Pro-Innovation Bias in Education: Any Old Innovation Will Do and Adventures in Educational Fadsurfing

As wave after wave of educational reform has hit our educational shores, one thing becomes very clear: the field of educational leadership and education has what is often called an “pro-innovation bias.” While innovation can obviously be advantageous when it addresses specific problems, having this “pro-innovation bias” often only means there is a great deal of promoting of new programs or new technologies and little serious examination and critique of the possible side effects or unintended consequences of these. If you are the critic who starts asking difficult questions about these potential problems, you are most often accused by those promoting the innovation as anti-progress or pro-status quo. Critical examination of all these new-fangled innovations is stifled immediately by those who simply want their brand of innovation accepted—consequences and side-effects be damned.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, critic Evgeny Morozov writes:
“Innovation might be one of the defining buzzwords of our times, but it has not received the critical attention it deserves, and we usually take its goodness for granted, oblivious of how obsession with innovation twists our accounts of the past.” (2013, p. 167)
Innovation is the educational buzzword of this decade. Everyone is talking of its inevitability and necessity, and have been crowing loudly since the advent of the great technological wonders of the personal computer and hand-held devices.

There were those Technological-Promo videos plastered all over YouTube warning educators to get on the “Tech-Express” or be left wallowing in irrelevance. There were the “tech-evangelists” pushing salvation through technological innovation. Everyone then and now talk of “innovation” as if any Old innovation will do, just do it. But there lies the problem: as history has pointed out to us, when educators adopt innovation uncritically, the unintended consequences usually take quite some time to overcome.

Morozov (2013) points to the difficult of innovation’s problems by pointing out that most innovations and inventions don’t have consequences, but those that do require significant repairs, maintenance, and resources to keep working. For example, take the use of value-added measures, or VAMs, in education. To maintain VAMs as a viable educational tool, countless hours and resources must be spent on test development and testing. Administrators have to spend hours engaging in rituals of preparation required to make the value-added system function properly. Then there’s the money spent on VAMs themselves and for the use of a company’s algorithms. One of the consequences and side-effects of VAMs is a culture where a child’s test score matters the most. Other innovations like 1:1 schools also require a great deal of maintenance and resources to try to make them work. Budgets are busted in purchasing computers and in the creation of plans of technology-sustainability, as well as technical support systems. VAMs and One-to-One computer initiatives are only two current “innovations” being done to school systems, and both require an immense amount of resources that have grown scarcer since the Great Recession of 2008.
Even if one of willing to set aside the issues of the resource-intensive nature of innovations and their side-effects, as school systems jump from innovation to innovation, they are engaging in a type of “fadsurfing in the schoolhouse” that was described so aptly by Eileen Shapiro in her book Fadsurfing in the Boardroom: Managing in the Age of Instant Answers. In her book, Shapiro (1995) writes: “Fad surfing is the practice of riding the crest of one the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organizations” (p. xiii). Educational leaders engage in this practice of “riding the crest of the latest educational panacea.”

In my career, I’ve seen too many to count. Early in my career there was block-scheduling, multiple intelligences, CRISS, reading for learning, writing for learning, school-based decision making, tech-prep, Deming’s Total Quality Management, thinking maps, critical thinking, age of accountability and testing, NCLB, ESSA, Ruby Payne, Emotional Intelligence, SEL, Grit, Growth Mindset, Brain-based teaching and learning, inquiry-based teaching, thematic teaching, multiculturalism…and the list is endless just for my 29 years as an educator. Will the current buzzwords such as “coding” and “personalized learning” be added to this heap of innovations?

My problem isn’t with any of these, for many of them may have merits in a given school or classroom. My problem with this list is what it represents: a search for a panacea that will once and for all resolve our education problems. Shapiro’s (1995) advice to business is apropos here to educators seeking the golden fleece of educational innovation. She reminds leaders,
“The hard truth is that there are no panaceas. What is new is the sheer number of techniques, some new and some newly repackaged versions of older methods, that are now positioned as panaceas” (p. xvii).

There are no panaceas for all that ails us in education either, no matter how many salespeople knock on our doors trying to sell us their product or their program. Many of the new-fangled products and programs are just repackaged older “innovations.” It’s time to recognize that “Education is just damn hard work! That’s it.” There are no easy paths. What works at one school does not necessarily mean it will work at all at another. There are no programs that will work accross all schools not matter what that consultant says. Our schools exists as complex entities in complex systems within a complex world. To think that if I apply this product, program or method to my school or school district and B will happen is simplistic thinking.
There are factors that affect education that are outside our control, because schools exist in a world system, a very complex world system. Before the pro-innovation crowd start accusing me of “excuse-making” which is where this conversation usually goes, let me make something clear: Recognizing reality is not excuse making. Recognizing that our schools in this country operate in a very unfair and unequal society where many get the advantages is not making an excuse; it is recognizing a fundamental social problem that impacts what we do no matter what program or innovation we implement. Our schools suffer from inadequate funding in a society that distributes advantage to those who often already have the means to be successful. There is no panacea or bootstrap mentality that is going to fix that problem.

To conclude, I would add that many educational leaders and educators suffer not only from an “pro-innovation bias,” but they also suffer from simplistic thinking and from wearing self-imposed blinders that prevent them from seeing the reality of an increasingly unequal and inequitable society.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything click here: The folly of technological solutionism. Public Affairs: New York, NY.

Shapiro, E. (1995). Fadsurfing in the boardroom: Managing in the age of instant answers. Perseus: Cambridge, MA.