The Connection Between Innovation and Engagement

By AJ Juliani, 11 comments

In 1939 audiences around the United States were delighted when the black and white scenery of The Wizard of Oz completely transformed into full technicolor in the blink of an eye. The film was not the first to introduce color, but it is widely regarded as one of the first to popularize color motion pictures. Interestingly, The Wizard of Oz was actually a flop at the box office. It was critically acclaimed and written about in newspapers (especially for the innovative use of color) but did not make much money or draw a wide audience in its initial release. 

Fifteen years later something interesting happened. Something that would lead to The Wizard of Oz being known as one of the all-time great films as we believe it to be today. The nation’s attention was focused on Television. That’s where the eyeballs and focus were placed for millions of Americans. On November 3rd, 1956 CBS aired The Wizard of Oz for the first time on television. It was an immediate hit and one that soon became an annual tradition. Millions of Americans would get together as families each year to watch the Wizard of Oz on television. 

During this time period something else interesting was happening that sparked such a love for The Wizard of Oz. The transition to technicolor years earlier had wowed those that went to the movie theater to see the film, but in 1956 there weren’t many (if only a few) color television sets. However, in the next 10-15 years, color televisions began to pop up in households across the country, and often their first visual experience on a color TV would be the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. Millions of children grew up with this movie as a cherished family moment that not only brought them into the world of color television, but also enhanced the story in their minds forever. 

The innovation of technicolor had happened years earlier, but until it engaged the minds of many, the movie (and it’s innovative use of color) was never fully appreciated. 

It’s All About Attention

This pattern can be seen time and time again when sharing the stories of innovative breakthroughs and experiences. Often the technological feat and innovative work takes place months, years, and decades before it is accepted and paid attention to by the general public (all of us). 

Engagement only happens when there is high attention. So regardless of the innovative work or practice, if the attention isn’t there then engagement won’t show up either. 

The creators of The Wizard of Oz may have set out to make a movie that would stand the test of time and be a family classic. But for over 15 years after its release, this was not the case. It was only after their film (and it’s burst of color) was shown to a national audience on television (not the format they originally set out to have it on) did it receive enough attention to engage at a high level. 

It’s interesting to see this happen in education as well.

I was at a recent conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania (PETE&C) listening to George Couros give a Keynote on the Innovator’s Mindset (great book if you haven’t checked it out yet). Sitting with my colleagues in the audience I could sense everytime George struck a nerve and connected with the people in attendance. His stories were personal and moving, but it was often the way he told the story with technology that engaged. Mixing videos and pictures and sound together to bring the audience into the actual experience he was describing made for an entertaining talk.

There was one moment, however, that stuck out to me. Towards the end of the talk George shared a moment where he thought he may have lost control of a young audience. The experience centered around the use of Twitter, and as I looked around the room, everyone knew what he was talking about.

I immediately flashed back to six years prior when I first met George and he was one of the people that actively got me started using Twitter to share, connect, and learn. If he had shared this same story six years ago, many people would be wondering what he was talking about. A few would have been on the social network, or heard about Twitter in the news, but most would be lost as understanding the technology would be a barrier to connecting with the story.

In this moment, the audience was engaged. It resonated with many personal experiences we each have had as teachers and leaders. When he shared this quote that a student said, it immediately made us all think:

Social media is like water

Where is our students’ attention? Where are they already engaging?

It’s easy for us to say we are “never going to get on Instagram” or “never going to use Snapchat” (just like we said we were never going to use Facebook or Twitter). But, we would be missing a huge opportunity to actually engage with our students and use this innovation (new social networks) to connect with their attention.

It would have been easy for the creators of The Wizard of Oz to sit back and say, “This film was made for the big screen. It would lose its impact if it was on a small television. And what about the technicolor? These TV’s don’t even have color as an option.”

Instead, they took their story and message to the platform (and networks) that had the most attention. In doing so they connected with a new generation and let their story spread farther than they could have ever imagined.

I’ve got news for you. The social networks of Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are the 2016 versions of the ABC, NBC, and CBS networks of 1966. That’s where the attention is. We cannot wish it away. We cannot go back. And in a few years, it will change again. That’s the reality we are living, learning, and teaching in.

When we see innovation as a way to connect with students and engage through platforms, tools, and networks where their attention is already placed, we earn the opportunity to share our message farther and deeper than we might have ever imagined.

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