To Innovate Or Not to Innovate? Solving the Educator's Dilemma

When it comes to innovation in education, there is a tension.

Some educators express concern about innovating when children are involved. Innovation implies experimentation and uncertainty. Aren’t “disruptive innovation” or even “breakthrough sustaining innovations” too risky to pursue in schools given that the well-being of children is at stake?

Other educators come at it from the opposite perspective. Believing that current schools aren’t good enough for students, they think avoiding innovation in schools is akin to malpractice.

In our new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, Heather Staker and I devote a chapter to sketching out a way to innovate that takes into account the truth in both positions: the need for caution in unpredictable innovations, and the need for innovation to improve how educators serve students.

When launching something that is unfamiliar and unpredictable, with a low ratio of knowledge to hypotheses, educators need to change the planning and design process. A standard planning process—making a plan, looking at the projected outcomes from the plan, and then, assuming those outcomes look desirable, implementing it—will not work, because the assumptions, both implicit and explicit, on which the outcomes rest are often wrong. This is why bold new plans—be they disruptive or sustaining—do not typically survive long beyond their point of initiation.

Even some of the most successful blended-learning schools have made significant adjustments to their original plans and designs as they have operated. Summit Public Schools, for example, uses the lean-startup method to iterate rapidly. Accordingly, a Summit school today looks completely unrecognizable compared to its first blended-learning model.

Discovery-Driven Planning

So how should educators approach this process? Our research suggests that because most schools are not startups seeking to ‘‘acquire’’ students—rather, they are already working with students, parents and teachers who have existing expectations for their school—the lean-startup method might not work for most educators.

Instead, we think a process called “discovery-driven planning”—first introduced by Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Ian C. MacMillan, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and upon which the lean-startup concept is based—is the most promising model for innovating in schools because of how it reduces the risks of innovation.

A discovery-driven planning process essentially reverses the emphasis in a standard planning process. Rather than start with the assumptions and focus on the projected outcomes, the key is to start with the desired outcome in mind. What does the final state of the innovation need to do? What are you trying to accomplish? And how will you know you have been successful?

The second step is the critical one: creating an assumptions checklist. List all of the assumptions being made that must prove true in order for the desired outcomes to materialize—and be exhaustive. All of the assumptions that schools make implicitly should be on the table, including the use of time and school schedules, space, and staffing. In our book, we try to offer some suggestions to help guide educators through this brainstorming process. Once you have the full list of assumptions, rank the assumptions in order from the most to the least crucial.

With this checklist in hand, the third step is to implement a plan to test the validity of the assumptions. Plan to check the most important assumptions first, because those are the assumptions with the least confidence behind them that are also the most crucial to the project’s success.

In the initial stages of planning, the tests should be as simple, cheap, and quick as possible—they should simply directionally validate or invalidate the most critical assumptions. For example, it is a good idea to look at other schools to see whether the assumptions hold water before going too far down a road. Other ways to test assumptions include reading existing research, talking to other educators, making quick prototypes, and looking through the product reviews on EdSurge’s Edtech Index.

As the team moves closer and closer to launch, the tests should become more comprehensive and precise—and perhaps more costly. But the important thing is to not invest a lot of time and resources early before knowing whether the assumptions are proving true—or at least in the right ballpark. To create a rhythm for the tests and to know when it’s time to get more precise with them, create checkpoints to test the assumptions. The checkpoints are specific dates when these tests should be completed, so that the team can come together and evaluate what it has learned, which feeds into the last step in the process.

At each checkpoint, the team of educators innovating faces a decision: Should we continue implementing the strategy?

If your assumptions are proving true, then keep moving forward to the next checkpoint.

If they are not—as will more than likely be the case—you have a few options. You can tweak the plan to keep moving forward. For example, maybe the math software an educator had planned to use will be good for only twenty minutes of instruction a day rather than thirty minutes; this means the rotation schedule will have to be adjusted accordingly.

Alternatively, there may need to be bigger adjustments. Perhaps the blended-learning model needs to be implemented by a different team in a part of the school where the alternative is nothing at all—such as foreign language classes that the school has not offered previously—where there will be less pressure and more time to fine-tune the innovation before it must be scaled to the entire school to show that it is successful.

Or finally, perhaps the assumptions underlying the success of the plan are wildly unrealistic, and the plan just won’t work. If this is the case, then there is an opportunity to shelve the plan before too much money has been invested and the stakes have become too high to abandon the idea.

The big idea is that fast and cheap failure is far preferable to expensive failure in terms of student time, school money, and political capital. And that’s something that applies for any unfamiliar innovation in education, not just blended learning.

Editor's Note: Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayon Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (formerly the Innosight Institute), a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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