I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we mean when we talk about “innovation” in education. Being the language geek I am, I of course looked up the detonation and etymology of innovation. When considering a concept, I like to think about what the words surrounding the concept actually mean, before they get loaded down with all of the meaning we bring as we do the “work of innovating” in today’s classrooms and schools.
Gotta love Google, Data Mogul of the 21st Century. A quick search tells me that the use of the word “innovation” has exploded in the past 50 years, right alongside the tech industry. Interesting — we’ll come back to that.
Back to the #wordnerd fun: if you break the word innovation into its component parts, as I used to teach my high school students to do, you find “in,” which means “in” (sometimes language is straightforward), “nov,” which means “new,” “va,” which means “go,” and “tion,” which means “to do” or “action of.”
So, quite literally, innovation is the act of doing something new.
This is not surprising, but it is interesting, considering that when we “innovate,” we must do so with the experiences and work of our predecessors whispering to us, providing the wisdom and expertise of years, decades, centuries, eons of experience and research upon which we must build the “new.” By definition, we cannot “do something new” without drawing on “something old.” And yet, in the etymology and denotation of “innovation,” there is no trace of the “old,” of what came before. There is only the promise of newness.
And newness is intoxicating.
As an administrator in educational and information technology, I am struck by the intoxication of newness on a daily basis. Promises of new and better ways of doing the work of living are often delivered by new technologies, and this has been true since the dawn of humanity; from the pen to the compass to the printing press to the microwave to the computer, that which is new has always captivated us, drawing us to spend more money and time than we would/should/could on “innovative” devices/practices/approaches that entice us to imagine a life free of whatever limitations, struggles, and inefficiencies may plague us.
Innovation is really about that: imagination, a defining characteristic of humanity. Others would posit that language “makes us human,” or memory, or our ability to use and develop tools. But imagination has always struck me as a uniquely human trait, one that drives our obsession with innovation and fuels the inevitable “march of progress.”
Given the above, the etymology and denotation of the word innovation gets us nowhere close to its actual meaning, which includes a word’s connotation, the experiences and cultural weight we bring to a word when we hear it. Connotation is everything. Words are loaded with meanings that are rarely coded into their component parts. Such is the case with innovation. Here are three important things I’ve come to believe about innovation in education:
Innovative educational practices are rarely “new.”
One of history’s most innovative educational thinkers, in my estimation, was John Dewey, but his philosophy was hardly novel; he believed we learn through inquiry and experience, through doing and building and making and seeing and exploring. Today, the innovative-but-already-becoming-passe “maker movement” promises the same sort of experiential learning, but in the context of new technologies that allow students to imagine something and then 3D print it instead of molding it out of clay. The only thing “new” about this is the available technology, and even then, the librarians in my city would argue that you don’t need a 3D printer to have a makerspace — you just need a few leftover cardboard boxes, some glue, and maybe a little string.
In a classroom that has embraced a “maker mindset,”
…one will find engaged students, often working on multiple projects simultaneously, and teachers unafraid of relinquishing their authoritarian role. The best way to activate your classroom is for your classroom to make something.
The whole point of this “innovative” approach to teaching and learning as experiential and exploratory meshes well with and even echoes Dewey’s philosophies surrounding ethics, morals, social interaction, and experiential knowledge-building:
…the appropriate method for solving moral and social questions is the same as that required for solving questions concerning matters of fact: an empirical method that is tied to an examination of problematic situations, the gathering of relevant facts, and the imaginative consideration of possible solutions that, when utilized, bring about a reconstruction and resolution of the original situations. Dewey, throughout his ethical and social writings, stressed the need for an open-ended, flexible, and experimental approach to problems of practice…
In essence, many of the “innovative” approaches to working with students that we champion today are engaging them in the kinds of experiential, inquiry-based, challenge- and problem-based approaches to knowledge-building and learning touted by philosophers in the early 20th century, if not (likely) before then.
Our lack of relative “newness” in our thinking, however, does not mean we are not being innovative when we imagine and implement a new-to-us approach to teaching and learning in an effort to improve students’ experiences in our schools. Innovation in education may be less about “doing new things,” and more about doing “new-to-us” things with the resources we have available: repurposing, remixing, and reinventing ourselves as we reflect upon what is working for the kids in front of us, and what is not. Which brings me to my second point.
Innovative practices require reflective practitioners.
If innovation is less about “doing something new” in education and more about reinventing in our local contexts, then innovation requires a reflective approach to planning and collaboration. It requires us to be flexible. Self-critical. Quick to adjust. Pensive.
Embarrassing truth: sometimes I talk to myself in the car at the end of my work day.
I have colleagues who do this into a recording device, as a way of capturing their reflections, which makes them perhaps a little less crazy than me, because I do not speak my reflections into a recording device (because I know I would never go back and listen to them, so why take up the storage space on my phone?). I don’t always talk out loud to myself, but most of the time when I’m driving, I’m in the middle of a conversation with my thoughts. I imagine most educators are like this, mulling over the success of a day’s lesson, a professional development session, an observation, a meeting with colleagues.
This embarrassing truth is a step towards reflective practice. But it isn’t enough.
I’ve worked in six public school districts and three higher education institutions in four states, which I think almost gives me enough experience to say this with confidence: truly reflective practitioners do more than talk to themselves in the car on the way home. They also seek out feedback from colleagues and students, and they welcome critique. They learn as much, often more, from moments when they are challenged than they do from praise. They never do the same thing the same way twice. Reflective practitioners truly, and sometimes annoyingly, enjoy a healthy debate, because it forces them to reconsider their approach and philosophy, and because they aren’t actually disagreeing with you, they are trying to understand your perspective and are coming to a new understanding of their own perspective. They write about it, read about it, and talk about it, “it” being whatever they’ve been turning over in their minds, or out loud, in those car conversations.
And finally, innovative practice has nothing to do with technology.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, because the literal definition of technology (as we’ve established, I’m into definitions) is “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.” To break it down further, logy means “to study,” or “study of,” which means technology is all about inquiry and questioning, which as I’ve established, rests at the heart of innovative approaches to education. So to say innovative practice has nothing to do with technology is not denotationally true. But it is connotationally true.
Because when you hear the word technology, you think of your smartphone. And innovation has nothing to do with your smartphone.
Or an iPad.
Or a Chromebook.
Or a Smartboard.
Or the latest app.
Being innovative might involve these things; you might use them in a new way in order to make your work more efficient, to make your lessons more engaging and relevant, to reimagine a unit or a project. You may use them to search for new ideas, to blog about your practice for a public audience (like I’m doing now), or to record successes and struggles, all of which would be reflective practice, and in service of innovative practice. But you do not need shiny new technologies to be an innovative educator. See previous comment about makerspaces that require no more than cardboard.
Innovation is about mindset and approach. It is about flexibility, about building curriculum, lessons, collaborations, and learning experiences around the needs of the students in front of you, and about learning from one implementation to the next, improving and adjusting along the way. Innovation does not require doing something new, but constantly doing your work, for your students, in your context, in ways that challenge and inspire youth to interrogate and solve the problems of our ever-changing world.