Applying Innovation to Education

Nowadays it’s cheap and easy to stream music and video using the internet, but you might remember making copies of albums using cassette decks, or recording TV shows on a VCR — and your glee at being able to do so. Some types of technology are impactful for many years (laptops) and others are not (iPods and DVD-Rs, anyone?). Unfortunately, digital technology is often conflated with innovation, or used as a simple shorthand in its place, especially in school contexts.

A quick internet search turns up many definitions for “innovation”, but I am drawn to the one that proposes three elements: 1) new ideas that 2) create value when 3) they are implemented, whether through updates to existing systems or the creation of new ones. Some innovations are incremental, while others are radical, but all three components are essential to innovation.

Here are six areas where innovation meaningfully impacts K-12 educational systems.

  1. Desired outcomes. Linguistic and logical skills are the most prominently desired school outcomes — reflected in the foci of most testing programs — but schools that over-focus on the “three Rs” of “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic” are missing the innovative goal of helping children develop into whole and healthy beings. These include scholarly outcomes such as information literacy and digital literacy, personal character outcomes such as emotional intelligence and courage, and civic and interpersonal values such as compassion and service.
  2. Curriculum content. The actual knowledge and skills that curriculum contains are subject to endless argument, and occasionally to true innovation. This can take the form of updates to existing curriculum, such as including statistics in an elementary math program or adding cultural geography into social studies. Sometimes entirely new curriculum are identified and developed, such as environmental science, coding, leadership, or place-based content.
  3. The role of students. Many programs still expect students to be consumers of information who practice skills, based on a “transfer-of-knowledge” concept in which students are passive receptacles. Innovations in what students actually do to learn include the rise of both constructivism (creating understanding) and constructionism (making physical things). In both of these approaches, students are given agency and responsibility to be generative and creative forces that influence the process.
  4. Instruction and pedagogy. There’s no shortage of instructional techniques in use, from stand-and-deliver lectures to hands-on manipulatives. In the last two decades, the pace of trying out new ideas has quickened, though schools are still quick to tout each shiny new approach as “the answer” to student learning. Some innovations that are more proven to add value to the educational process include project based learning, interdisciplinary studies, and differentiation.
  5. Classroom environment and design. In this country, the traditional model is to put individual desks in rows facing forwards. The Harkness table and seminar-style classroom arrangements began to shift patterns of how teachers and students interact. An innovation now gaining attention is the concept of flexible classrooms, which are easily reconfigured for whole class discussion, small group collaboration, and individual work, while promoting student choice and health through a variety of seating options. Another iteration of this innovation is replacing computer labs with maker spaces.
  6. Philosophy and program beliefs. Schools have changed dramatically as philosophies about the purpose of education have changed. The progressive era of the 20th century introduced the importance of incorporating child development in educational systems, though adult concerns still often drive school schedules and organization. In recent years, the burgeoning field of neuroscience has been especially useful in driving innovation about our understanding of how teaching and learning can be most effective.

Though educational innovation is clearly much more than computers and devices, and technology is not necessarily innovation in and of itself, technology can “add value” in some schooling circumstances across all six of the above areas. At their best, these tools increase communication and networking, promote the faster flow of ideas, and spark creativity and imagination. While the SAMR model provides a way of assessing whether the application of technology is generally enhancing an educational program, or more fully transforming it, measuring the impact of innovation is an area that is just starting to get attention.

Educational innovations can present intellectual and emotional challenges to teachers and families. They need to be supported with time, energy, money and other resources to have lasting impact. Schools that stay focused on innovating in order to add value to the child’s learning, the teacher’s instruction, and the family experience put themselves, and their students, in best position to thrive in the future.

  1. Yale University Information Technology Services