Education innovations are like children—no two are alike

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Lyall Swim

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series that will outline some foundational principles for successful adoption of innovative education reforms. The next post will explain the role of patience in effective innovation.

When was the last time you heard a corporation, university, government agency, or school champion the idea that innovation is overrated? I’m guessing that you might have an easier time trying to locate the Loch Ness monster. Even if you could find some company or school that actually believed innovation was overrated, odds are they’d never openly admit it.

In today’s world, being innovative is equated with success and progress. As a result, everyone wants to be innovative. But what does that really mean? I’m reminded of the classic scene from The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya turns to his boss, Vizzini, who has just used the word “inconceivable” for the umpteenth time and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to make the case that creating great policy ideas, even identifying disruptive education innovations, is not enough if we really want to bring about real reform in the education space. In fact, coming up with innovative ideas to reshape education is the easy part. Getting those ideas adopted; that’s where the real work begins.

Fortunately, there is a set of basic principles that, if we recognize and apply, will help to more effectively drive change and adopt the ideas and innovations we believe can help change America’s education future. We ignore these principles at our own peril.

The most basic innovation principle is that no two innovations are alike.

This may seem like a no-brainer, and the idea is not new, but my research and consulting experience tells me that we far too often treat all innovation the same. So when we talk about education reform and the need for innovation, the first step is to understand what we really mean when we use the word “innovation.”

Rebecca Henderson and Kim Clark have done much to identify the full nature and breadth of innovations, observing that there are four general types:

  1. Incremental innovation: Work that builds upon and reinforces a previous product or service in small ways. It can also be thought of as “feature innovation.” Examples include an updated version of a book or curriculum that offers better usability for the student.
  2. Modular innovation: A change to a key component of a product or service that doesn’t alter the overall product or service delivery. An example is an iPad that allows students, who otherwise remain in a standard classroom with a teacher, to take notes, look up information quickly, and engage in some self-directed learning.
  3. Architectural innovation: Changes to the nature and relationship between several parts of a product or service delivery, such as education funding reforms—vouchers, tax credits, etc.
  4. Radical innovation: Also known as “disruptive innovation,” it introduces a totally new paradigm and has the potential to make a current product or way of doing things irrelevant. An example of this is the student-centric model of education outlined by Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class.

The second step is to understand each innovation type brings with it its own set of adoption requirements. To make a dating/relationship comparison, it’s a bit like compatibility profiles from one of those online dating sites. The closer the match between two individuals the higher the chance is for relationship success. By the same token, the better we understand the nature of a given education innovation, the better we can “match” the innovation with any number of innovation adoption factors.

For example, the successful adoption of a radical innovation requires a high level of autonomy. Radical innovation is also best fostered in situations where resources are scarce. For Christensen’s student-centric education model, the best place to look for a match for his innovation would be under performing and under resourced schools where the administrators have a high risk tolerance and maximum autonomy to implement.

Another example of matching would be the assessment reforms highlighted by David Griffith in his recent post on this blog. Assessment innovations would be considered modular. Modular innovations tend to do better where the system or service is better defined but where a high degree of flexibility to experiment is allowed and even encouraged. As Griffith noted, ESSA gets assessment innovation right by the providing flexibility for states to experiment. It doesn’t guarantee that the states will be equally innovative, but the act opens the door for states to act as laboratories in ways that the federal government cannot because there just isn’t the same level of flexibility.

Every parent quickly learns that no two children are alike and that what works and motivates one child often is totally lost on the other. If we don’t adjust, we have one happy and successful child and another who can’t stand our guts and ends up as a guest on Dr. Phil. Likewise, from vouchers to blended learning to assessment strategies, we need to treat each innovation differently. Matching innovations with the right environments, resources, leadership, etc., gives those innovations the best chance at sticking and facilitating the desired outcomes.

Dr. Lyall J. Swim is the managing partner at Junto Strategy.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.