What is Innovation?

When I interviewed for the Director of Innovation & Instructional Support position, I prepared for the interview by making sure I was comfortable with terms such as personalized learning and gamification. Often in high pressure situations, we may make missteps simply because we don’t define our terms, and in the high stakes situation of a job interview, I wanted to be ready to offer definitions of key terms to provide clarity for the interview panel of who I am and what my vision is. To be honest, I don’t remember preparing a definition for the term innovation, which was definitely an oversight as innovation is in the job title. However, I do remember having the presence of mind to stop and offer a definition of “innovation” as I started my response to one of the questions.

Under pressure, I had a definition to offer. I’m not sure it was the best one. Under pressure, as an English major, I went back to a fundamental word attack strategy and looked at the word root: nov or nova means “new.” I was able to quickly tease out the following logic: that something “new” in education meant that it hadn’t been tried before and therefore was risking failure or unknown outcomes. I was able to tie my response, therefore, back to what I was quickly intuiting as a key concern of the panel: was I someone who could swim in a sea of innovation? Many of the questions had to do with mindset about failure and risk. Reflecting back on the experience, it was certainly a strength that I was focused on sizing up and responding to the underlying themes that lay beneath the surface of the questions, and it was also, quite honestly, quite honest responses – I was who I was in that interview. All the questions about innovation felt like home territory to me, and I’m glad that Fullerton School District saw it the same way and gave me a chance.

After three months have passed, with all the new initiatives and new components of the personalized, gamified learning environments we are striving to create for our students, something “new” is not a good enough definition for innovation. You could innovate on the idea of an airplane by committing to make a vehicle that is both an airplane and a submarine. Innovative? Yes. It probably has never been done before, and maybe it’s never been thought of before. But the question remains that, even though we “Can” try something that is new, should we?

The question shifts, and suddenly, “what is innovation” is not good enough. We must ask “what is innovation for” or “why innovate?” Because our students and their families deserve better. They deserve our best. If you believe that we are giving our best, then I will have to respectfully disagree. We may be giving the best we know how to give, but we have not stretched out our hands and scraped our fingertips on the ceiling of what is possible. There is plenty more headroom left. We just have to keep in the front of our minds that our students and families are the reasons we try approaches we’ve never tried before; they are the reason we humble ourselves and concede that, although professional, skilled, and passionate, we don’t know it all; they are the reason we step into new ventures, and although it’s uncomfortable, we risk failure and embarrassment. Because of the value of those students and families, because of the worth of those people, because of their dignity, we risk being undignified, we risk being unsure, and we risk the unsettling chaos of trying what is new.

For me, the “why innovate” question is answered in this: because our families deserve to be prepared for all the opportunities and access that we can gather to lay at their feet. This is why we can repeat the cliché that we are investing in the future. Our blood, sweat and tears is a gift, a sacrifice, a bet that we are placing on the intersection of our youth’s potential and our desire for them to be successful. I will take that bet every time.

And, to be fair, if we take service to our families seriously, we must grapple with the question “what is innovation” to the degree that we are able to equitably, efficiently, and excellently decide the answer every time we face this decision: “Yes, we can, but should we do this?”

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