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Don’t Let "Innovative" Become the New "Excellent"–please!

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It seems

I can hardly get through a day lately without doing being innovative. Just this morning I tried putting the handle of the pan on the left instead of the right when I was boiling water for tea, and in a related discovery a few days ago it turned out that it was easier to open the dented tin full of tea bags by pulling the back, not the front. I seriously don’t know where all this innovation will end—and this is just in the realm of making my morning tea! Pretty clearly, I am very like the late, great Steve Jobs, with a dash of Zuckerberg and a soupçon of Gates.

We seem to have reached a point, especially when we speak of education, that every marginally new idea or every adaptation or iteration of an old idea is “innovative.” Innovate! Innovate! is the cry from every leader, industry spokesperson, and commentator—including (on occasion) me, I confess. Every independent school is scrabbling around trying to find ways in which it offers “innovative curriculum” or at least “programs,” and I presume every parent is looking for schools that will foster in their children the capacity to innovate—if not all the time, at least often. If I am a teacher looking for a job, I had better be able to show off at least a couple of innovative practices I have used in my classroom.

Not so long ago—in fact, right now in many places—the word “excellent” was the buzzword of the moment. A school needed to be excellent, with an excellent faculty to push students toward excellence in all areas (especially lifelong learning!) in excellent facilities. And what more glorious aspiration than “Mission: Excellence!”?

I suppose every field has its wish-dreams, and independent school educators can probably come up with a few more terms that we have used over the years as magical incantations—like “excellent” and “innovative,” words that we believe, when we use them, transform their objects into something actually excellent, or innovative.

The thing about “excellence” is that we have over-used it to the point of meaninglessness. It still has a powerful ring, however, and as long as we reserve it to talk about qualities that truly excel and exceed—qualities that invoke its Greek forebear, areté—we should use it. But it has to be used in reference to something specific and demonstrably very fine, and not as a stand-in for just another good job or good idea or some vague idea of superiority.

“Innovative” has its place, too, and I have been trying hard to discipline myself to use the word only to describe true innovation. Provocative capitalist Peter Thiel puts it this way: “People think solving simple problems is innovative. True innovation occurs when problems are hard and valuable.” Innovation, it seems, is much more than little adjustments to my morning tea-making routine.

The good news is that innovation is taking place in schools. We need to spot and celebrate these true innovations (some truly original charter schools and the National Association of Independent School Schools of the Future programs offer some good examples and worthwhile directions), and we need to learn from them.

The earliest adopters of innovative ideas can even be given a pass if they call their implementation “innovative.” But at some point an idea moves from innovative into the category of “contemporary best practice”—it may be new to your school, but it is not innovative. There are qualitative differences that distinguish “innovative” from “novel” from “new in this place,” and it won’t hurt us to try to observe these differences in our language.

I suppose it’s also appropriate to remind ourselves that not every innovation is a boon. The Flying Wedge in football, the original Chevrolet Corvair, and thalidomide were all innovative, but all had disastrous effects. We are in a period of educational experimentation and exploration, and we need to be prepared to acknowledge that some educational innovations are not going to work out so well; the Law of Unintended Consequences is not in abeyance just because we’re excited about a truly new idea.

But no matter how fussy or unfussy we are about language—and when it comes down to regular usage I’m probably as bad as the next blogger—we need to be on the lookout for, and we need to encourage in all ways we can, true innovation: “hard and valuable” problems approached in truly new ways. While all innovation does not equate to a universal panacea for education, really new ideas are going to be needed if we are to move our teachers, our schools, and of course our students forward.

To shift another comment by Peter Thiel into an educational context, what we need are schools and programs “that represent genuine progress, not just frantic change from one fashion to another.” The trick, of course, is to know valuable solutions and genuine progress when we see them, and not just when someone sticks an adjective on them.

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