The Sources of Innovation

What produces innovation? Why does there seem to be such an abundance of it in serious fields like medicine and computer technology and trivial ones like online dating, but so little in education, arguably the most important of human activities?

First, let me support my premise, that schooling is largely bereft of innovation. A doctor or an auto mechanic from the 1950’s, if dropped into today’s hospital or garage, would be baffled. A teacher from the 50’s, however, would feel pretty darn comfortable in today’s classrooms. Maybe the desks wouldn’t be attached to the floor, and perhaps the blackboards would have been replaced by whiteboards, but there’d be bells every 50 minutes or so, attendance to be taken, and interruptions by the principal. I rest my case.

InnovationBack to why: The thirst for money, prestige and fame are reliable spurs of innovation. Living in Silicon Valley as I do, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of that. Unfortunately, public education is not the road to travel if your goals are money, prestige and fame.

Another spur to innovate is a supportive but challenging environment, one in which failure is seen as an opportunity to learn, not a stain. Does that describe most schools? I don’t think so.

John Doerr’s New Schools Venture Fund is working to recreate in education some of the conditions that have spurred Silicon Valley’s growth. That’s an uphill battle with a number of hurdles standing in the way, including a ‘one size fits all’ mentality and a glut of ‘experts’.

Education’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to evaluating and paying teachers has to dampen enthusiasm for trying new approaches. Why bother if you aren’t going to be rewarded? As “The Widget Effect,” a new report from the New Teacher Project, makes clear, administrators don’t pay much attention to teacher effectiveness. “Evaluation systems fail to differentiate performance among teachers. As a result, teacher effectiveness is largely ignored. Excellent teachers cannot be recognized or rewarded, chronically low-performing teachers languish, and the wide majority of teachers performing at moderate levels do not get the differentiated support and development they need to improve as professionals.”

Another barrier to innovation in education is the glut of ‘experts,’ meaning all of us went to school and therefore ‘know’ what school should be like. It’s tough to argue for new and different approaches when everyone’s an expert!

Imagine, for example, trying to create an ungraded classroom for children in the K-2 range. It makes sense, because children learn in spurts and at different times. We segregate by age largely because it’s administratively convenient, not for pedagogical reasons. Now suppose an enlightened principal wanted to put all the kindergarten, first grade and second grade students into one group, empowering teachers to work with them in skill-appropriate groups. She’d say, in effect, “Your job is to get them all to a certain level by the end of what we used to call Second Grade.”

That’s innovation at its best, in my view, because it empowers teachers, sets standards and encourages responsibility.

What would happen if we did try to innovate? Imagine the conversations at the hairdresser’s or the hardware store:

“How’s little Charlie doing this year? He’s in 1st grade this year, right?”

“Well, no. There’s no such thing as 1st grade any more. Now they call it “K-2.” Charlie’s 6, but they’ve got him in with a bunch of 4-, 5- and 7-year olds.”

“That’s crazy. We didn’t do stuff like that when I went to school. Have they lost their minds down there? Wait till I tell people about this”

How long would that innovation last?

Perhaps bad times will spur innovation. A theory going around is that today’s desperate circumstances are likely to produce educational breakthroughs.

Certainly desperation can be a source of innovation, as in Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve got a problem”) or in countless big game situations when time is running out. The Apollo 13 astronauts solved a life-threatening crisis with stuff like duct tape, baling wire and paper clips, just as quarterbacks like Tom Brady manage to find ways to overcome impossible odds and win the game. But those are not innovations with a long shelf life, just ways to get past a challenge.

I’m hearing that recession conditions—45 students in a class, and so on—do not have a silver lining, at least not one that teachers themselves have been able to discern.

Are you hearing different? I’d like to know.


Read more about “The Widget Effect” [Ed Beat, 07/18/09]
Learn more about the NewSchools Venture Fund


13 thoughts on “The Sources of Innovation

  1. Great questions. And no, I am not hearing anything different about the effects of recession conditions. A related question to your post is when innovation does happen why can’t it be duplicated and scaled? I am thinking of the Freedom Writers, or innovative uses of technology, intensive programs at independent and charter schools, or just great projects created by great teachers. Sometimes they even get great publicity, but they don’t bring sustained energy for change; most such projects only last as long as a few dedicated leaders are there to push them on.


  2. Mr. Merrow,

    The lack of innovation in education is simply the result of the people who enter the profession. Most teachers and administrators are not innovators. That’s precisely why they fit into education. Can you think of a profession that is more predictable from year to year? If I’m a person who is risk-averse and who likes being told what to do all the time, education is the place for me. Many teachers work an entire career and never change schools, grades, or classes. Few teachers even innovate their own practice, relying instead on textbooks, worksheets, and other publisher-supplied materials.

    The lack of innovation in education is a purely cultural phenomenon. Innovative people tend to innovate wherever they are regardless of external circumstances like money and recognition. Educators tend not to innovate because, for the vast majority, that’s just not who they are.


  3. But none of the current top five reforms being pressed by the DOE make such a climate easier. In fact, they are an intensification of the “don’t innovate just comply” mentality that 19th century normal school educated women were taught to follow. Many probably did innovate–given their natures and relative lack of supervision of the one and two room school houses. But the great innovation of the 2lst century is our capacity to use technology to get into every classroom and insure compliance (testing being the best vehicle).


  4. Two thoughts:
    1.) We don’t have a good definition of “innovation,” a point Russ Whitehurst has made very effectively. People invoke innovation like some kind of incantation that will make everything better. Medicine and the automotive industry both have very robust R&D functions. There is, unfortunately, very little of that in education. Educators are asked to fly essentially blind–with very little money for evaluation or new product development–and then they’re accused of not being innovative. More useful evidence and research would certainly help…. Which brings me to my second point:

    2.) Steve, I think you are doing educators a real disservice and would caution against blanket claims about the “vast majority” of people in any profession. I know many people in education who are real innovators. They think long and hard about new ways of making materials fresh and inspiring for students. They create new curriculum, consider new teaching strategies. They teach because they believe in the power of new ideas. In fact, education requires more day-to-day innovation than many other jobs do.

    Many of those teachers lose their innovative spirit over time, because it is ground out of them. How many people labor under so many new mandates, often contradictory or incomplete models of “best practice,” or inconsistent expectations from their various “customers?” In fact, it’s often the “innovations” that come down from on high that smother teachers’ innovative spirit by robbing them of autonomy.

    I would add that John has a point about the ubiquitous “experts.” Educators I know who have tried to implement innovative solutions often face their communities ire–so it’s not fair to characterize educators as naturally meek and dull.

    One essential step to far more effective innovation in schools: real R&D!


  5. I’d suggest there’s a more fundamental, innovation-related problem in American education.

    New knowledge, ideas, innovations, creativity, are primarily products of the discovery of relationships between aspects of reality not previously thought to be related (e.g. tides and the moon; NCLB over-emphasis on reading and increasing youthful antipathy to reading; etc.)

    This “relating” process is absolutely essential for knowledge growth, insight, and imagination, and we block it by clinging to a curriculum that fails to show the whole, random parts of which are the focus of school subjects:

    Alfred North Whitehead: “[We must] eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.” Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of England, 1916

    Neil Postman: “There is no longer any principle that unifies the school curriculum and furnishes it with meaning.” (Phi Delta Kappan, January 1983, p. 316)

    John Goodlad: “The division into subjects and periods encourages a segmented rather than an integrated view of knowledge. Consequently, what students are asked to relate to in schooling becomes increasingly artificial, cut off from the human experiences subject matter is supposed to reflect.” (A Place Called School, McGraw-Hill, 1984, p.266)

    Association of American Colleges: “We do not believe that the road to a coherent education can be constructed from a set of required subjects or academic disciplines.” (“Integrity In the College Curriculum, A Report to the Academic Community,” Project On Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees, 1985)

    Carnegie Foundation For the Advancement of Teaching: “The disciplines have fragmented themselves into smaller and smaller pieces, and undergraduates find it difficult to see patterns in their courses and relate what they learn to life.” Prologue to “College: The Undergraduate Experience In America,” November 1986

    Thomas Merton: “The world itself is no problem, but we are a problem to ourselves because we are alienated from ourselves, and this alienation is due precisely to an inveterate habit of division by which we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world, and most of all with ourselves.” (Contemplation In a World of Action, Paulist Press, 1992, p.153)

    Here’s a link to one of my Knight-Ridder/Tribune columns, suggesting a dozen innovations:

    Marion Brady


  6. Are there any successful educational systems in the world? Are they “innovative?” Are they successful because they are innovative?

    Also, would a teacher from the 1950’s feel comfortable teaching in a “no excuses” charter? Why or why not?


  7. Someone recently sent me a copy of Richard Elmore’s 1996 paper “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.” In my experience, Elmore gets it just right.

    The problem is not the supply of innovative ideas, he says. There are lots of them (and many of them are recycled). The problem is the demand for them. Some highlights:

    Why Good Ideas Do Not Get to Scale

    – Reformers assumed good ideas will sell themselves
    – Failed reforms relied too heavily on highly, committed talented individuals to “carry the burden of reform” and too often “reform-minded” teachers are isolated from their “less adventurous” colleagues
    – Too few incentives for teachers to change how they teach
    – Lack of attention to the conditions under which teachers work
    – Teachers are rarely asked to judge if new curriculum works well in practice, nor are they typically asked to co-design the new approach in the first place.

    Elmore, R.E. (1996). Getting to scale with good educational practice. Harvard Education Review. 66 (1), 1-26.

    Google Books has the article online:


  8. We need to recognize the opportunity for a major paradigm shift. All of the current school systems, K-20, are designed for an information scarce era. We are now an information abundant age with the advent of the Internet, Digitized libraries, Social networking, etc.
    Thus we have the opportunity to restructure learning around the student and his/her passions at any particular time in their life. Our understanding of the earth changed when we learned that Earth moves around the Sun, not the reverse as had been conventional wisdom.
    Project Based and Activity Based learning can be tools that permit integrative learning with students pursuing a passion of their own. The functional areas of knowledge (reading, writing, math, etc.) can be taught as students pursue understanding about their current interest.
    We teachers, I am a Professor of Business and Economics, must redesign curriculum and practices for this new world. Instead of school revolving around the adults in it, lets focus on the children and use the abundant new tools to create real learning communities, in and beyond school.
    For more see
    A few years ago I met John at an AEFA conference in Denver and I admire his work to lead productive changes.


  9. John, you’re absolutely right that there isn’t enough innovation in education, although the tide is beginning to turn there. We’re at an important moment in which some of the attitudes that have held innovation back are beginning to change, with more agreement on what success looks like for students, more sophisticated collection and analysis of student-level data about what’s working (and what’s not), and so forth.

    Most of our efforts on this front come in the form of the investments we make, in entrepreneurs who are developing innovative approaches and organizations and taking them to scale. But we did put some of our thoughts on this to paper recently (, including a proposed definition of innovation. One of the things that makes this concept so challenging to agree upon is that innovation is not a lightening bolt moment or a fancy new gizmo, it’s actually a complex process that takes place over a period of time and is shaped by many hands. But innovation has been studied in other (equally complicated) fields, and has some common characteristics that we can certainly bring to bear in public education.


  10. There are two problems, I believe. First, any minimal assessment that’s done is used only to defend current positions – never as the starting point for honest dialogue (teachers, administrators, and parents) as to how things are going and what can be done to make things go better. No one talks / plans; they just “go to the mattresses.”
    Secondly, new teachers coming into the profession do have the intrinsic motivation to work to do better. But just as happens with young learner (who are intrinsically motivated to learn), the school environment kills all the motivation.
    There are lots of great thoughts expressed in this article, John, and in the comments offered by others. IF there’s no dialogue and intrinsically motivated commitment to meaningful change, teachers of today will be comfortable in the schools of 2059 – but very unhappy with the position of the USA in the world.


  11. I’m struck by these thoughtful comments. I think there’s a real war between the status quo and old thinking about educational outputs (usually test scores) on one side, and those who would dare to imagine new approaches (many of which capitalize on natural curiosity and/or on technology’s possibilities. (You can surmise from my language where I come down).
    A second point: a lot of gifted teachers employ innovative techniques, using their energy and intelligence to reach students. I’m not sure why those approaches don’t seem to travel and persist–maybe they are too idiosyncratic. I know that we reinvent the wheel far too often, and at great cost.


  12. I think you are right that unusual or innovative tecnniques are idiosyncratic. How the teacher teaches, inspires, motivates and corrects his or her students is very much influenced by one’s educational background and knowledge. I am primarly a foreign langauge teacher though I have a social studies credential. For most of my career I have taught English as a second languge in ELD (ELL) classes within the English department , ELD Social Studies and Spanish (chiefly AP Spanish and Spanish for Native Speakers). Some of the methods I use are not transferrable to teachers who have little or no experience at learning a second language. Most social studies teacherss have only a cursory knowlege of grammar and phonetics for example. I take time out to explain irregular verbs, idioms, prepositional use and difficult translations or interpretations for something as simple as a Congressman is NEVER a Senator even though the Senate IS part of the Congress. It is only through reading and study one can become aware of the nuances of language. But I am not a miracle worker though i work very hard. At one time ELD Social Studies classes were capped at 25 but now typically have 35 to 42 students which is far to big. We are supposed to discipline with just a stern look and proximity but with the seats so tightly together mobility in the class is serverly restricted. And the noise level quickly rises to the intolerable if one is not careful. It takes every trick and technique in the book to tame such classes such as having spot homework and notebook checks for a quiz grade and if necessary daily pop quizzes. For really recalcitrant classes one has to keep the pressure on and occassionally remove one or two ring-leaders temporarily or in extrme cases five day suspensions and up to expulsion from the high school. ( Extreme cases include assault, violent defiance of authority, spitting, incessant cursing, throwing sharp objects across the room etc.)

    If these students are under the age of 19 they will continue their studies such as they are in Juvenile Hall, an alternative Community School or Camp Owens (which is a camp in the mountains where there are no frills no access to computers, phones, TV or video camps and military style students are expected to clean, make their beds and do chores while attending day classes. For most students a week or two at Camp Owen -which means social isolation- is a real wake-up call. One of the greatest problems with retaining recalcitrant students is that they disrupt the learning process for the majority. If schools become too disfunctional middle class parents opt to move to another school zone and gradually a school tips. When a school has 75-80% of its students on free or subsidized lunch one can almost predict its state ranking. We must come to terms with the fact that many youth resist education and consider school to be a form of enforced encarceration. They simply do not appreciate what is being offered to them until it is too late. As teaching becomes more and more stultified as every teacher MUST give the same “common formative assessment” and MUST give the same ‘benchmark test’ and must cover units at the same pace as all other classes, teaching becomes as futile as trench warfare. One does one’s duty. One goes over the top the same old way over and over to adminster the same Scantron Bubble Tests (which are mostly unreadable to immigrant students). We spend about 40 school days a year administering and prepping for standarized tests. Students no longer make maps, do book reports,or make oral reports on current events (since none of those things are in the State Curriculum).

    Every class has to use exactly the same textbook and though one may adapt the teaching to the circumstances one is very constrained by the fact that he or she will be judged sooner or later by the test scores of his or her students. Of course, those lucky enough to have AP students (the Department Chair) routinely get the most students “above grade level” and those in EDL 1 and with ELD 1,2 and 3 students will have the lowest test scores.

    Next educational geniuses will use those test scores to rank teachers and aware ‘merit pay’. That is just around the corner. I can’t think of a worse way to judge teachers. Can you imagine if different ranks of the military had different levels of pay? It would undermine group discipline and morale and lead to much corruption. If a teacher can only get raise by getting higher test scores then he or she will be under severe temptation to cheat or cast a blind eye to cheating so as to inflate the scores. Administrators have the ability, time and means to change test scores selectively. If they could lose their jobs due to declining test scores then the temptation fo fake results will be enormous. But all of this obsession with a narrow instrument called the Scantron Bubble Multiple Guess test loses the whole point of education: Students need to get basic skills in reading, writing, and speaking standard English and being able to gain a certain minimu level of numeracy and computer experience as well. Students must learn how to think and how to learn -they must learn their entire lives- and they must gain a basis cultural literacy. Real life is not a multiple choice test. One last point: these tests might even be harmful to knowledge and literacy for one simple reason: 3/4 of the information on a given Bubble test is false and only 1/4 is true. So up to 10% or 20% of the school year is spent readng confusing, misleading and false answers. We should examine the wisdom of overeliances on these narrow instruments which will not by themselves teach student how to read or write or think. Such tests presuppose a basic literacy and experience in Bubble test taking. For many students the state standarized tests are no different that looking at the Rosetta Stone over and over without any knowledge of its background, its sympbols and its languages. One could memorize every shape and symbol -it might take 20 years- and still have no knowledge and no ability to read and understand what is before him.


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