Let’s Kill Innovation

In the past couple of years I’ve probably used the word “innovation” thousands of times and read or heard it thousands of times more. Naturally. I worked in an Office of Innovation (inside the Division of Talent, Labor and Innovation) running “Innovate NYC Schools” (Twitter handle @innovatenycedu), which was funded by a grant from the Investing in Innovation program (from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement). I’ve written here about “Innovation 1.0,” “Innovation 2.0,” and “failure[s] of innovation.” But it’s a lazy term for a hazy concept and I vote for a moratorium.

First, “innovation” manages to be both too vague (it can be applied to anything, and is) and too narrow (it’s usually just a trendier, TED-ier version of “technology”). Because it’s used so often without referring to anything in particular, it begins to feel like an incantation from the realm of magical thinking. Second, surveys show that outside of Silicon Valley, “innovation” has a terrible brand with most parents and educators. It worries the former and induces eye-rolls from the latter, so invoking it as a goal or a policy is not a great way to make new friends.

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

But just as importantly, for those of us who want schools to function more effectively and meaningfully both for students and educators, “innovation” isn’t actually the salient characteristic we seek, but an incidental one. Personalized learning, autonomous schools, responsive central offices, competency-based accreditation, human-centered design, and flexible structures for human capital may be “innovative” (“renovative” seems more descriptive) but that’s not why we pursue them or why practitioners embrace them.

Each has its own merits, its own potential, its own trade-offs and weaknesses, and smearing them together into a futurist/solutionist blur of “innovation” just obscures their differences as well as what they share. That commonality lies in the reflex that produced them, which is a style of engagement with problems that we at CRPE call “dynamism.” Dynamism is a restlessness to make things better. Its hallmark is an openness to new approaches and ideas whatever their source, and an embrace of change when change is called for. It has nothing inherently to do with technology (though it often makes use of technology’s lubricity) and it cares less for the futurists’ future than what can be done starting tomorrow.

Dynamism can exist in every facet of education. You can find it in instruction, as teachers search for new ways to engage their students. You can see it when principals and PTAs look beyond the school day and school building for ways to connect with families. You can find it in operations, even in clerical work. Dynamism is not committed to any one approach or ideology and it builds on what currently exists, rather than wishing it away. It is, above all, pragmatic. But in most districts, dynamism is not embraced, but is instead seen as rocking the boat, something to tamp down, a challenge to “the way we do things here.”

When people are frustrated by schools (or by government more generally) it’s the lack of dynamism they’re responding to, not the lack of innovation; the attitude of exhaustion that sees problems as conditions to be accepted or, at best, managed rather than engaged with and retooled. Both “reform” and “innovation” may or may not be particularly dynamic. Policy-driven reform especially tends to start as a dynamic response to a problem before quickly settling in to become a problem of its own (see ESEA). The dynamic practices of iteration and “design-with” are effective precisely because they bake dynamism into the development phase. And if the practice is truly dynamic, every phase is the development phase.

So let’s kill “innovation”—and all the millenarian baggage that comes along with it—and focus instead on dynamism. Words matter: if we can’t name it we won’t reward it. And if we don’t reward it, it will go away.

In the next post in this series, Steven offers some dynamic suggestions for retooling district operating systems.

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