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Is the Word 'Innovation' Bad for Education?

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Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a widely distributed column titled, "You Call That Innovation?" The piece bemoaned the increasingly arbitrary use of the word "innovation" in business, suggesting the word is "a cliché," used more as window dressing than to advance ideas. (Watch a video interview with the piece's author, Leslie Kwoh, above.)

To educators, who have surely heard their fair share of buzzwords, this should sound familiar. "Innovation" is everywhere in education, used to describe software, school choice, and even mass layoffs. If you were to believe everything that is called "innovative" in education actually is, there would hardly be a status quo.

Here's the Journal's argument as to how companies view the term: "... they are using the word to convey monumental change when the progress they're describing is quite ordinary."

Or as Scott Berkun, an innovation consultant (yes, they exist) puts it, "It is a chameleon-like word to hide the lack of substance."

A clever piece of reporting backs up this claim. The Journal reports that "innovation" was used 33,528 times in Securities and Exchange Commission filings last year, a 64 percent increase over five years. Amazon.com shows 250 books released in the past three months with "innovation" in the title. Innovation consultants are making millions of dollars advising businesses. According to a March study by Capgemini Consulting, 40 percent of executives surveyed say there's an "innovation officer" at their company.

A couple months back I wrote about the proliferation of "innovation officers," or related titles, in education. They oversee instructional technology, manage charter school portfolios, and write a ton of grant applications. Essentially, the title could have meant anything, and, as some folks quoted in my piece suggest, that makes the title somewhat worthless.

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said in my piece that the title's purpose in education is to make states and districts more attractive in their applications for federal grants, like Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund.

Berkun recommends the word only be used by businesses in extreme situations, like the invention of electricity, or the iPhone (the Snuggie, for instance, is not on that list), and one executive tells the Journal he'd like to stop using it in company materials.

To get some perspective on how the term is used in education, I emailed a few people who write about innovative education practices, study them, invest in them, or some combination of the three. None of them pledged to stop using the word, but then again I can't blame them—I mean, it's in my job title.

Audrey Watters, a well-known education technology writer and blogger at Hack Education, delightfully began her email with "Oh ugh. 'Innovation.'"

As she and some of the Journal's sources note, concern about "innovation" isn't some hipster-ish backlash to a cool new word becoming too popular. Companies are misleading investors and risking complacency by claiming they are innovating while continuing to churn out the status quo.

"It's not that our education system doesn't desperately need to be shaken up. But as the WSJ article makes clear, we are applying these adjectives without any analysis, without any reference to history," Watters continued. "It's just marketing schtick and sloppy thinking— and I think that's both disappointing and dangerous when we want to see substantive change in education and are stuck instead with seeing the mediocre and the mundane touted as transformative."

Even the federal i3 fund is misleading, said Tom Vander Ark, an education investor, consultant, and writer. Because of the limitations for applicants—only schools or nonprofit organizations are eligible, there are specific criteria about partnerships and performance metrics—the i3 funds prevent innovative winners, Vander Ark, said in an email.

"Small changes to existing schools/systems are often labeled innovation," wrote Vander Ark, the former executive director for education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author of "The Innovator's Dilemma" which helped popularize the term in business, told the Journal that companies use the term to "con" investors.

Michael Horn co-authored a book, "Disrupting Class," with Christensen and also co-founded the Innosight Institute, a think thank focusing on changing education and health care. "Disruption" is the extreme of "innovation," often used in tandem. Horn told me that he is concerned there are both positive and negative side effects of his book, which helped push both words into the education mainstream.

"It's nice that districts are thinking about innovation, but lip service or superficial understandings of what the purpose of said innovation is can just create confusion and not necessarily move the needle on student learning," he wrote in an email. "I worry about it."

In the case of "disruption," both Horn and Christensen, who is profiled in an excellent recent New Yorker article, point out there is a specific definition: technology that offers an affordable, efficient alternative to an expensive, unwieldy one. There is legitimate debate over whether something like digital textbooks is disruptive; the same isn't true of your average charter school.

Now, not to open a whole other can of worms here, but I do recommend, as a companion piece to the Journal article, reading Watters' recent post "What is 'Ed-Tech'?", an examination and taxonomy of another of education's favorite catch-alls. If after reading it, you feel you can no longer safely discuss education without plummeting into a downward spiral of cliché, well then I'm sorry.

Also: What do you think? Is "innovation" a hackneyed term in education? Is it dangerous? Should policymakers, educators, and reporters stop using it?

Let us know in the comments, or by email, or, if you're feeling innovative, on Twitter.

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