Here’s a quick confession: I (John) used to hate the word “innovative.” See those quotation marks right there around the word? Those are actually air quotes that I would use whenever I used the term. “It’s a buzzword,” I would say. “It’s overused,” I would point out.
But the truth is, sometimes a word becomes trendy because it’s tapping into something we all agree is important. Is it misused? Sometimes. Is it overused? Often. But so are the words “love” and “awesome” and “friend,” but I have no intention of ditching any of those words. I think I reacted poorly to the word “innovation” because it had a certain overly glossy, high-tech connotation to it. It made me think of the EPCOT Center and of the Astrodome and of the Flowbee (a true innovation in haircutting that combined a hair trimmer and a vacuum). But that’s not innovation. That’s novelty. That’s disruption.
I have been discussing innovation for probably the past ten years, and I agree with John here, 100%. When people use the word “innovation” to describe something new (usually technology related) than it does become a buzzword. This happens a lot in education where a term becomes “trendy” and is used without thought of what it means, which in turn makes the word a buzzword. It is not saying that the word in itself is terrible, but it is in the way that it is used.
In my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset,” I defined the word innovation as the following:
I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative. That means that change for the sake of change is never good enough.
The “better” part of the definition is the most crucial. The word “better” is vital when it comes to traditional practice or innovative practice. Some traditional methods work better for our students in learning, and that is crucial to understand. If we gravitate toward the “new” only because it is trendy and lose our students along the way, it is not innovation; it is bad practice.
But what constitutes ‘better’? How do I know when a new way is a better way? For me, better is equivalent to students learning more. Whatever the ‘better’ is assists my students with learning/remembering/retaining more information in a more efficient and/or effective manner. What does ‘better’ mean to you? I think this is a vitally important question to consider and I’m not sure all educators sincerely know what their ‘better’ is.
The question I have bolded is essential, not only for individuals but as schools and organizations. What does “better” actually mean? If you are looking for an answer from me, I won’t give it to you directly. Here is why; what is often measured as “better” in schools is all about higher scores. But understand, this doesn’t mean it is better learning. For example, a lot of studies that discuss “effective practice” totally correlate it to test scores, but in your experience as an educator, have you ever seen students that could ace a test but not truly understand the content? I will admit that I have taught that way in my career because the sole measure of my effectiveness what was if kids did well on a test. We promote the importance of scores in education, yet many organizations that scores are not an accurate indicator of someone’s ability. I am not against students doing well on standardized exams, but I also know that some of our smartest kids in our schools are weak academically. There is more to learning and understanding than we could ever possibly measure on a standardized test.
We also need to understand that people other than the students often define the “better” for our kids. This is why I have often discussed the importance of having students define what “success” looks like for them. Do we genuinely become as passionate or resilient in achieving goals that are solely set by others? I struggle with the thought that sometimes the “scores” are placed at the forefront because it is an easier way to show the success of the adults than it is to show the success of our students.
I believe that as a school if we are talking about “best practices” or “innovation,” or anything else, we have to figure out what “better” means for our students, and from our community. How we assess this “better” will drive practice, not the other way around.