Real Innovation

It may surprise some people to learn that ‘innovation’ is a dirty word in schools. Teacher’s hate it. A quick look at’s definition and you’ll soon see why.


in·no·va·tion [in-uhvey-shuhn] 

noun 1. something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.

I find this both fascinating and hilarious. Of all the possible examples, they chose one that would cause teachers to groan audibly. Even the phonetic breakdown has extra meaning.  On hearing the statement as expressed above, most teachers would exclaim “uh” and some may even utter the not dissimilar Yiddish expression “Oy vey” too. Either way, almost all teachers would “-shuh n” it pretty quickly.


Here’s why. ”numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum” is a fragment of the sort of statement that is trotted out by politicians, education policy makers and educationalists in general whose expertise is outside a classroom. It is a statement that is intended for an audience who are outside the classroom too. Parents and voters.

It is loved outside the classroom for the same reason that it is loathed by insiders. The word ‘innovation’ may have the intended meaning “something new or different introduced” but it is inferred to mean “radical change requiring lots of time and effort for not much gain.”

Cynical but accurate. Trust me.

If you don’t trust me than ask any grizzled verteran of 10 or more years in the classroom. They will tell you that they have professionally lived through more than one era where all processes pedagogical were given a good shake up. Perhaps the technology on hand to facilitate this was updated also. They will tell you that implementation of these innovations required a lot of effort and was not smooth. They will then tell you they find it hard to see much noticeable improvement in how things are done. 

That’s why they’re grizzled. Their automatic response to innovation is “Change again?! What is it this time?” 


For example, education in this country (Australia) has recently experienced innovative endeavour that was intentionally labeled the “Digital Education Revolution.” Once again, I can’t help myself and am compelled to play with the semantics of this. Particularly the word “revolution.” Seriously, what were they thinking? Revolutions are nasty, bloody (literally) things that are hard to control and never turn out as originally intended. High on passion, low on problem solving. They throw out the status quo and begin from scratch. If they wanted to sound innovative why didn’t they call it the Digital Education Evolution? Were they afraid the acronym would look bad?

Whatever you call it, the DER was a massive investment in education infrastructure. Obviously, any massive investment in infrastructure is a good thing and I’m not going to be too harsh on it. I think though, it is fair to say, this one suffered from a top down approach to being innovative. It meant that lots of grants were available for schools but the terms were skewed towards building things and acquiring technological kit. There may have been a discussion or consultation process that took place at the start with education stakeholders such as teachers, teacher unions, principals, students or parents, but I’m not aware of it. It saddens me to write this. The DER was a great opportunity but it failed to enthuse many teachers I know, and I wonder just how innovative it has been. 

Don’t give up!

I’m not convinced that the situation is hopeless though. While the word and the process is unpalatable to teachers, they should be enthusiastic about innovative ideas and techniques. After all, there’s more to ‘innovation’ than ‘new’ and ‘different’. These are merely the modern meanings to the word. It has greater implications in our collective consciousness. You get a hint of it in the Latin word of origin innovatio. Type that into Google translate (an utterly awesome resource by the way) and you’ll see it implies ‘renewal’ and ‘alteration.’ More than that, any example that you care to mention of successful innovation is inevitably something that has been driven out of creativity and practicality.

Now that is something teachers can get enthusiastic about. Innovation doesn’t have to mean discard old for new. Replace the known with unknown. Disregard your personal experience with someone else’s untested theory. It can mean build, evolve, improve, strengthen, rejuvenate, grow.

I come across an incredible amount of dynamic innovative discussion and ideas in my work. We may actually be living in a golden age for it. It just seems to me that it is easily dismissed and poorly implemented because it’s dismissed as a fad, or its borne out of the experience in some other place and a half hearted transplant is attempted. 

Maybe I’m simply adding to the massive list of innovative suggestions here myself, but it seems to me a strategy that is most likely to succeed is one that looks at the needs of the individual school, makes use of the talents and ideas of the people on the ground, and innovative solutions evolve from what already works. 


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