Four Forms of Innovation

The word Innovation is one that is tossed around so much that it’s lost much of its impact. In some ways it’s like “awesome,” isn’t it? Once awesome meant something that literally took your breath away. These days it’s just a tired expression of assent; something that is deemed awesome is more likely just socially acceptable. Similarly, in a world where corporate press releases are grinded out in volumes that rival unit sales neither “innovation” nor “innovative” catch the readers’ attention much.

Add to that the point, already made, that scant few resources exist, whether in the form of HR or money, to engage in the various activities that one might immediately recognize as innovative. Besides in today’s busy, distracted world it’s often hard to spot it when it does occur.

That’s not to say it does not exist—it’s just generally buried under mounds of impressive looking but essentially shallow efforts. A recent journey to the Unemployed Philosopher’s blog reminded me that most of the important work happens far away from fanfare. Day after day, professionals of all kinds, including educators, toil away developing the small but significant things that make practice just a bit better. It is a shame, really. Much of the attention is given to things that appear significant but are really not once you take the time to peer beneath the surface; stuff designed to grab the attention and maybe further some goal, just not the goals one would associate with positive change for all. Sure it may look and sound great but in the end, you’re often left with the professional equivalent of election promises. The real innovations often lie elsewhere, often buried among the many other details that take up our days. They do, nonetheless exist and can be seen if you look hard enough, in one of these four forms.

1. Structured Engineering: The kinds of planned changes that take place in a more-or-less orderly fashion. You have identified a problem to be solved, planned a solution that involves more-or-less standardized equipment & procedures then will implement and test a solution.

For example, suppose you develop an online visual art course. You will carry out a procedure roughly like this:

  • review with the curriculum guide and outline the general instructional strategies, including the method by which they will be developed or acquired;
  • assemble the development and implementation team; formulate the overall plan;
  • select and assemble a system of effective tools and methods by which you will carry out the plan;
  • field test the course and revise as necessary.


  • Good fit between need and response.
  • Robust system once implemented.


  • Significant up-front cost.
  • Often significant resistance to system-wide change and adaptation.
  • Possibility of large scale failure if wrong choices are made.

2. Structured Deepening: This involves extending an existing system in a purposeful way. As an example, perhaps you chose to modify the aforementioned system by which you are teaching visual art so that you can now teach music online too.


  • Significantly less costly than starting from scratch.
  • Less likelihood of large-scale failure.


  • Less than optimal fit between need and response since you are modifying an existing system rather than building one to meet specifications.

3. Radically novel: Every so often completely new approaches are developed. It can be argued that before “Star Trek: The Next Generation” nobody thought very seriously about the use of multipurpose digital tablets such as Apple’s iPad or Google’s Nexus Tablet. Now, however these multipurpose devices are changing the way people interact with the Internet, with audio and video and, most importantly, with one another.


  • Often based on new devices; carries a shink & new “wow” sense of interest;


  • Teaching and Learning sometimes becomes a secondary activity;
  • New devices often lack institutional tech support and have a short lifespan.

4. Entirely new bodies of knowledge and practice: Radically new devices lead, in turn, to entirely new ways of doing things. Consider English Language Arts. In the pre-digital age the focus was on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Now, with so many modes by which we can communicate an additional focus—Representing—is becoming very important. The mobile devices, mentioned above, are also changing the way we interact. Who knows what’s coming!


  • Generally a good fit for those who have had the benefit of the events that led to the new development.
  • Often well-suited to the time and place in which they occur; “ products of their times.”


  • Often adopted by evangelicals who assume (incorrectly) that the new way is the best way for all.

Through it all, though, it remains as important as ever to maintain a focus on teaching and learning. While the new devices and methods are exciting, if the end result is not a strategically significant improvement in an identified area of concern in education, most notably increased achievement or cost savings, then the innovation is pointless.


10 thoughts on “Four Forms of Innovation

  1. It seems that the less innovative things become the more it is hyped as such they are. I cringe when I see that sort of products are called innovative.
    This is not at all to downplay the role of “standard” product development – but it seems you have to hype normal products already so that they are perceived at all … as all the competing stuff is so leading-edge and innovative and whatnot. And of course these aren’t products – these are “solutions”.

    1. Yes, that complex web of well-directed truths and psychology we call “marketing.” I could not even hope to but scratch the surface on all that it does. One thing I do know for sure is that marketing seems to drive acceptance and not the reverse. The old idea of creating the need and then developing the solution seems to have really taken root all around us!

  2. With technology in place, definitely cursive writing is no longer part of the curriculum. I suppose, we are losing the art of handwriting and this is now an elective.

    1. The whole idea of cursive writing is still a hotly debated idea. While, yes, you can certainly take good notes in some situations by typing on a laptop I have yet to see a good electronic device that takes good notes in general. I’m a techno geek and I still take paper and pencil to a meeting. I’d happily stop when i see something that let’s be draw, write, type, make tables and diagrams as well as my paper but fro now, everything I have tried is second rate.

  3. Ok, it wasn’t until the very end that I realized the focus was on innovation in that sphere with which you concern yourself professionally, teaching and learning. At first I thought you had opened this up to a more expansive consideration and you were going to focus on innovations in science and the value of primary research. You say, “Day after day, professionals … toil away developing the small but significant things that make practice just a bit better.” Primary work, in all fields, is just this way. Work progresses in baby-steps. The innovations you refer to are few and far between and require mental leaps made by those who are either lucky (to have stumbled across something) or quite bright indeed. I’m thinking of Kary Mullins and his development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) in 1983 for which he shared a Nobel a decade later. [You may know that this technique allows for the amplification of DNA and lies somewhere at the heart of the revolution in molecular genetics which we are currently enjoying.] So, in my taxonomy there are two kinds of innovative thought … one which occurs on a very small scale and contributes lots of individual pieces to the puzzle … and the other which is synthetic, on a larger scale, and relies entirely on all of the little pieces being in their proper place … this results in building the puzzle. D

    1. Yes, I was talking specifically about education but, like you, I was thinking in more general terms. I have to admit that my favourite tasks are of the more routine nature and it’s not because I like things that are boring. It is, rather, that like most others (including you) who have spent a lot of time working at their craft I take pleasure in practicing it. For me this involves planning, outlining, writing/scripting, editing audio and video, creating animations and such. I love it and will probably spend the rest of my life at it. I don’t plan to overturn anything but am happy to pass along anything learn along the way to others–it gives me pleasure in knowing that tidbits of what I am can be of help to others.
      Sound familiar? Ha ha–I thought so!

  4. Your fourth point caught my attention, regarding ELA. I had not realized that formal curriculum had included viewing and representing in only more recent times. I found some info on line from Manitoba Education that elaborates on this, and indeed the conveyance is that this is a new component of teaching and learning. I disagree that this is an “Entirely new bodies of knowledge and practice,” but do not disagree that in context of the digital age there is a perception that representing is a new practice.
    Your observation of it’s con–”Often adopted by evangelicals who assume (incorrectly) that the new way is the best way for all”–does illuminate how an English degree has lost its value for writers in the business world, being replaced by degrees that have built tech training into their writing programs.
    Interesting and helpful post. Aristotle, St. Augustine, and John Dryden–if they were alive now–might be a bit miffed to discover that had they only written their advice on rhetoric into a power point, they’d still be relevant today. (I am grinning, and hopefully I do not sound sarcastic or grumpy.)

    1. Thanks for that excellent comment–which, by the way comes across as nicely light-hearted; not in any way grumpy. Yes, the “representing” outcomes are, for me, an interesting and useful part of the ELA program and one that is still in great need of work. Teachers do try very hard to work on this outcome but it can be very difficult owing tp the vast number of digital tools available. It’s easy for the message to get lost in the medium; that is, it becomes easy for students to wrap half-baked ideas up in some shiny new tech and make a project look good even without substance. But I know that’s something that ELA teachers are working on.
      That’s an interesting thought about the change in focus English at post – secondary. I had noticed that my own “kids” at university, at the second semester, needed to shift to an English course that focused more on developing research and representation skills. Mind you, I took at look at the course and wished it had been available to me so many years ago. In 2nd semester, first year English I had to suffer through, among other things “The Stone Angel.” And, yes, I suppose that in its own way it is a great piece of work but, for a (then) 17 year old “boy from the bay” the torturous read and subsequent even-more-torturous class discussion pretty much stifled my love of reading for a while.
      By the way, I took a quick peek at “your place” and plan to drop by for some Play later on this weekend 🙂

      1. Thanks, Maurice. I understand the suffering that was English 100, and can relate probably better than it would appear. My first interest was science, and I preferred math equations over poetry. I started in English following the expectations of other people, and it didn’t go well. I quit school for a while. When I finally resolved to disappoint everyone, and applied to another university with a good science faculty, I was sent back to redo some of my failed English classes before I could transfer. So, I took a class with a professor that exposed me to literary theory and a study of culture. It was abstract, it had theories, and structures, and broke down language like a mathematical equation. I stayed and finished the degree in English, and really enjoyed it. It bore no resemblance at all to anything I could have imagined doing in public school, or introductory English. 🙂

        I think one of the difficulties that arises with presenting finished ELA work is a problem that belongs to the larger society. The rush to publish, to make a product and sell it is always pushing on creative people. There is another mindset that accompanies this, and it is that the truly gifted are prolific, that brilliance drops from their minds without revisions or rewrites. When people have trouble getting their thoughts down on paper, they seem to assume they can’t write. I see this in adults, and kids alike. It’s a strangely powerful and persistent cultural myth, which can either lead people into giving up, or to finishing too soon.

  5. johnlmalone

    an excellent post ! I love the way you present the pros and cons. Maybe because I was in my fifties when the internet came along and older, of course, when other electronic devices came along that I can attribute very little to #4

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