Innovation in Education: Not Just a Term for Startups

Innovation in Education: Not Just a Term for Startups

Why teachers and startups share the same DNA

By Molly Levitt     Mar 28, 2014

Innovation in Education: Not Just a Term for Startups

Teachers and schools are often perceived as lacking in innovation. However, looking at the way teachers approach the classroom, you find many similarities to disruptive innovators. In his book, The Innovator's DNA, Clayton Christensen lays out the five characteristics of these innovative thinkers - associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. In reality, educators and innovators embody most of these, yet they are expressed in different ways.

As a teacher, and now founder of BrightLoop, I have been apart of both worlds. Viewing each through the media, it is easy to feel as if teachers and startups are incompatible-- that innovation is a term for the entrepreneurs and the teacher must catch up. Yet take a closer look and you will see that Christensen’s characteristics are very aligned to the way educators approach their classroom.

It’s time to dispel the myth that innovation only happens outside the classroom and use that knowledge to create more collaborative innovation between educators and edtech entrepreneurs.

Let’s take a look at what teachers and startups can learn from each other about innovation.

Associating: Connecting fields, problems or ideas that others find unrelated

Great edtech entrepreneurs make connections between the way people learn best and their own valiant view of the future. Working in edtech you are often running on low funds and hopes and dreams. This makes it imperative to problem solve and make meaningful connections even without the runway and bandwidth of larger industries.

In the classroom, each moment, subject and interaction with a student or family helps you identify ways to support and understand each student. You are constantly making associations that are often not obvious at the surface and using these to rethink your practice and approach.

Both teachers and entrepreneurs believe in education and are readily making associations to be more effective, all with few resources and great intentions.

Questioning: Their questions outnumber their answers during conversation

While both entrepreneurs and teachers question in different ways, I think startups could benefit from teacher’s attitude toward questioning. Running a startup requires confidence, you must believe that you will be successful. Early on when I switched careers I pretended I understood things in order to appear to be confident. Then I realized that the greatest teacher is curiosity and asking questions, and so I practiced what I had preached for years. I asked what people meant, I asked clarifying questions, I raised my hand and tried not to preface my inquiries with “this is probably a stupid question.”

Educators only have 180 days to ensure their students are successful. In this way, they must drop their ego and recognize when they need to learn more and ask for help. Edtech is a new field and in many ways we don’t know which approach will ultimately be successful. Instead of pretending you know the answers, what if you made each interaction one where you learn? Entrepreneurs, ask more questions, even if you think they are stupid… you are in education technology after all.

Observing: Innovators gain insights and ideas for new ways of doing things by watching the world around them.

Startups are constantly observing all facets of their business and identifying unique solutions that can support their cause. Teachers are always observing their students and using these observations to inform their instruction. However, due to the constraints of the classroom (budgetary and otherwise) they often don’t have the opportunity to do as much “out of the box” thinking. Startups and educators must come together to push the boundaries of each other’s thinking. If we are not observing the entire profession- from tech to classroom moments- we are bound to miss something.

Entrepreneurs and educators - in what ways do you use observation to move quickly? Perhaps sharing such productivity practices and innovations would provide new approaches for both sides.

Networking: Actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things

Teachers network at conferences and learn new ideas to support their instruction. Edtech entrepreneurs network at events that rarely attract many teachers. When teachers do attend, they are often left with a bad taste in their mouth like people are trying to sell them things designed to “fix them” rather than support them.

The foundation of networking is to learn from others and expand your network and world view in ways that is mutually beneficial. Right now there is not enough mutual benefit to these interactions. Entrepreneurs, you must reframe the way you network with teachers.

Experimenting: Innovators are constantly trying out new experiences holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way

Much like startups experiment with ideas and technology, teachers experiment with new approaches to teaching and learning. They test if these experiments are effective by assessing their impact on each student. If the lesson you taught was not effective, you must quickly create a hypothesis as to why and try and fix it for the following day. Teachers brings a flexibility of thought to their jobs and learning from those moments only helps them improve their practice.

Startups have more flexibility and time to really envision things outside of the box. Teachers need more opportunity to experiment beyond the current confines of the classroom in the way the startups do. However, entrepreneurs could also learn a little from teachers about being flexible and fast at recognizing when things are not working.

Each job brings with it the need to be innovative in a space where the impact of your success or failure is the student. Yet often the two feel diametrically opposed. What if educators thought more like entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs thought more like educators? I believe we would see more collaboration and powerful learning opportunities for each. It is time we stopped viewing innovation as outside of the classroom and education as purely inside the classroom. Together educators and entrepreneurs can learn and innovate in ways that will never be accomplished if we continue to view the two as competing.

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