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.