Why Schools Struggle to Embrace Educational Innovations

In Seeing What’s Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change, Christiansen, Roth & Anthony describe one of the reasons many organizations don’t adapt to or embrace disruptive innovation.  They point to the Resources, Processes, and Values (RPV) Theory for this explanation.  Resources refers to what human and other resources exist in a given organization. Processes refers to the way the organization functions; the systems, policies, and processes that shape the way things get done.  Values refers to the organizational priorities.  What does the organizational culture value or want to accomplish?  These three elements help one to understand the strengths of an organization as well as what the organization fails to see (the authors refer to these as “blind spots”). Out of the three, resources tends to be the most flexible, while the other two resist change and tend to persist.  When an organization has the necessary resources, has a set of values that help them to effectively prioritize, and it has processes that aid in reaching the core goals; then that is usually a recipe for success.

What happens when an opportunity arises that does not align with the organizational processes, values, and resources? In many cases, the organization passes on the opportunity.  Or, perhaps a few people in the organization see the opportunity and try to pursue it.  The project likely ends in frustration.  Even if such innovators have the necessary resources, it is likely to fail if they must try to work within the existing policies. Or, perhaps the proper policies and values exist, but there are inadequate resources. One of the best ways to ensure a failed attempt at implementing an innovation in a learning organization is to try to force it into the existing processes and to under-resource it.  Consider the following examples.

1) The One-to-One Program – A principal sees that the area schools are moving to one-to-one programs, so she decides that she needs to keep up with them by implementing a similar initiative.  The teachers in her school value specific teaching strategies that don’t require a one-to-one program.  Furthermore, teachers have a history of adding new technology in their classroom, but only so far as they can simply use to technology to substitute for a previous technology.  So, they are fine with SmartBoards because they largely use it like a white board.  The high school teacher who loves to lecture is fine with adding PowerPoint because it just replaces the old overhead projector slides.  In addition, many of the policies and processes within the school and specific classes seeks to manage student behavior by having very rigid methods to classroom management. Finally, the principal wants to do this without investing too much money in the necessary infrastructure for one-to-one learning (like increasing Internet bandwidth, investing in the necessary professional development for teachers, and/or taking the time and money needed to cultivating shared ownership among parents, board, teachers, students and others. This is an example where some resources may exist, but the limited resources, existing processes and teacher values may well make it difficult for the initiative to have a positive impact.

2) Online Programs at a University – One or more University leaders have a vision for reaching new students by adding online programs.  Most faculty at the school look at online learning with suspicion, so there are few volunteers to help out.  In addition, they try to use the same marketing, recruitment and admissions processes as they do for the rest of the University. They also rely upon all the existing student support systems to function just as well for the online students.  No far into the project, they find that enrolments are down, academic quality is questionable, and/or student satisfaction is low because they have trouble navigating the internal offices and finding people who understand and appreciate the unique challenges of an online learner.  “Just stop by the office and we can work this out.” That doesn’t work well for someone studying from a thousand miles away.

The School Within a School – A traditional high school decides to launch a new innovative school within a school, one that focuses upon something like we see in the charter and magnet schools (STEM academy, project-based learning, self-directed learning, experiential education, school of the arts, or perhaps service learning focus).  However, the board and school leadership decides that this new school must work within the existing processes of the same school.  They must use the same grading system, the same daily schedule, etc. In addition, they school decides to do this on a shoestring, providing no discretionary funds and no dedicated space.  Even with the most talented and dynamic leader, this model has a high risk of failure unless, at some point, resources, processes and values are in place to support it.  What is likely to happen instead is that the initiative become a good course or supplemental program within the school.  It becomes little more than a slightly different version of the same core school experience.  This isn’t necessarily bad if that is the original goal, but it will not allow for the creation of a distinct learning environment like what one sees in many highly successful charter or magnet schools.

There are usually a few exceptions to every rule, but the RPV Theory seems to be an effective tool for analyzing educational innovations and making some predictions about their likelihood for success in a given learning organization.  Without adequate resources, room to establish appropriate and new processes, and the ability to incubate the idea in a community that values it, such programs have a much lower chance of success. Get these three in place and, while it does not guarantee tremendous outcomes, it at least allows the innovation fertile soil to grow.