On innovation: failure rates, qualities, and environment

Thinking about innovation

A constant thread of conversation and discussion in the past few years in my professional world, particularly since starting work with CETIS, has been how to support and encourage innovation. The past month hase been especially thought provoking – in part because I’ve been thinking a little about ongoing work of the Observatory and in part prompted by the chance I had to take a break from my summer holidays and go to a symposium on innovation and reform in global education. The symposium was held at the Center for Global Curriculum Studies at Seattle Pacific University – “2011 Global Symposium : Educational Innovations and Reform in Countries around the World”. With a focus on educational practice, theory, and policy and with delegates who were teachers, lecturers, and university administrators, the symposium was a stimulating step out of my ed tech and development project comfort zone.

I’m not going to go into the symposium in detail, in part because it was too diverse for me to try to synthesise but mostly because it’s outside of my area of expertise and you can get the slidecasts of the presentations on iTunesU. I’d like to pick out one or two things that I think are relevant to our more tech-focused conversations about fostering innovation.

How do you think about failure and failure rates?

Out of every ten innovations attempted,

all very splendid,

nine will end up in silliness

Antonio Machado (Spanish poet)


make lots of mistakes and make them quickly

(Agile programming via CRIG and David Flanders)

Obviously a piece of software failing and the failure of an educational strategy are quite different things with different implications for those involved but innovation requires risk, requires that we tolerate failure, and we recognise when a good idea has not worked in practice.

I reckon if we (HE/FE) manage a 1 in 10 adoption rate of successful innovations I reckon we’re actually making a difference – we need to be be willing to work on and with things that turn out to be silly.

How do we judge innovation?

It is perhaps obvious that innovation will be judged one a case by case basis, but when trying to foster innovation it’s easy to focus on the ‘shiny’ and forget both the criteria which innovations will be judged on and the potential hidden costs of an innovation. In that light I found Richard Scheuerman’s “Trends in American Teacher Preparation: Innovations, Destinations, and Consequences”  thought provoking – in particular his summary of Wendell Berry‘s reflections on innovation (the following is Scheuerman’s summary of points made by Berry in 1987 interview about not buying a computer; currently available ).

Fundamental Qualities of Progressive Innovation

  1. Cheaper than the replacement or what has been charged before
  2. More effective than the replacement or the programme previously used
  3. Takes less energy than the previous model
  4. If technological use renewable energy where possible
  5. Should be comprehensible or obvious to the masses
  6. Should promote well-being of local places and the community
  7. Should not disrupt goodness including family and cultural relationships”

I suspect most readers of this blog may be sceptical of a writer who questioned why he needed a computer  but, sidestep your initial scepticism, remember that he said this in 1987, and consider how such criteria relate to what we do. For innovations that require mass adoption these qualities provoke some interesting questions, and more importantly provoke some interesting responses (in my mind at least).

I’m still thinking about how the above apply to innovation in education and how innovation and purpose interact and it was interesting throughout the symposium to see how any discussions about innovation and reform often began with and certainly could not avoid discussing the purpose(s) of education as they interact with national policy. In this light I’m also glad to see another round discussions about the purpose of education (this time looking at assessment) – purpos/ed – kicking off.

Where and when does innovation happen?

this is perhaps the critical question for an Innovation Support Centre  [alongside “how do you measure innovation?”].

In his concluding thoughts about patterns of reform which had been mentioned in the symposium, Dr Ellis noted that different global regions who had presented had reported on different patterns of centralisation and decentralisation in their initiatives both in terms of mode and style of educational structures and their intended impact on the student (e.g. a Russian trend towards national identity and centralised structures and a Chinese trend towards regional structures and developing individuals potential) – reflecting that some of the time it may be the process rather than direction which is the important aspect of effective reform.

Perhaps then the key element in innovation support, is the environment ISCs can help create and process we support – the events, the community interactions, stimuli, and the amplification of interesting work. I’m struck by the way I’ve seen this work UKOLN is doing with in Dev8D and DevCSI, and the hackdays, conferences, and community meetings we organise.

In this regard something Gardner Campbell posted recently about invention is also relevant, in particular the quotation he kicks off with:

For a great period of invention,

the artisans must become philosophers or the philosophers, artisans

quotation from Norbert Wiener’s Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas

I think for the Observatory and other innovation support this is a key balance – the academic and the practical informing each other without one dominating the other.

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