This article is originally published in Catholic Teacher Magazine, February 2018 Issue
This article is one of a three-part series that will discuss the importance of improvement, the fallacy of innovation and how to avoid the trap of believing innovation has to happen every day.
There is wide-spread belief that Steve Jobs revolutionized the way we listen to music by way of the iPod, but a little research will tell you that SONY was actually responsible for a massive shift in music listening in 1979, when they released the Walkman. The Walkman was the first mass-produced product to allow the consumer to listen to music portably. Steve Jobs may have improved the portability, capacity and arguably the quality, but he did not truly impact the industry until he introduced iTunes in 2003. It was when Jobs decided to charge people $0.99 per song, the music industry changed forever. The consumer’s power to purchase a single song, circumvented the need to purchase an entire album and was quite innovative. It enabled consumers to purchase music a-la-carte which eventually forced a major change in the way artists and music companies created and marketed albums. The power was now in the user’s hands.
Now consider the GPS which has been around since the mid 80’s. Digital road maps were available by popping a map CD into the vehicle’s CD-ROM which offered very good location information, but it wasn’t until 1995 when the U.S. launched its final global positioning satellite, did geo-location become real-time accurate. When the auto sector decided to integrate GPS navigation into the automobile with a CD-ROM, driver behaviour and preparation changed as a physical map was slowly replaced by a digital live-action map in the car. Although this was a great improvement, innovation came when companies began to use real-time geo location for locating accidents, breakdowns and real-time traffic diversion did in order to change your driving habits to plan for more efficient travel. Once again, the power was in the user’s hands.
That two preceding examples illustrate both improvements and innovations. It is important to consider the difference but also to understand the value of each. An innovation may be an important improvement, but an improvement may not be innovative at all. Innovation is rare and can turn an industry on its head. Improvement however, is about efficiency, execution of new ideas, modernization, differentiating voice, collaboration, understanding data and using learning to move forward. In fact, one could argue – and I do – that once a practice, service or product can no longer be improved, innovation is forced to occur. The danger here is when the call to innovate is louder than the call to improve. What we end up with is a trove of un-perfected, untested, unexploited ideas that are left behind due to a lack of improvement.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) innovation is: production or adoption, assimilation, and exploitation of a value-added novelty in economic and social spheres; renewal and enlargement of products, services, and markets; development of new methods of production; and establishment of new management systems. It is both a process and an outcome. To be clear, innovation does not simply mean invention, or new ideas, new technology, or creativity. The terms ‘production, adoption, assimilation and exploitation’ mean that the idea has not only been accepted for use, but also that it has been replicated and used en masse! In reality it is such a rare occurrence that many of us may only experience one or two major innovations in a lifetime. In fact, an innovation can only be identified after we measure its impact on our behaviour collectively.
If we look the impetus to leverage technology in the classroom, the lines between innovation and improvement once again blur. Consider how often we hear about ‘incubators’ and ‘innovation hubs’ and how that trend, when coupled with a hungry tech sector, eager to reap revenue from education, you begin to see how shallow some ‘innovative’ practices really are. Now, if technology is a tool, which it is so often purported to be, then it can certainly be used to achieve both an improvement and an innovation. But why spur innovation – which is rare – when there are endless opportunities to improve instead? For example, is it really innovative to use a platform like Google Apps for Education or OneDrive to share and submit work? I would argue that the use of these tools is an improvement to standard ‘distribute and collect’ paper workflows because it can be real-time, on demand, flexible, collaborative and enables feedback. The argument doesn’t diminish the value of the tool, but it certainly puts the tool within reach of everyone interested in improving – and that is the key to changing practice – making improvements attainable, replicable and scalable.
Removing the pressure to innovate allows a teacher to focus on areas they would like to improve, in this case, the simple distribution and collection of work.
To help stir discussion about what innovation looks in the classroom, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association is hosting its second annual Get Your Head Out of Your Apps Conference this summer. Take a peek at the Conversation Starter below and consider how it may change the way you approach your own professional development.