Innovation as a Means of Educational Problem Solving

A number of years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of colleagues to work through an emerging problem at the University. We spent time defining the problem and exploring the causes of it. We eventually got around to devising a plan of attack to address the problem. True to form, I jumped right into asking questions that I thought might help us innovate our way through the problem.

Of course, innovation is not the only way to solve a problem. Some problems are quite easily addressed by using longstanding practices in our organization. Others can be addressed by drawing from best practices in the field or learning from what worked for others. Still others can be addressed by looking to solutions in parallel fields. However, there are problems where existing solutions will not work, and those call for innovation if we are going to find a viable solution.

As one colleague noted when I started with my innovation questions, “When it comes to solving a problem, Bernard’s default approach is to innovate his way out of it.” That can be a strength, but it can just as often be a weakness. If that description of me is true, then I may well try to innovative my way out of a problem that could be more simply, quickly and inexpensively resolved with a more standard solution.

As such, I interpreted the statement as neither a compliment or a strong critique. I know this about myself. For one reason or another, I seem to have an initial bias toward the unconventional or innovative solution. That doesn’t mean that I have to go with that strategy each time a new problem arises, but it is certainly a good thing to know about yourself. Others have an initial bias toward the standard solution or toward finding out and imitating what others are doing to solve a similar problem. Each of these three have their benefits and drawbacks.

Yet, for the sake of this article, I’d like to make a case for innovation as a form of problem-solving in education, not because it is necessarily the superior option, but because I often see organizations struggle because they are not willing to consider it as an option. They are intimidated by it. They see it as reckless and risky. Or, maybe they just don’t consider it. The problem is that the same old strategies are likely to produce the same old results, and that can be dangerous given the rapid rate of change in education today.

There is a very important caveat to this. When it comes to innovation, we don’t want to put students at risk. It is always important to assess the risks of failure and how this could impact our primary mission of serving students and families. We certainly don’t want to turn students into guinea pigs, although there is something to be said for inviting the students to turn the school itself into a guinea pig (more about that in a future article).

At the same time, just falling back on what we have done and what everyone else has done brings plenty of risks too. First, what works in one situation or context doesn’t necessary work in the next. So, there can be just as much risk trying to play it safe. While we might like to think that we have much of education down to a science, there is still a great deal of art to the enterprise.

Consider this example in higher education. Universities think about student enrollment quite a bit. Selective schools with large endowments think about enrollment much differently than small, tuition-dependent private schools with a limited endowment; but they both think about enrollment. Yet, when it comes to the strategies associated with recruiting that freshman class, there is a large set of rather standard approaches; and that is where almost everyone turns when we face an enrollment problem. They look for what worked in the past and what works for others. Yet, that might be part of the problem.

This became clear to me over the last several years with the growing number of schools starting online degree programs and competing against one another for students or a certain type of student. Because a handful of large for-profit schools set the standard for online recruiting through certain digital advertising strategies, so many people have followed suit. It has certainly been a boon for companies like Google. Yet, as more people started to complete with one another, the competition increased and so did the cost per click. This led to a massive increase in the cost of recruiting a new student. Some pay thousands of dollars to enroll just one student. Yet, if you want to grow by five hundred or a thousand students, using that strategy, you need millions of upfront capital that you can invest in digital ads. Given that many schools were not prepared for that type of an investment, they gladly hired outside for-profit companies who were willing to make an upfront investment in turn for a significant piece of the tuition pie.

So, if you experience an enrollment drop in such an online world, what do you do? You can go with what worked for you in the past and try to spend more money to recruit students. You can look at what others are doing and imitate it. Many of them are doing the same thing. You might assume that the standard cost for recruiting a new student is the only way forward.

The problem is that this is a  dangerous cycle. The more people who do this, the more we raise the cost of recruiting a new student. Eventually, the cost gets so high that only a few players can compete, or it starts to take away money needed to improve the academic quality of the program.

Yet, that isn’t the only option. This is where the third way comes into play. Instead of just doing what worked in the past and looking to the example of others in the space, you can start to consider alternative pathways. What if you challenge the assumption that it should cost thousands to recruit a new student and explore completely different ways to connect with students who might want and benefit from what you have to offer? What if you brainstorm new strategies? You don’t have to disregard the old ways. You just build a more balanced portfolio. You invest some in what works for you. You invest some in what works for others. You invest some in what is more experimental. This is a lesson highlighted for me by a valued colleague.

I happen to think that this approach can work quite well when we face any number of problems or issues in education. We can approach it with this sort of a portfolio investment mindset, making sure that we leave room for some experimental endeavors that might have a bit more risk. Yet, it might also have a huge return for the students and school as well.

How to Predict Educational Trends: It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

People sometimes ask me how I spot or predict educational trends that are likely to stick. I usually share an idea or two, but I thought I would give a little longer answer for those who are interested.

You go to bed one night and wake up in a world of blended learning, online learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and a dozen other phrases. How did that just happen so quickly? While some people might feel like things changed overnight, that never happens when it comes to educational trends. They come about amid years, decades or even longer. If you are not paying attention, it might feel like the changed happened in a day, but it didn’t. There were signs of the impending change for a long time, and anyone with the desire and commitment can learn to read these signs.

I’ve been doing this for decades. Once you get a feel for key factors, you can get good at seeing them develop from a distance. It is not always easy to predict when the innovation is going to reach a critical mass and spread more quickly. I admit to being off as much as a decade in some cases. Yet, we can usually do better than a decade, and we can use this skill to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what is coming. Consider the following fifteen factors that are valuable when you are studying trends likely to shape and change education over time.

Domain Jumping

Lots of promising ideas in education don’t start in education. They begin in entertainment, the world of video games, in the business sector, in health care, or dozens of other domains. Yet, when there is an impactful development in one of these domains, it will eventually influence broader cultures and find its way into education. We can’t always trace the direct moment in which an idea jumps from one domain to education, but by looking at innovations more broadly, we can notice patterns that hint at that future jump.

Level Jumping

Too often, people focus on their small and local world of education. We don’t look across early childhood, elementary, secondary, tertiary, workforce development, continuing education, informal education, and other forms of education. As such, we miss a major development in one area that will likely jump to another level.

Convergence

We also want to look for the mixing of ideas, sometimes from within education, sometimes a mixture of ideas from within and outside of education. This is where two or more seemingly disconnected and distinct ideas come together. This is largely what happened with blended learning. Online learning started first. People basically just imitated what that saw in the classroom in an online environment. Then people discovered distinct benefits of online not possible in face-to-face. Then we had the development of video sharing technologies. These converged with face-to-face teaching to create what we call blended learning today. If you can see various developments and begin to explore what it might look like if they were to combine, you can get ahead of many developments. Of course, you can also be the one to help create the future.

Technology Maturity

In their infancy, most technologies are not quite as impressive as they will be in a decade or two…or three. As new features are added, we begin to discover new possibilities. These technologies mature into things that have greater application and possibility in education. Their ease of use or affordability develop, inviting more people to consider their possibilities in education.

Changing Metaphors

If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend the wonderful little book called The Metaphors We Live By. In it, the author points out the power of a metaphor to change how we think, how we make decisions and the possibilities that we consider. When you start noticing the growth of a new metaphor in a culture or community, you can identify a forthcoming innovation or set of innovations.

Amplifying Technology

Some technologies amplify beliefs, values, and philosophies. When one of those amplifying technologies emerge, they will give greater power to one philosophy or set of values over another. We can use this to predict which trends will win over others. We can also use this to try to find and promote those technologies that best amplify the values and philosophies we support.

Funding Growth

Investors, foundations, and government grants can and do help create the direction of future trends. Money is not the only factor, but when you see significant and persistent investment in an innovation, that is certainly an important factor to consider.

Revenue Potential

There are plenty of financial factors at work in education and when there is a revenue generation potential behind a certain educational technology, this gives it an extra boost. Textbooks didn’t just grow as a dominant curricular resource for a century because they were the best means of teaching and learning. They did so because they met a need and did so while creating lots of money for people and organizations.

Simplicity

In general, easy to understand, concrete or simple innovations gain more traction in education than complex ones. This is true even when a more complex solution is better for students and organizations.

Media Attention

The media doesn’t typically create any educational innovations, but media attention can and does influence awareness and adoption rate. We saw this with Massive Open Online Courses as an example, an innovation that continues to grow to this day even though it no longer gets the frequent media headlines. Yet, the stories and attention around these developments, leaders in the MOOC movement, and key higher education and corporate players, it gained traction rather quickly. This is not a factor that lets us track trends far away, but we can use it to identify 1-3 year developments…even a bit further out.

Superior but Muzzled

There are great innovations, models and ideas that sometimes clash with the agenda of those in power. People ignore or muzzle the innovation to keep their influence. Sometimes this is enough to kill it altogether, but it usually re-appears in another time and place, seeking a place with fertile soil to grow and spread. This is why you can’t always predict which organization will take the lead on a new development. Some try it out early on but don’t have the culture and support to expand. Someone else often creates a new organization and accomplishes much of the earlier vision.

Superior but Isolated

There is incredible work happening in small pockets in education, and most people don’t even know about them. They are serving a small group in amazing ways, but there is either no drive to expand what they are doing, there are not the resources to grow it , or others have just not learned about it yet. When you come across one of these and it truly is superior in some way, keep an eye on it. These can and do blow up on occasion to have a quick and massive expansion.

Karios

Kairos is Greek for the “due season” or the “opportunity time”. It is when a series of cultural and other conditions come together to create an ideal time for a given idea, trend or innovation. Think of it as similar to the idea of “the perfect storm.” If we follow innovations in view of larger cultural developments and trends, we can sometimes see the emergence of a forthcoming kairos.

Policy Change Creates Fertile Ground

Policies can kill and give life to educational trends and innovations. Watch the patterns of debate and lobbying around educational policies to get a sense of which trends are more or less likely to grow and spread.

Compounding Interest

Some downplay or disregard significant growth on a smaller scale. An innovation might increase its impact or reach by 500% but it was so small to start that it didn’t seem like much compared to larger efforts. Yet, don’t forget the law of compounding interest because it can apply to trend and innovation development as well. Some innovations don’t lend themselves to scale and that is important to note, but with time and attention, you can begin to uncover where you are looking at something that can scale and is experiencing compounding effects.

There are plenty of other factors involved in noticing the growth of educational trends and innovations, but careful and collective attention to these fifteen can give you a good sense of what will and will not stick, develop, and expand over the upcoming years and decades. In fact, I’ve pretty much shared how I manage to notice trends early. This can aid you in helping to create the future, prepare for it, challenge trends that you consider dangerous, or just become very good at studying trends in their infancy that will eventually become mainstream and widespread.

My 20 Mile March Toward Missional Innovation in Education

Listening to Jim Collins at a recent conference prompted me to spend more time reviewing and reflecting on some of the key ideas from his books. For a primer, you can read my Notes & Quotes from Jim Collins. I’ve been thinking about the twelve questions that he suggests we use as leaders in pursuit of great organizations. As such, I’m also spending time thinking about this question:

“How can we accelerate clicks on the Flywheel by committing to a 20 Mile March?”

This is a great question for the organization where I work, but I also find it powerful on the personal level. As such, I thought I would give a quick glimpse into my 20 mile march as a writer, author, and long-time student of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’ve become convinced that I am wired to discover and share ideas about educational innovation that matter…ideas that make a difference in the education ecosystem. I help people and organizations consider the affordances, limitations and possibilities for life and learning in a connected world. As such, as much as I am probably naturally more of an undisciplined creative, some are surprised to find that I am also a relentless creature of habit. I read, study, and think about educational innovation every day…with a perpetual list of new books, new experiences, new interviews, new experiments, and articles to scan and review. And because writing is both a tool for communicating ideas to others and refining my thinking, I commit to the daily habit of refining my thinking through the written word. As Isaac Asimov is quoted as saying, “Writing, to me, is just thinking with my fingers.”

Writing is a way for me to share ideas with others, but just as much a means of refining my thinking and solidifying my learning. As such, I write every day. Every day. I write a minimum of 500 words each day. At the same time, I am careful not to write so much that I experience exhaustion or burnout. Writing itself is a great passion. It is painful and enjoyable at the same time. I look forward to it very much like spending time with a good friend. On occasion, it is a chore to get started, but once I feel my fingers on the keyboard and hear the clicking sound of the keys, I’m there.

Writing a consistent 500+ words a day gives me steady progress toward my writing goals. It helps me capture ideas before exploring the next thing. For example, I’ve been blogging and working on smaller writing projects like articles, book chapters, and monographs for years. At the same time, I’ve been consistently reading, researching and writing….day after day. Then some were surprised to find that I suddenly announced a long list of book projects, with Missional Moonshots being my first single-author book, released on April 1, 2016, and two others with the publishers at the moment, awaiting release in summer or early fall. In addition, I have several other books in the works, and I hope to have them finished this year and early next year. That is because I’ve been working on chapters in these books for years. I’ve been mulling over the ideas, jotting them down in informal writing, testing them out in presentations, testing them out on my blog, etc. Publishing books was not an overnight shift in focus for me. It was just drawing on 500+ words a day, day after day for years. Now I’m at a stage to refine that writing and put more of it into book and other emerging formats.

Consider that book publishing wasn’t just a new project for me. It was just a natural extension of my longstanding habit of writing. I have over 800,000 words on this blog. I have a collection of 50+ idea books. Then there are all of the articles, guest blogs, whitepapers, and other unpublished briefs. All of this just came from writing day after day after day.

As I see it, this is part of my 20 mile march. It might not seem carefully planned, methodical or consistent. Yet, my study and writing are the most consistent practices in my life. I’ve been doing them for decades with relentless consistency. While publishing 5-8 books in 2 years seems like an aggressive goal to some, it is just another phase. It is not starting 5-8 books from scratch as much as moving a growing body of writing and ideas to the next stage by working with publishers.

Over the years, I’ve read about how some people throughout history have formally or informally divided their lives into phrases. There is a learning phase and then one that starts producing based upon that learning. I see myself as making that shift right now. I can’t ever imagine slowing down on the learning, but having devoted so much time and energy to learning over the years, I’m 45-years-old and just starting to have some of the most fascinating blends of ideas and experiences of my life. It is truly exhilarating, and I find myself more energized than ever to sharing these ideas with others, test them, refine them, turn them into resources, products, and potentially even new organizations in the future.

I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but it is wonderful to see how these different pieces are coming together in sometimes unexpected ways, revealing insights and possibilities that I would have likely overlooked in past years. I don’t claim expertise, but I will admit that my confidence and the level of conviction is growing as I’m seeing these ideas come together and watching to see how they work and help people/organizations achieve their goals.

Collins lays out seven traits of a 20 mile march that might provide a little more explanation.

  1. Clear performance markers – For me, my baseline is approximately 100 books a year and at least 500 words of writing each day. I don’t keep careful track of the 100 books a year but when I check, it tends to be right around that number…averaging about 2 books a week.
  2. Self-imposed constraints – I don’t have a cap, but the previous items trump other efforts. I might dabble with MOOCs and other learning experiences, but in the end, I keep it pretty simple with my initial reading and writing goals. I also tend to keep things under control as I could pretty easily slip into every waking hour in a book or keyboard, but that would eventually detract from the larger goals.
  3. Appropriate to the enterprise [or individual] – I write many of my initial ideas in blog form, testing them out with a small readership before refining them. This works for me and keeps me motivated. I love the quick to “publish” style and it keeps me engaged in this process, sharing my ideas with the world and using people’s feedback to learn.
  4. Largely within your control – These are my goals. They have become a way of life for me and are largely within my control. I choose the books. I choose what to write.
  5. A proper timeframe — Long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth. This is where I might benefit from adjusting things. I just study every week and write every day. I don’t think in terms of timeframes very much, but the moment that I started to do more of that, setting publishing goal dates, those years of writing quickly started to take shape as books. Timeframes are powerful and I plan to use them more moving forward.
  6. Designed and self-imposed by the enterprise [or individual] – Again, this is a ritual of my personal design.
  7. Achieved with high consistency – Sick or healthy, busy or full of free time, I read and write. I study and put my ideas into a written format. This is as much of my routine as brushing my teeth or shaving.

It might not sound that flash, but daily reading and writing are a key part of my 20 mile march in the pursuit of mission-minded innovation in education.

Bias Toward Action in Education Innovation

I love ideas but I confess that I still have a bias toward action in education. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech entitled, “The Man in the Arena” at the Sorbonne. In that speech, he said the following words that have since gained widespread attention:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve often thought about this quote in terms of my role in education. As much as I’m drawn to the world of ideas, and part of me would be content spending the rest of my life reading great books, there is another part that is not content analyzing and critiquing education. I want to pull up my sleeves and do something that matters. I want to help people explore the possibilities and then do something with this new perspective. Design rich and engaging learning experiences. Pursue promising practices and innovations. Solve important problems. Create new schools and learning communities. Help shape high-impact learning communities of purpose and possibility. This is why I consider myself an applied scholar.

James Bryant Conant was quoted as saying that, “a scholar’s work must have relevance.” I agree. The work of a scholar is intended to contribute to something good in the world. Of course, some researchers are doing work that has yet to reveal obvious applications in the real world (and those can have a huge payoff down the road for society), but I continue to think that our task is to do work that is relevant in the world. Contribute research, ideas, models, and frameworks that help people solve important problems; gain new perspectives; explore promising possibilities; and/or create products and services that benefit others.

This is why I might take the time to critique the modern education ecosystem, but I hope that frequent readers see that the majority of my writing is not a critique as much as it is an invitation to look at old problems with new eyes, to consider options previously overlooked, to revisit that which compels us and informs our work in education, and to pursue values-infused innovation that matters.

We need plenty of critique today. It serves as a source of feedback. It is part of evaluating what is working and what is not. It helps us to lead from a place of depth, a sense of mission and purpose. Without it we will find ourselves unable to make progress. We would perpetually repeat the same mistakes, often unaware that we are even making the mistakes.

Yet, postmodern tendencies in the contemporary world can lead us to think that our job is done once we’ve engaged in a thorough critique, once we’ve deconstructed the system and commented on the rubble that we’ve left in our path. This isn’t enough. In a space like education, I’m not even sure that it is responsible. If we deconstruct, then I consider it our responsibility to at least contribute in small ways to reconstruct or to construct something in its place.

As a kid, I used to love taking things apart. I would save up my money to buy something like a radio or remote control car. It usually didn’t last a month before I would take it apart, piece by piece. There was something wonderfully rewarding about doing this. Yet, sometimes they would just stay that way, deconstructed and no longer functional. When I managed to put it back together, thinking about the purpose of the different pieces, and then it worked, that was far more invigorating for me. Or, the first time that I ordered the individual parts and built a computer from scratch…you would have  thought that I’d just built a space shuttle. As I dabbled with computer hardware for fun in my younger years, taking things apart was not nearly as rewarding as building something new or fixing something that did not work.

I suppose that I think about education in a similar way. It doesn’t take that much to tear down the system, to point out its many flaws and limitations. That is good and important work. Yet, my respect goes to the person who steps into the education arena, whose “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”, who might come up short but doesn’t given up, who “spends himself in a worthy cause”, who approaches the possibilities and opportunities in education with passion, conviction, and courage. I consider it an honor to step into that arena, and I’m just as honored to have the opportunity to share the stories of others in the arena, people doing incredible work in the education space.