Innovation: from buzzword to mindset

It is my belief that innovation is one of our most important goals in education, now more than ever. Our schools, teachers and students must innovate and continue to do so. As a Google for Education Certified Innovator and the newly-appointed Innovation Lead for my school, this is something that I feel strongly about and aim to promote. Unfortunately, I also believe that innovation is one of the most misused and misunderstood words in our profession, often dismissed as a meaningless buzzword. So, what is innovation? What does it mean to innovate? Why does it matter?

Let’s start by addressing a few misconceptions about innovation. It’s not just a synonym for technology. It’s possible to innovate without technology and it’s possible to use technology in ways that are not innovative. The word itself, innovation, has been around in English for approximately five hundred years, long before the internet or iPhone. There is a connection to technology though (more on this later).

Secondly, innovation is not the simple act of making a change. Although innovations are about change, not all changes are innovations. I’m sure that we have all experienced seemingly pointless changes in our schools, districts or daily lives. Change for the sake of change is not innovation. There must be added value.

What, then, is innovation? Researching innovation is challenging because different industries seem to have their own metrics and definitions. Some of these are unhelpfully complex, ambiguous or just don’t apply to education. But, looking closely, they all boil down to the same two words. These are two simple characteristics that make innovation understandable, accessible and achievable:

  1. New
  2. Better

That’s it. Just these two words. They are captured in what I still think is the best definition of innovation, especially in the context of teaching and learning:

“I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better.”

George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset

There’s a third element here: ‘way of thinking’. Innovation is a mindset (hence the name of George’s excellent book). For innovative schools and teachers, striving for excellence is a way of life, because there are always improvements within reach. Innovation is, quite simply, the non-stop pursuit of new and better. Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets apply here. These mindsets are widely emphasised with children, and rightly so, but – in my experience at least – fixed mindsets are equally widespread and problematic in adults. As George explains, this is “the biggest barrier to innovation”. That’s why his simple definition is so helpful. In our classrooms, we are all capable of new and better.

As mentioned previously, I do understand why technology and innovation are often used interchangeably. Emerging technologies can offer new opportunities. For example, we can now easily connect with other classes using social media, explore distant environments in virtual reality and code our own video games. Educational technology should be embraced by all teachers because it has the potential to offer new and better learning experiences, but technology isn’t innovative by default. In another example, we recently transformed our bilingual model in the upper grades (you can read more about it here). That had nothing to do with technology but we made a change and the result is better than before. That’s innovation.

In fact, the bilingual model is an example that’s worth discussing. The previous model was also good. In fact, the school is well known for it. Innovation isn’t always about solving a problem. Rather, it can be taking something that is already good and making it even better. This same logic applies to teachers. Innovation isn’t about ‘fixing’. It’s about pushing ourselves to be even better.

Innovation thrives in cultures of learning and risk-taking, with shared psychological safety. Learning is essential for innovation because we can only do better when we know better. Teachers need to demonstrate a commitment to their own professional development, regardless of organised events or PD budgets. Nowadays, learning opportunities are available on tap! All we have to do is take advantage and invest the time and effort. I stand by my blog post on this: If PD is an event in your school, you are doing it wrong.

Innovation happens outside of your comfort zone. Putting new learning and ideas into practice requires risk which, by definition, means that things could go wrong. We have to be ok with this. These occasional failures offer more learning opportunities and prove that we are pushing ourselves. Besides, failing in the classroom allows us to model the positive attitude and mindset that we expect from our students. Failing forward should be celebrated over safe, easy and comfortable teaching. Our students deserve more than complacency and status quo.

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

William Pollard

To conclude, let’s think about the current pandemic and disruption to education. The school year ahead is likely to be one of the most challenging of our careers. Complacency probably won’t even be an option. As the entire profession works from outside of its comfort zone, let’s embrace our collective vulnerability, support one another and grab this opportunity to transform education in ways that are new and better. I’ll leave you with one final quote:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Brené Brown

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