I recently heard a talk from Michael Tushman with the Harvard Business School. Tushman’s recent work (with Charles O’Reilly) touches on a vexing problem in all organizations, both in the public and private sector.
To summarize, that problem is in how firms remain strong and competitive in their core markets, while also working to be innovative and compete in new ways.
Teetering too far in either direction can result in organizational disaster. A firm overly committed to existing markets and structures stagnates and becomes overwhelmed as the world moves past them, and (to quote Tushman) “the past kills the future.” A firm that neglects its core and instead puts its energy into trying to discover the next big thing may lead to the dead-ends of innovations that didn’t pan out.
Tushman and O’Reilly say (to over-simplify) that firms need both and they refer to this ability as “ambidexterity.”
The need for ambidexterity certainly applies to education as well. We must work to improve and grow capacity in our existing schools, while also working on how to make real and genuine breakthroughs in learning. We must attend to both “best” practices and “next”practices.
Another dimension on this issue that I’ve wondered about is at what level in the organization does innovation take place. I’d venture that too often, school innovation is looked at from a macro-level. We make big system changes in standards, testing, governance-models, school configurations – but too often these macro-level changes don’t really change the experience of the student. It’s change without change.
In my professional view, meaningful innovation in an educational context happens at the micro-level … how the individual student experiences learning. Our challenge as an educational system lies in how to innovate at this level – the only place it really matters.