(Re) Emerging Trend: Disruptive Innovation
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(Re) Emerging Trend: Disruptive Innovation

(Re) Emerging Trend: Disruptive Innovation

Let’s take a moment to flip through some snapshots from our Educational Landscape Photo Album:

  • Here’s Achievement Gap on a culinary tour of Urban Areas, circa 2009.  Bigger than ever and looking healthy.
  • Take a look at High Stakes Test — that trickster keeps giving our schools bunny ears.
  • How cute! In this one the Basil Readers team spelled out BLAND using only textbooks.
  • Oh, check out the Teachers’ faces when they realized Standardization got rid of all the food at the annual picnic except for potato salad. Good times.
  • Don’t show this one to too many people, but here is the Education Technology Crew, looking like CIA agents as they scheme of ways to get around blocked sites.
  • And finally, the memorable series of the Kids playing 21st century games on their cell phones:
    • Climatic Sorry!
    • Petro-opoloy
    • Financial Market Jenga
    • Hungry, Hungry Energy
    • International Squabble
    • Meal or No Meal
    • Who Wants to be an Immigrant?

Collectively, such snapshots point to the fact that education is undergoing a transformation from the complacency of yesterday to the eventuality of tomorrow.   As a result, we stand today in a period of disruption and change. Budgets are suffering, drop out rates are on the rise again, curriculum is being narrowed, and for every one writer who offers constructive ideas, there are three others doing their impressions of Chicken Little: “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”

You can barely open the paper, surf the internet, or tweet merrily without bumping up against some big debate about the nature of learning, what our schools should and should not be doing, and/or reform for this century or some other.

This is very good news.

While evolutionary biologists can argue over the exact mechanisms that lead to specific mutations, an undisputed fact remains: disruption stimulates change.

And, when it comes to development, growth and innovation, change is not only good, it is necessary.

For example, the rapid demise of the dinosaurs left the landscape in comparative chaos.  Mammals capitalized on the available resources, and over time, changed considerably (exhibit A).  Had the reign of the dinosaurs not ended, the mammals might have had a much more difficult time thriving, because, let’s face it, mammals taste delicious.  (Full disclosure: I do not eat mammals, but I hear many animals — people included — enjoy them often enough. exhibit B)

The colosal failure (fail whale?) of reptilian megafauna cased a disruption in the biosphere that effectively spurred rapid growth, cultivating previously unavailable niches that in turn, spurred more growth.  (While anyone watching My Super Sweet Sixteen might wonder if that growth has, in fact, been good, when I see my daughter laugh, I’m inclined to believe that it has been.)


So, the current turmoil in our nation’s school system amounts to a national disruption that is stimulating change.

Robert Bruner, Dean of Darden School of Business at University of Virginia, recently posted an article to his professional blog entitled, Innovation in Disruptive Environments.  He opens by considering how “innovators respond to uncertainty.” He goes on to suggest the importance of collaboration and networks in surviving (and ultimately thriving) during periods of challenge and disruption.  He writes:

Successful inventors in history, such as Thomas Edison, were champions at collaboration with people of diverse expertise.  In his book How Breakthroughs Happen, Andrew Hargadon wrote, “What set Edison’s laboratory apart was not the ability to shut itself off from the rest of the world, to create something, to think outside of the box.  Exactly the opposite: it was the ability to connect that made the lab so innovative.  If Edison ignored anything, it was the belief that innovation was about the solitary pursuit of invention.  Edison was able to continuously innovate because he knew how to exploit the networked landscape of his time.”[1] What really mattered was Edison’s network of invention.  Hargadon argues that the most successful inventors are very good at technology brokering: borrowing here and there to create something new.  Furthermore, good inventors recombine what they gather; as Hargadon says, “All innovations represent some break from the past…By the same token, all innovations are built from pieces of the past”[2]—very few are truly revolutionary, radical, or discontinuous.  What matters is the inventor’s network of connectivity to the past, and to inventions in the present.

With this in mind, the educational uncertainty and disruption currently affecting us today might become our stepping stone by utilizing three behaviors:

  1. Reflection and Planning: Long term, sustainable growth should be intentional and well thought out. We need to reflect on what is known and contemplate what might be.  What’s our blue sky? What is achievable today? Tomorrow? And how can we ensure that the next generation of educational innovators can stand on our shoulders with solid feet to envision their tomorrow?
  2. Partnership and Collaboration: An education system that leaves no child behind requires that diverse vested interests work together in teams and partnerships to identify patterns, trends, and emerging relationships, before setting a course. It behooves us to include diverse knowledge and wisdom and ideas.
  3. Action and Exploration: Like scientific research that can take years (even decades and centuries) to mature into customer ready products, we need additional environments (like charter schools) for innovators to explore and develop new methodologies for reaching the wide range of students, interests, and cognitive needs of our diverse population.  With strategic efforts we can then determine which strategies work locally and which could be applied on a larger scale. Then, repeat process.

Education’s soil is being turned, and now is the time to plant seeds for tomorrow. Not for today’s gains, our own glory, or to get a politician re-elected, but to ensure that this disruption’s growth amounts to long term innovation for our children, their children, and the world they live in.

As the Chinese proverb states, “One generation plants the seed, the next enjoys the shade.

Graphic: jaylopez

[1] Hargadon, How Breakthroughs Happen, page 17.

[2] Hargadon, page 32.

Follow Jason Flom on twitter (@jasonflom)


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