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Elliot Washor

Elliot Washor

Posted: October 22, 2009 09:44 AM

Thoughts on Innovation

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Each year our schools fail to graduate about a million young people and many of those who do stay in school are bored and minimally engaged in challenging learning, are performing poorly, and have limited prospects for successful postsecondary learning and work. Their situation is as much attributable to a deeply flawed school design as it is to faulty execution, so it is unlikely that yet another school improvement plan will yield any significant change in their prospects. Given the escalating expectations for high school graduates, getting better at implementing the traditional school design is not nearly enough when doing differently, very differently, is so desperately needed.

Reflect for a moment on how many aspects of schooling are taken for granted in the vast majority of schools in this country. The way that time is allocated and used, the way that knowledge is treated, and the way that teachers and students relate to each other have not undergone any significant change since formal schooling began in this country. Schools continue to fragment learning into grades and subjects, and certify learning by counting seat time and using paper and pencil tests rather than assessing demonstrated competence and a deep understanding of a real problem. There are limits to how much improvement can be wrung from the "regularities" of the existing system, particularly for our young people who are served so poorly by it.

Real innovation typically entails a deliberate and creative remaking of many, if not most, of those system regularities. Think, for example, of the implications of jettisoning the seat time credit unit system in favor of a true performance-based competency approach. Think of how certifying teachers might move in a similar fashion. Think of giving students real choice in their learning work that places them with adults in a real-world environment. We need to push back on the boundaries we take for granted in contemplating innovation.

From our perspective, innovation means first different, then better. That is, innovating is a fundamentally different way of doing things that result in considerably better, and perhaps different, outcomes. Both the "different" and the "better" must be significant and substantial. Educators need to think of innovating as those actions that significantly challenge key assumptions about schools and the way they operate. Therefore, to innovate is to question the "box" in which we operate and to innovate outside of it as well as within.

What most people are really talking about when they use the term innovation is more like what industrial historian Phil Scranton discusses as a variation, that is, "the disciplined change of an artifact's features or components, without affecting its core functions or capabilities" or a novelty that "references the creation of new artifacts within the domain of the known." What is needed is "innovation that is problem solving at the edges of the known, where solutions (designs, procedures, practices envisioned) stretch past present capabilities, and embrace uncertainty." Rosabeth Kantor suggests that, "Entrepreneurs always operate at the edge of their competence, investing more of their energy and resources in what they do not know, rather than in controlling what they already know."

I am reminded of Clayton Christensen's* admonition that the only innovating worth doing is the disrupting kind, the kind that completely redefines the problem and its context before thinking about creative solutions to it. Christensen, therefore, asks different (note "first different, then better") questions about what we are trying to accomplish. Then he thinks about innovations. This contrasts sharply with questions that assume that we have the problem and its context well defined, and all we need is a few innovative solutions.

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.

Policy makers and others who call for and support educational innovation must consider creating a balanced portfolio of "edgy" alternatives -- different then better -- 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.

* On October 20 in Washington, D.C., Big Picture Learning honored Clayton Christensen for his work on Innovation in business, health and education.

Elliot Washor, Ed.D., is Co-Founder of Big Picture Learning, a global leader in education innovation with more than 80 highly successful schools throughout America, the European Union, the Middle East, and Australia.