What’s Innovation? Clear Goals, Training & Accountability Are a Good Start

I’ve just returned from Doha, Qatar for the first-ever WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. For three days we talked about innovation. Is technology an essential component of innovation? I found myself wondering what produces innovation in education—in teaching actually. And it occurs to me that, unless one happens to be sadistic or off the charts antisocial, all of us are, on certain occasions, innovative teachers. At those moments, we are wonderful role models of what our education system ought to be striving to emulate. And our motivation is a combination of self-interest and basic human decency.

Driving DirectionsYou’re not a teacher, you say? OK, neither am I by profession, but sometimes we are put in that role. Imagine you’re walking in your neighborhood when a stranger stops her car, rolls down the window, and asks for directions to a local restaurant. You know the place she’s asking about, so you immediately begin figuring out how to explain it to her.

You are, for the moment, her teacher, she your pupil. You’ll explain it as clearly as you can (“Continue for three blocks, turn right on Maple Street, and go for two more blocks. The restaurant is on your right.”). As her teacher, you’ll be watching to see if she understands your directions.

Innovations occurs when you realize that you are not getting through. At that point, like a good teacher, you will scrap that ‘lesson plan’ and devise a new one. That is, you will find another way to teach her how to get where she needs to be. (“See that church steeple. Go one block past that and turn right. Then when you see the two gas stations…”)

Suppose she still doesn’t get it? At that point, more creativity: you might draw a map. Anything at all, just to get her to her destination.

Why is that innovation, you might be wondering? Maps aren’t new, and neither is rephrasing. But being innovative doesn’t require complete invention, only finding different approaches to a problem. Putting new wine into old bottles qualifies as an innovation because solves the problem of what to do with the wine.

What conditions are necessary for innovation in education? I find several, and all exist in my example of the lost driver: a relevant task; a measurable outcome; a willing student; and instructional flexibility.

You (the teacher) and the driver (your student) have a clear goal, getting her to understand how to get to her destination. Because the challenge is relevant—she wants to get to her destination–she is a willing student. You, the teacher, have instructional flexibility, the room to be innovative, precisely because the goal is clear. And because the goal is clear (and you are not sadistic or antisocial), you want to be successful. It’s odd, because you have never seen the lost driver before and most likely will never see her again, but at that moment you are measuring your own worth according to how well she learns. In effect, you believe that you haven’t taught effectively if she doesn’t learn it.

The parallel works in another way in that most of the work—ultimate success—is up to the student, not the teacher. The driver still has to follow those directions in order to get to her destination, and that’s as it should be. Teachers should not be expected to do it all.

But don’t you wish all teachers worked that way? Many, perhaps most, would like to but cannot because schooling’s goals and outcomes are murky or trivial. Without clear and relevant goals, process inevitably becomes the focus. Because process rules, many teachers today are given detailed lessons plans describing what they should be doing in class, every day. Innovation is neither expected nor encouraged. That in turn leads to a ‘cover the material’ philosophy, as in “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” What they really are doing is covering a certain part of their anatomy.U-Turn

Transfer that situation—unclear goals and outcomes and a consequent focus on process—to my analogy of the lost driver. What might happen if you asked a stranger for directions and then didn’t grasp what he told you? Rather than find an innovative way to communicate, he’d just say the same thing again, but louder, or maybe slower. And if you still didn’t get it, he would raise his voice again. Before long, he’d be SHOUTING slowly.

It wouldn’t take you long to realize that, with that guy as your teacher, you’ll never get where you need to go, and so you would step on the gas and seek help elsewhere.

And he would write you off as a dense student who failed to grasp the material.

Some teachers, schools and systems take that approach to learning. Just as that guy would blame you for not grasping his shouted directions, schools and teachers often blame students for not understanding. When students don’t get it, they fail and have to repeat the grade, which is the equivalent of shouting the same words.

Many of those failing students—well over one million a year–do the equivalent of ‘driving away.’ They drop out of school.

My question is, who is failing? If school systems consistently fail at teaching and then at remediation–and that’s what often happens–can we just blame it on students? In fact, most remediation programs are echoes of what’s already failed.

The recipe for good schools has three steps, which must be taken in order: 1) figure out where we want to go and how we will measure our achievement; 2) hire capable, trained people and let them figure out how to get there; 3) and hold them accountable for results. Innovation per se isn’t a goal and shouldn’t be, but we can encourage it by replicating the conditions described above: clear and measurable goals, relevant tasks, and instructional flexibility, the freedom to innovate.

15 thoughts on “What’s Innovation? Clear Goals, Training & Accountability Are a Good Start

  1. Great article! My daughter is in the process of becoming a teacher and we are not making it easy in this country and especially the state of California. Her classes have been cut as well not admitting students into the certification program until maybe late 2010. How do we keep those who wish to innovate/teach/make a difference continue with their dream when there is nothing but road blocks and no jobs? I do believe in perseverance but gosh sometimes keeping the faith is tough. However, those innovators are very fortunate to have you on their side!


  2. That’s what the Finns do so successfully. And independent schools, unfettered by government regs and requirements. Nicely said, John.

    Patrick F. Bassett, President
    National Association of Independent Schools


  3. Good points. What about the situation where the goal seems irrelevant to the student, so the student becomes an unwilling student?
    Basically, your step one is very tricky.


  4. John,
    I think your recipe for a good school is interesting because of where you position yourself in the equation. Who is the “we” in “figure out where we want to go”? Who is doing the hiring of these capable people? Who is holding them accountable? It to me seems as if a lot of the problems we are experiencing with NCLB and RTTT revolve around these relationships and the distribution of power among the parties involved.


  5. John, you mention “conditions,” and that’s at the core of the problem. What you don’t mention is that reacting the way your protagonist did to the query for directions, would be, in the K-12 sector like asking for how to execute a soccer play — but under water. You have to examine the constraints. Those are the conditions that stifle innovation today. Some educators clearly know what would work better, but the water currents are too tough to take on.



  6. An “innovative” way for me to show you one of my innovations is to have you visit my school where you will be challenged by a math question. Hopefully, after you discover that one-fourth is bigger than one-half, you will then work on your own innovations and contribute to the education dialectic.

    My innovation lesson is obtained by clicking on the lesson button #1 at the link below.

    I also activated lesson button #2 if you’d like to explore a little more in my school.



    Ken Blystone


  7. I’m sorry but I don’t really agree with your example. Comparing education and innovation within education with giving directions has implicit on it that you see education as the teacher giving the student the answer to her problem. And that’s not innovative at all. That follows the same “instructionism” model that have ruled our schools for over a century and that doesn’t fit the needs of our society anymore.

    Education is hardly as simple as “getting students to where they want to go”. Particularly these days where information is overflowing and learning can take place virtually everywhere, assessing if she has the skills and knows who to find out how to get the to the restaurant is ever more important. Otherwise the next time the student needs to get somewhere she will ask the teacher. Where is the pro-activity and entrepreneurship in that behavior?

    But I like the steps you suggest – although I wouldn’t call them recipe. They are 3 important questions to be asked but they hardly tell you what to do, the characteristics you should look for in people, for example. They’re rather general considerations that, if given enough thought, can help schools find their own path.


  8. Marchelo has a point – and an important one. But I fear many people may not understand what he means by “instructionism.” I call it the “delivery of instruction” syndrome, which makes clearer that it puts the student in a passive role. And it will require a huge shift away from the whole bureaucratic model of our present system to get us to the active learner he’s rightly calling for.

    I hope the WISE group is on to this need for deep system change, and not just new technology to plug into our still dangerously obsolete system.

    Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving, John. And thank you for continuing to remind us that “learning matters.”

    Dave Seeley


  9. These are thoughtful comments, and I see the limitations of my analogy. I think that teachers and responsible adults do provide instruction, though that’s not their only role. I believe my major point remains valid: that if students aren’t learning, then teachers aren’t teaching. Anthony, Curtis and Marcelo all take this deeper, and I appreciate that.


  10. A friend of mine who prefers not to post directly wrote with a thoughtful addition to my three requisites. Here’s what he wrote, including his quoting me.
    “If you don’t mind a comment from the peanut gallery, I’d add one more item to your list:
    (you wrote) ‘The recipe for good schools has three steps, which must be taken in order: 1) figure out where we want to go and how we will measure our achievement; 2) hire capable, trained people and let them figure out how to get there; 3) and hold them accountable for results. Innovation per se isn’t a goal and shouldn’t be, but we can encourage it by replicating the conditions described above: clear and measurable goals, relevant tasks, and instructional flexibility, the freedom to innovate.’
    I’d add: provide compensation and reward structures in the schools which encourage good results. That means less pay for seniority only (which only motivates living long), pay and promotions for teachers who work harder and are more innovative, and getting out of teachers way when they have proved themselves. I’m sure you’ve read, “There Are No Shortcuts” – wouldn’t it be great if other teachers were encouraged to behave like that rather than being afraid it will get them in trouble?”


  11. Think you are really on to something, John – innovation is what drives our economy, from the microchip to genetic engineering.

    But I think you need to add one more item to your prescription for change: Find what works and do more of it. Rather than keep chasing after fads, we need to zero in on programs with hard data showing they really work and then make sure that more American students get the benefit of those programs.

    We are doing that with our AP Training and Incentive Program and the UTeach program for training math and science teachers and we are getting fantastic results. (The passing rate in schools in our APTIP program was nine times better than the national results – and enrollment in the UTeach program has nearly doubled in one year.)

    The good news is that there is hope. There are programs that work and can make a difference – but we need to get behind them as a country in a big way. We need to multiply those good programs as fast as we can to as many schools as we can. Replication is the innovative idea we’ve been missing.

    –Tom Luce, CEO, National Math and Science Initiative


  12. It is easy to “write off” innovation in education because of all the imposed constraints; BUT one way to be innovative is to in fact join one of the many “choirs” seeking to support choir members and to hopefully begin to develop the kind of support that enables each of us to be more innovative in our approach to student learning. One example is of course participating in John’s blog as I and others seek to do regularly. I participated in another one based upon the book, “Wounded by School” by Kirsten Olson [great book by the way] that is still available at http://www.edweek.org/forums [click on Education Forums, then on Teaching Profession, and then on Teacher Book Club: Wounded by School]. It has been my thesis for a long time that the major source of problems in whatever area you select is the lack of dialogue. Be innovative in seeking opportunities not just to read posts from the choir but to join the choir and post yourself. At some point, the choir will become large enough to be influential in changing the music.

    In terms of your post, John, may I comment on a few of your items: First, you said “…, like a good teacher, you will scrap that ‘lesson plan’ and devise a new one.” All too often, we are tempted to conjure up excuses why we cannot possibly scrap the plan; if we stick with the plan that resulted in a poor house foundation, it is impossible to end up with a great house. This is one of those times we as educators MUST change the plan regardless of the imposed constraints.

    Second you note, John: “Teachers should not be expected to do it all.” May I reinforce this: we are doing a dis-service to our students if in fact we even seek to do it all. Students need to take charge of their learning and not be fed everything by the teacher.


  13. Strong agreement with John. I would add, for K-8, keeping students for 2-3 years because one year is not enough for accountability. No one is noticing that the teachers with creativity and energy can’t use it in the failing urban districts. It’s non-stop practice tests and dogma from packaged “programs” who don’t know our students, their strengths, the community or their interests. It’s never authentic learning….just gimmicks for points. I am not even slightly exagerating.


  14. John, your thoughtful commentary reminds me of the book by Piaget, “To Understand is to Invent.” To me, innovation is one of the hallmarks of an accomplished teacher, and a discerning student. When we give directions (in a classroom or to a lost driver)we are not telling someone else how to think or how to use a skill to accomplish a task. We are attempting to guide rather than prescribe, to give an approach to a solution leaving the accomplishment very much in the hands of the recipient, student or driver. I think you are reminding those of us who are classroom teachers (in my case over four decades) that our success lies not in telling someone else what to do, but in the clarity and innovation behind what we say and do. How many times, for example, have we struggled to clarify (in speech or in writing on test questions) and fallen short of our own expectations.
    In the modeling approach which I have been recently using in my physics instruction, students are given the opportunity to explain their reasoning to fellow students on whiteboards. I always make it a point to praise students for their errors and for the courage to expose mistakes to their peers for review. Anna said it best in “The King and I,” when she sang about “by your students you’ll be taught.” Indeed we are; and our ability as innovators (whether in the role of student or teacher)is tested daily as we alter, modify, readjust our queries in an attempt NOT to tell someone else what to think, but to guide them in making their own decisions and reflecting upon them before moving on to the next “intersection” along their intellectual and emotional highways. Thank you for your skilll in helping us reflect upon our own journey and its many possible destinations.


  15. Why re-invent the wheel? Of course, improving the wheel makes perfect sense. Few of us care to ride around on circles carved out of wood; we’ve come to enjoy our radials. Education is much like the wheel. There are basics and then there is innovation. Unfortunately, most current education initiatives are about innovation which usually translates to chasing dollars for expensive technology as the antidote to everything wrong in school systems?

    A very inexpensive way to dramatically improve academic progress for American schools is attending to a basic: character education, NOT to be confused with religious education. Character is about how we respect ourselves and others. A school can have the absolute latest technology and no more than 15 pupils per class but if there is no respect, we say education has little chance. Incorporating the traits of honesty and punctuality (which after all are nothing but respect for our fellow citizens) is not expensive. Encouraging students to be self-reliant and believe they have an intrinsic worth is not expensive.

    A student who believes in him or herself will not accept an inferior education nor will the student disturb a fellow student’s opportunity to learn. A nationwide organization formed in 1993, based in Washington D.C. called Character Education Partnerships (CEP; http://www.character.org) has been ecstatic to see academic test scores dramatically increase in schools across the country when they follow the Eleven Principles listed on the website. The facts are in and schools report jumps in 4th and 8th grade reading and math test scores of as much as 20%.

    More people need to take up this cause because as with a lot of other ideas often the simplest answer is the best.

    Richard R. Pieper, Sr.
    Founding Chairman and CEO of PPC Partners, Inc.
    Milwaukee, WI
    Past National President of CEP

    Judith Steininger
    Professor Emeritus
    Milwaukee School of Engineering


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s