College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Last Words on Innovation

By Tom Vander Ark — January 28, 2019 4 min read
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We’re a couple years into a new era, what the business-backed advocacy group America Succeeds calls the Age of Agility. It’s driven by the confluence of billions of connected people and devices, cheap computing, and code that learns.

This new innovation age brings unparalleled opportunities for young people to contribute. It’s never been easier to build an app, launch a campaign, or take on a big problem with smart tools.

But contribution in the #AgeofAgility requires young people to rachet up their skills—not just reading, writing, and problem-solving but creativity (by applying design thinking) collaboration (through social-emotional learning) and agency (including entrepreneurial mindset). And not just while they are in school, but for a lifetime.

Getting smart is the new mandate for every person, community and country. I made that claim in a book I wrote almost a decade ago, and it’s truer now more than ever.

The new skills era demands powerful and personal learning experiences, not just knowledge regurgitation. Supporting the global need to get smart requires innovations in learning—at a massive scale—it is the most important equity work in the world.

What is innovation? Improvement is making the old system better. Innovation is trying something new hoping for dramatic improvement—or new and different outcomes.

Improvement relies on the consistent implementation of proven methods with limited risk. Innovation relies on informed hunches, it involves risk and investment and, as a result, may require a broader set of agreements than improvement. (Starting small and iterating is a great risk mitigation strategy.)

How do you measure success? Aiming for new outcomes is a challenge—you’re not quite sure how to describe, develop, or measure them. The X Prize Foundation often faces this challenge describing world-changing goals that warrant big prizes.

An education example is student agency, the ability to take action towards goals. There is widespread agreement that this disposition is important but there are different definitions and limited agreement on how to provoke and develop it.

Before the sector comes to full agreement on definition and metrics, groups of schools can define measures. New Tech Network uses a set of grade span rubrics to describe a progression in student agency. It’s a good example of an effort to define a goal and a set of practices likely to produce it.

What’s the key to impact? The study of effective altruism makes it clear that many efforts at promoting impact through innovation fail. They note that working on the right problem might be most important. The right problem is one that impacts a lot of people and where there is a timely opportunity to solve it.

Improvement and innovation can both be valuable. Finding the right balance requires you to understand the context. Factors that can influence the success of an innovation agenda include political capital (i.e. stakeholder support), talent, budget, and time horizon—too little of any of these factors can get you fired.

Another key to impact is considering unintended consequences. The K12 Lab team at Stanford’s d.School added “reflection” to the design thinking process to reduce unintended consequences and promote equity and learning.

In what roles can I innovate? There are many ways to provoke and support innovations in learning. Six of them include:

  1. Entrepreneur. Starting a new organization focused on an innovation. Elijah Mayfield and Matt Rameriz both started companies that provided automated writing feedback (both were acquired).
  2. Intrapreneur. Justin Aglio leads innovation at the Montour School District where they’ve created new experiences and environments for students.
  3. Policy maker. Governor John Kasich proposed a Straight A Fund to help Ohio schools launch creative new ideas for improving education ($280 million in FY14-17)
  4. Funder. Gregg Behr, Grable Foundation, has ignited active learning opportunities for students across southwest Pennsylvania.
  5. Researcher. Brian Gill, Mathematica Policy Research, studies new schools and governance models.
  6. Advocate. David Ruff, Great Schools Partnership, has advocated for and advised on the shift to competency-based learning in New England.

In all of these roles, there are opportunities to find inspiration and support by working in networks. Innovation is done Better Together (our new book on the subject).

Signing Off

After more than six years and 800 blog posts, I’m wrapping up this blog and finishing up my contributions to Education Week. I’ll continue to write about innovations in learning at GettingSmart.com.

Keep innovating! Just be smart about it. Build stakeholder support, connect in networks, start small and iterate.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.