

Peter Drucker defined innovation as something new that adds value. Judging from the tepid results we have seen thus far, it is timely to ask if educators have been innovative enough. Might they want to expand their portfolio of innovations to include some significant alternatives to prevailing practice?

Reflect for a moment on how many aspects of schooling are taken for granted in the vast majority of schools. The way that time is allocated and used, the way that the disciplines are addressed, and the way that teachers and students relate to each other have not undergone any significant change since formal schooling began. Schools continue to fragment learning into grades and subjects, certify learning by counting seat time, and favoring paper and pencil tests over demonstrations of competence.

Innovating inside this box of "regularities" is futile if we expect so much more from our schools. Yet these regularities drive far too many students from our schools before they graduate and fail to prepare many high school graduates for success in postsecondary learning and careers.

Some innovations are deemed exemplary because they address the regularities more efficiently or faster, and success is judged by using comfortable but grossly inadequate definitions and measures of success. In attempting to resuscitate this thoroughly exhausted design, educators forgo the opportunity to fundamentally redesign schools and schooling, settling instead for a low form of utilitarianism.

Significant innovation typically entails a deliberate and reasoned "creative destruction" (a term made popular in the 1940s by economist Joseph Schumpeter) of many, if not most, of those regularities. Recall the Napster phenomenon: Seventeen-year-old Shawn Fanning created a system for sharing music that forced the music distribution industry to rethink its business model. Although the music moguls shut down Napster, they could not shut down the business model it created. The music distribution business would never be the same.

The notion of what constitutes high school is hardwired in us. Therefore, Clayton Christensen, author of books on innovation in education, health care, and corporate America, suggests that the only innovation worth crafting is the kind that completely redefines the problem and its context before thinking about creative solutions. This approach contrasts sharply with one that assumes that we have the problem and its context well defined, and that all we need are a few new solutions -- a few innovations.

We will need much bolder moves if we are to make a difference in the lives of many young people and, ultimately, in our society's future. What would significant innovations look like? For starters, consider:

  • A multiple-pathways approach that engages each learner through their interests and wraps a complete curriculum around those interests.

  • Choices for students in what, how, and when they learn.
  • Employing validated performances rather than seat time requirements as the standard for passing courses and certifying learning.
  • Giving credit for learning that takes place through real-world, out-of-school experiences such as after school programs, internships, travel, and certifications.
  • Technology applications that provide each student with customized resources for learning, assessment, and documenting accomplishments.
  • Equally important is creating in each and every school in the country a faculty that is skilled in and committed to relentless innovation -- edgy as well as sustaining -- in the interest of their students' learning. A culture for innovating requires a tolerance -- make that a passion -- for continually examining alternatives to existing practice and questioning every aspect of schools.

    If we have the ingenuity and courage to take an innovative idea from the edge to the middle, we may be able to encourage changes in education that would otherwise take decades of debate in the policy realm. To do this will require that we push back on the boundaries we take for granted about innovations and innovating.

    Policy makers and others who call for and support educational innovation must consider creating a balanced portfolio of "edgy" alternatives to complement those sustaining innovations that improve and deepen existing practice. Such edgy innovations may generate more of what Malcolm Gladwell calls "tipping points," innovations that create a momentum for substantial, significant, and sustainable change.