Steve Martin, The Jerk, Education Policy & Innovation

There is the scene an old movie called The Jerk where the character played by Steve Martin is working at a carnival. It has something to teach us about education policy & innovation. When asked by someone what they can win by playing the game, here is what he says.

When I think about the role of educational policy as well as regulatory agencies, I fear that this video clip too accurately describes our current situation in both P-12 and higher education. We ask, “How much can we innovate?” We inquire, “What are the possibilities and opportunities that we should pursue for the sake of learners?” Initially, we might get a “The sky is the limit!” answer. “Anything is possible.” “Yes, we want to be champions of innovations.” Yet, it only takes a few more seconds or minutes before the truth starts to show up. “You are encouraged to innovate, but keep it in this little box…even the back right corner of this little box.”

Education policy plays an important role today. It can indeed be a powerful lever for encouraging innovation and promoting excellence (although, as an aside, I confess that I see design as a far more powerful tool for educational innovation than policy). Yet, when policy-making is done well, it protects, but it can also free us up. It sets boundaries but leaves room to roam. Using yet another metaphor, it creates fertile soil for mission-minded creativity and innovation to grow.

This takes a commitment to deep thinking and learning before establishing policies and regulations. It is not easy or quick. It is best done with ample insight into the many stakeholders and how every policy will have affordances and limitations, it produces both winners and losers. If one is going to get involved in policy and regulation (on an organizational level or anything beyond it), this is the high calling and responsibility that comes with it.

Even with such an approach, errors will be made, and there must be the humility and love of truth that leads one to change course, to admit errors and recognize unintended or unexpected consequences. This can’t about saving face or taking more pride in the impression of success over actual success. We are talking about education and learners. These learners deserve a commitment to do that which benefits them, and our view of what that looks like can’t stop at some simplistic description. This too will be complex, requiring our best thinking and learning. Until policymakers and regulatory agencies embrace such an approach, their work will too often hinder more than help. They might give lip service to endless possibilities and innovation, but their work will stifle and limit.

In general, policy and regulation both tend to be based upon the past and the present circumstances. As such, by their very nature, they often draw our attention to iterative and incremental innovations. More radical innovation is hard for policymakers because they want to saddle and ride it. They want to control where it goes and how it goes. Yet, in doing so, they extract the radical and leave people focused on enhancements, cosmetic improvements. These can be good and beneficial, but we also need to leave room for those educational moonshots.

There are some who are quite skilled at weaving radical innovation between, around, and amid policy and regulation. Sometimes limitations even bring out a spirit of innovation. Yet, even then there is tremendous mental energy focused just on avoiding the policy and regulatory landmines and not full-blown experimentation and exploration.

The clip above is entertaining. Yet, when we experience it in the real world of modern education, it can also be disheartening. The education space is much better off if we leave room for greater variety and possibility. “What can I win?” “Anything on these shelves!”

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, 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, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.