Saturday, April 22, 2017

Towards a definition of innovation

About 140 sixth graders pinballed into an auditorium two days before Earth Day. They staked out tables to showcase potential solutions they had developed for problems facing our planet. In the wake of this inaugural Innovation Fair at my school, I've been wondering. Students certainly displayed curiosity and enthusiasm yet, to tap into prevailing buzz, how innovative were they?

Circulating among tri-fold cardboard panels and glowing Chromebooks, I found myself bucketing most projects in one of two ways:
  • Imaginative - such as the picture-book story about dwindling bee populations and what people can do to help
  • Informative - like the well-researched display about burning trash for energy and recycling subsequent ash byproducts for road resurfacing
These categories obviously blur. Imagined stories can be inspired by research, and research projects can involve making something imaginative to showcase findings.

To varying extents, the projects that I grouped this way recapitulated existing know-how. Then, I came across what felt like a quirky outlier. It was a simple paper-and-pencil cartoon that might've been, at first glance, a robot whale. More lay below this surface. The drawing's creator envisioned a new bio-engineered organism that could miraculously and naturally clean the oceans by feasting on waste as it swam about. Compared to the lion's share of fair projects, this one felt more dream-like than feasible. It also felt more innovative: the moonshot what-if touted by many breathless web videos. By pushing his ideas past envelopes containing what he already knew, this student sparked new, unexpected questions.

Given how widely the term 'innovation' is being tossed around nowadays, including in the title of our recent school fair, I've started picking at its use as a label. That's led to this conclusion: To qualify as innovation, three conditions must be met -- newness, difference, and creativity.

Newness by itself is just the latest loaf of sliced bread; difference, the latest bread-flavor sensation; creativity inspires slice shapes we haven't seen before. While these qualities can appear in pairs, too, it's not until all three synergize that innovation emerges.

Schools can tend fruitful ground for such synergy, though this often requires changing systemic, student, and familial habits and cultivating new ones. Otherwise, our learning fairs will look like they have before, no matter what we call them.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your thoughts to make my first-draft musing better: What's your take on the increasing innovation buzz?


  1. There is mega-grist for the mill here--have shared widely with my different groups. Thanks Brian!

  2. This is so true - as we embrace innovation and Makerspaces it's important to define what innovation actually means. I'll be sharing this with my teachers, Brian. I think it will spark quite a debate!