This is the first post in a three-part series on “Intentional Innovation”, specifically for education. Stay tuned for the second post, “The Intentional Innovation Manifesto” and the third post, “PLASMA: A Framework for Innovation in Education” by signing up here.

Innovation is a tricky word. We often use it to describe something new and shiny. Still other times we use it to explain how certain people think. Mostly we throw it around without ever defining what it means. And that is the simplest way for any word to lose it’s power and meaning.

I tend to go with the definition by Geoff Mulgan: “New ideas that work.”

It’s short but very clear. Innovation is one part “new ideas” and one part “working.”

That does not mean it can’t be based on something old (and reinvented), or that it can’t have failures along the way. But when we truly innovate we’ve taken something new and made it work (regardless of how long the process was).

This definition also allows for both incremental and exponential innovation. That is to say, Elon Musk making a better electric car (incremental) and creating a new mode of transportation called the Hyperloop (exponential) can both be seen as innovative, when they work.


Why Innovation in Education Should Be Intentional

Now that we’ve roughly defined what innovation is we need to look at the word “intentional” and how it impacts innovative work.

I’ve been a student, teacher, parent, and now administrator in K-12 schools. I’ve worked with college institutions, consulted for large organizations, volunteered for non-profits, and spoken to companies all looking to innovate in education.

It seems that every place I go, people are looking to innovate.

The challenge isĀ how to innovate, and do so with purpose in order to have an impact on your organizational, institutional, or educational goals.

I was recently talking to a former student of mine who just returned from a semester abroad. He was explaining how much he learned in the past couple months and how his view on the world continued to change as he met new people. He brought up the Flat Classroom Project we did in 10th grade.

He said, “I thought that project was a lot of work at the time. I also remember thinking how much work I was doing and that some of my global peers weren’t doing work they were supposed to be doing. Then you told us that it was easy to stay on top of your work when you had a computer at school and at home, access to internet access wherever you went, and a schedule set up that made it all possible…

This trip made me start to think about my life in those terms again. It made me realize that privilege impacts so much more than how people treat you. It impacts what you can do in life a lot of the time.”

Wow, these were profound words about privilege through a global perspective. It made me go back and think about the purpose of taking my students through the Flat Classroom Project.

The project was innovative (especially for it’s time) because it was a global collaborative project, where students worked and learned with each other to develop a rational for how the world is changing, and then videos to explore what this means for all of us.

It was a new idea that worked (thanks in large part to Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay who created it).

However, in choosing this project, I was very intentional as a teacher. I’m sure Vicki and Julie were just as intentional when they created what the project would look like.

My 10th grade English course was focused on multi-cultural and global perspectives on literature. Our essential questions was, “How do I inhabit and embrace the global community?” This project tied together many different pieces of our work all year long:

  • How assimilation impacts cultures and society
  • How technology has worked to eliminate ethnocentric perspectives
  • How the flattened world will shape our future
  • How literature reflects/mirrors society

Therefore, this innovative project was perfect for my students because it would expand their understanding of our “big ideas” from the course, put them in real global collaborative situations, use technology for a purpose, and support their understanding of cultures and how we can work together to solve big problems.

Previously I had done a number of projects with my students that I considered innovative (they were new ideas that worked), but none of them had the targeted impact on my students learning, as much as the Flat Classroom Project.

The key was intentional innovation.

To be intentional is to have a purpose and goal for what you are going to do. And intentional innovation is so powerful because we are innovating for a reason that is both meaningful and relevant to theĀ cause/work.

What Risks Will You Take This Year?

It is the beginning of a new school year for many in the United States and around the world. I’ve seen more and more administrators and school leaders urging their teachers to take risks in their classroom this year. I’ve heard from teachers what risks they are going to urge their students to take this year in their learning.

As teachers and leaders, we are the guides that help our students navigate these risks. We help them become heroes of their own story, by allowing for inquiry and choice in the classroom. And heroes don’t sit around all day, they are actively taking risks.

Guide on the side (a term we throw around) is actually a guide! Someone who does more than hand over a map. A guide is someone like Yoda, Haymitch, Gandalf…who actively participates in helping the hero of the story (our students) to find success and navigate failure.

Donald Miller’s “Storyline” map depicts what our role is in guiding towards success or failure:

Via and StoryLine

Via and StoryLine

As guides we can support our risk takers (the hero of the story) in a variety of ways:

  • We are expert learners.
  • We can help students reach out to mentors.
  • We can build learning communities that share failures and success.

And we can create a culture of learning that goes above and beyond what any test can measure.

But, please be intentional. Be intentional in the innovative work you do in schools, with students, and in any organization or institution. Be intentional with what path we set students on, and what paths they choose for themselves.

Just as we must use technology for a purpose for it to be successful, we must innovate in ways that are meaningful and relevant for it to have an impact.

Look out for the next post in this series: The Intentional Innovation Manifesto.

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Hi AJ, thanks for sharing important perspectives on the Flat Classroom project. The challenge I still see is not only how to encourage innovation, but how to sustain innovative programs or curriculum. After many years of implementing online global collaborative projects I do not see many educators or schools willingly implementing ongoing projects that require students to be autonomous learners and not just connect but collaborate meaningfully with other parts of the world.
    As you say, the targeted impact on student learning (planned, and intentional) is the goal – and ideally this needs to be repeated at every grade level – not just a one-off class in Grade 10.
    Just to let you know the global projects I run are now under the umbrella of Flat Connections ( The project you joined and helped build has evolved into the Flat Connections Global Project. Would love to see your school/students join us again this year!

  • John Bennett says:

    I do like the linking of ‘intention’ with ‘innovation’ that you promote. I like it because I expect each student or team of students (I prefer the latter) is even more likely to benefit from considering and learning from the others’ efforts – they had a common outcome goal! And there’s another important learning experience: most career innovation (as an employee more than an entrepreneur) has at least loose boundaries on their 20% time or whatever: ‘something that’s linked with our mission’ for example. That’s intentional innovation.

    Thanks for your return to your blog! We of course are the winners…

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  • Will Wenninger says:

    I really like the fact that the author included old ideas that work but add new wrinkles to expand and support the learner. For example, if failure is the gaining of knowledge, by being innovative in the way we reach different learners from different areas, we can learn at a quicker rate and students will not feel threatened or intimidated to fail if they others doing the same.

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