December 27, 2018

What kind of innovator are you? Maybe a better question is: what type of innovator do we need in education? After reading about the work of economist David Galenson and his theory of innovation, I believe we can answer this question.

The stereotypical innovator is someone that comes up with the big, earth shattering idea, product or art that changes the world. Think Edison with the light bulb, Jobs and Apple, Andy Warhol, etc. (Remember this is stereotypical, we know the truth behind these “instant” successes is more nuanced). These innovators are called conceptual innovators because they make bold leaps in their fields that oftentimes changes paradigms. Conceptual innovators generally do their work when they are young (in their 20’s and 30’s). I think that most of the time when we think of innovators, we think of this type of innovator and that is too bad. Too bad because for most of us that are not in our 20’s and 30’s anymore, we can start to believe that we can’t make an innovative contribution to our filed. Fortunately, there is another type of innovator that speaks directly to those of us in the field of education.

The second type of innovator is called an experimental innovator. Experimental innovators use trial and error over years of work in their craft to create groundbreaking work. Experimental innovators usually do their best work later in life. A good example is Mark Twain who wrote Huckleberry Finn when he was 50 years old. The work Twain did his entire career up to the point of writing Huckleberry Finn led to a classic work of literature. It was no less groundbreaking then work done by a conceptual innovator, he simply arrived at the same destination in a different fashion. The innovation resulted from years of experience and gathering expertise in his field.

Our field of education needs experimental innovators. We need practitioners that don’t just view their job as a technician who mindlessly implements programs (please review my first blog for more on this subject). The work we undertake in education is tailor made for experimental innovation. We have experts in every school who constantly are working to make education better. I know teachers who are incorporating their communities in their classroom. I have visited schools where there are no grade levels for Learners. I have discussed how a school superintendent how a school district has become radically Learner centered by incorporating characteristics of Mass Customized learning. Our IU is partnering with a school to create a framework that assists educators in crafting meaningful relationships with Learners. All of these innovations did not occur with a light bulb moment inspiration. Rather, they occurred when experts in their field applied their knowledge to the question of how to make education better for Learners.

So, how can we encourage experimental innovation? Here are some thoughts.

  1. Read and understand the concepts of Growth Mindset by Carol Dwek (READ THE BOOK). I know that we talk about Growth Mindset in terms of assuring Learners have it, but it is equally important that adults have a Growth Mindset. Educators MUST believe that the work they are doing can (and will) get better. More importantly, educators must apply Growth Mindset principles to their own work. The most innovative school that I have seen started with a Growth Mindset book study.
  2. Honor the great work that is currently being done in our field, while at the same time be unsatisfied. I am proud and humbled by what I see in our schools, but I believe we can do better. This is a difficult psychological area to inhabit…proud but not satisfied. We can honor what we do and has been done, but we must always strive to do better. Complacency leads to status quo thinking and we do not need status quo thinking.
  3. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating…no step is too small. Have the courage to start something that makes the system better.
    Let’s all have a great start to the year!

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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