Is the Word ‘Innovation’ Bad for Education?

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. 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.

3 thoughts on “Is the Word ‘Innovation’ Bad for Education?

  1. The reality is that any "innovation" can be just that to some people, but it’s equally true that the same one can be old hat to others — generally the older ones.

    Among teachers, it’s typical to get a ho-hum reaction to an innovation that mirrors a practice that they’ve been doing for a long time. When the innovation is technical, the innovative aspect is often the delivery system itself, not the substance. The substance taken out of the technology is again old hat.

    The adage "there’s nothing new under the sun" if followed by "just new packaging," describes what’s under the hood of many innovations. Best, I’d say, to reserve the label for changes that surprise or with their originality and at the same time impress us for their effectiveness. On that basis, the iPhone makes it, Snuggies (as nice as they may be) don’t.

  2. This seems to imply that innovation = ed-tech (the abbreviated definition, not the expanded one at HackEd that includes everything). Innovations can take the form of teaching methods, curriculum, or even the length of the school day. If anything is dangerous about the word "innovation," it’s assuming that any school lacking new ed-tech is behind-the-times. Ironically, the schools with the least access to ed-tech (lesser-privileged, lower-income) can be the most creative in terms of new methods, mainly because they have nothing to lose.

    Look up synonyms for the word "innovative." Let’s face it, no single-word entries capture the idea better than the word itself. It streamlines communication, like any buzzword should.

  3. Are we willing to accept Michael Horn’s and Clay Christensen’s definition of disruptive innovation regarding education: "Providing an "affordable, efficient alternative to an expensive unwieldy one?"

    An efficient education is not the same as an effective education. Improving efficiency focuses on reducing resource costs and improving the productivity of those resources. Improving graduation rates is one measure of efficiency but is moot if those graduates do not have the skills and knowledge to compete and contribute in an increasingly global knowledge economy.

    On the other hand, effective education focuses on results such as student performance and achievement scores. Achievement scores should reflect students’ proficiency in the required knowledge and skills for each grade level. One of the driving forces behind education reform is the recognition that our students are moving through each grade level without mastering the knowledge and skills required for the previous grade. The McKinsey Global Institute’s June 2012 "Jobs, Pay, and Skills" report, available at, projects that "the labor forces of advanced economies [like the United States] could have as many as 32 – 35 million more workers without college education than employers will need." If U.S. employers cannot get qualified workers within their countries, they’re going to seek them elsewhere. If we want our youth to be educated adults who successfully compete in a global workforce and contribute to the long-term competitiveness of our nation, improving education effectiveness, not education efficiency, needs to be our *primary* goal.

    Given this challenge, education professionals need to take a hard look at products and services billed as "innovative." Innovation is about the adoption of a transforming product or service on a significant scale. From this perspective, innovation is not bad for education but is probably over-used (per The Wall Street Journal article cited). Introducing new technology into the classroom is not innovative if it does not produce replicable transformational change and therefore result in adoption outside that classroom, school, school district, and state. What "innovative" education practices are being used outside a school district or for that matter across school districts in one or more states? How are those practices improving replicable student achievement? These are important questions that our K – 12 education professionals need to ask before making significant investments in technology.

    Budget constraints are forcing governments and schools to make difficult resource decisions. In the face of these challenges, school districts should not constrain themselves to "either / or" decisions. Unfortunately, Horn’s and Christensen’s "disruptive innovation" definition implies that true education innovation is constrained to improving efficiencies ("an affordable, efficient alternative").

    Another view adopts one of Jim Collins’ maxims in his 2004 bestseller, "Built to Last." Our education professionals need to "embrace the genius of the AND" vs. "the tyranny of the OR." As one example, the right question is not, "How do we optimize our budgeted resources?" but "How do we optimize our budgeted AND available resources in our communities to improve the achievement of our students?" This question drives a critical and needed primary focus on student performance and achievement effectiveness / outcomes while dealing with budget, resource, and efficiency challenges. The answer can result in transformational (disruptive) innovative education model changes. Time magazine’s "These Schools Mean Business" at,9171,2110455,00.html describes how one school, Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, NY, has embraced "the genius of the AND" to engage its community to improve the performance of its students.

    Lastly, lessons learned from initiatives like these need to be shared to truly facilitate real disruptive innovation on a broad scale.

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