Are you an Educational Innovation Tortoise or Hare?

In Aesop’s Fable about the Tortoise and the Hare, people focus on the fact that the tortoise won because of it was “slow and steady” to the finish line. The hare’s overconfidence and flaws were not enough for the tortoise to win the race. The tortoise had to run the race. He had to stick his neck out and persevere despite the huge odds against him. As James Bryant Conant is quoted as saying, “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That means moving beyond our safe and protected shells, taking risks, and agreeing to run the race in the first place.

What are the implications for educational innovation? There are certainly hares at work, the fast-moving innovators who experience early wins or or achieve “firsts” in the field. However, sometimes they find themselves so far ahead of the “competition” that the drive for innovation and new ventures diminishes, and they rest on their past accomplishments. Other times they don’t have the resources to persist. They are quick off the blocks but don’t have what it takes to bring it home. Perhaps we can think of the tortoises as the steady, persistent, determined, calculated risk-takers who are in it for the long haul. They don’t resist change. They have the courage and confidence to get in the race in the first place. They recognize that education is a dynamic, ever-changing endeavor. They may not move the fastest but they persist and keep their eyes on the goal.

Of course, there are other perspectives. Anita Brookner wrote, “In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.” While many think of this fable as teaching about the superiority of perseverance over speed, it wasn’t the speed that led to the tortoise winning. The hare’s natural capacities gave it a huge advantage, if it were not for its character. Whenever you can find the sweet spot that blends optimal capacity with optimal character, the chance of success is greatly improved.

As such, some argue that the humble, determined, well-resourced and focused hare is likely to beat out the hard-working tortoise almost every time in the real world. Yet, that is often not what we see in educational innovation. I’ve been involved with plenty of “firsts” in the education sector, providing a glimpse into what was possible. Pretty much every time, however, I did not have the human or other resources to amplify and refine the innovation. I gladly accepted my role and allowed other organizations to take the ideas, refine them, scale them, and even monetize them. These other organizations were on the front end of the innovations, but it was their resources and capacity to execute and scale that gave them the advantage. They were really good at focusing, persisting, putting in the hard work (and resources), and reaching the target audience.

While some still look at it as a competition, education is social entrepreneurship and the end goal is for the best ideas to spread and have the greatest positive impact. That means that there is plenty of room and a valuable role for hares, tortoises and any number of other participants.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.