66 years. That is the time between the Wright Brother’s first flight and the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 66 years is also the time between 2015 and the year they invented the airsickness bags that sit in the pocket in front of you on the plane. While there have been subtle changes to the latter innovation, it pales in comparison to the rapid evolution of first flight to landing on the moon. So, why is it that innovation skyrockets (pun intended) in some areas but gradually develops in others?
1) Capturing the Imagination
The first one compels people to imagine and dream, and that is a powerful lever for innovation. The latter addresses a real need, but who gets excited about designing the next innovation to help capture the result of mid-air emesis? There are probably a few people, but the other was enough to generate completely new fields of study.
2) Meeting a Need or Embarking on an Adventure
We need simple and practical innovations, at least we can and do benefit from them. However, one taps into a thirst for adventure, discovery, and “going boldly where no man has gone before.”
3) Leverage a Broad Community of Innovators Toward A Compelling Vision
The first one is an example of a grand dream, large enough to create an entire community of people who gathered to do something about it. It didn’t start overnight. It came from centuries of musings about flight, and the build up to the moon landing relied on many smaller innovations. It was not just the grand vision of flight. It took a diverse community of innovators who contributed everything from the communication technologies to the work of rocket scientists. Yet, without that central and driving vision, these micro-innovations may have never come together to result in such an accomplishment.
4) Find the the One that Leads
These two innovations that I mentioned go together. Who needs an airsickness bag if you can’t fly? And yet, the innovation around that 66 year-old airsickness bag is not such a small innovation after all, not if you look at the broader problem, that of airsickness. Look at the innovations around motion sickness. Consider antiemetic medicines created over the last half century. Consider the scientific knowledge gained about emesis since the invention of the first airsickness bag. Yet, it is clear that one of these innovations is inspired by a grand dream. The other helps address practical challenges along the way.
Now what if we apply these simple (and maybe too obvious) lessons to educational innovation. I’ll offer four.
1) Lead with a Grand Dream
Before you start investing in countless tablets, technologies or new models for education; clarify your dream. Is it big? It is worthy of your life’s work? Is it clear and compelling? Is it capable of rallying a group of diverse people to accomplish it? If so, get to work. You might be the one to lay the groundwork of exploring the possibilities. You might be one who helps make one or more of the possibilities a reality. Either way, use what you have to contribute to the dream.
2) Focus on the Grand Goal
It is easy for us to invest the bulk of our energy working on the educational equivalent of airsickness bags, small innovations that make educational life a little more convenient or bearable. In fact, it is possible to spend an entire life doing that without realizing it. Then there are others who are willing to “shoot for the moon,” to dream grand visions of what could be in education, ignoring the naysayers, gaining inspiration from the possibilities and the nobility of the vision, and persistently driving toward that goal. Along the way, you will likely need many of those micro-innovations. Embrace them, learn about them, but keep putting them in the context of the grand goal. As Mark Twain once wrote, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
3) Invite Others to Join You
You don’t get to the moon on your own. The Wright Brothers represent an important step in that direction. So do countless others. Find inspiration, support, and encouragement from a growing group of others who have a shared vision. Many of the grandest innovations in history have this in common. We also see this with some of the boldest visions for education today. They build a small community around this shared vision, and it very often spreads into something bigger.
4) Embrace Your Place
It is hard to tell what role you play on a truly grand vision. Sometimes you are the Da Vinci, sketching out possibilities hundreds of years before they happen. Sometimes you are a pair of brothers building early prototypes inspiring a generation of others who will take your work to an unimaginable next level. Sometimes you are the one building that first rocket. You might be part of the support crew for the first launch. You might also be the first one to step foot on the moon. Sometimes it is hard to tell which one you’ll be. Embrace the dream, commit to the goal, identify and use your gifts in pursuit of it, and enjoy your unique role. Hopefully, one day you will be able to sit back and take pride in the small or significant ways that you helped make that happen.