The WIN-WIN Approach to Innovation in Education

I am writing about innovation in education today because of a quote I came across from Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese (he recently spoke at a teacher training conference in my school district). This is what he said:

“If you can’t tell the difference between a classroom and a startup, you’re doing it right.” ~Nolan Bushnell

In the world of education, innovation is the word du jour. Everybody (teachers, librarians, administrators) is supposed to be an innovator. Heck, Google even offers a Certified Innovator program. Why all this talk about innovation? Somehow, we have arrived at the idea that innovation will solve all the problems that education currently faces. If only teachers and librarians and administrators and anybody else involved in education would just be more willing experiment or “think outside the box,” then we could transform education into what it “should be.”

While innovation can certainly be a valuable thing, I have a problem with the philosophy that all educators need to be willing to “think outside the box.” That’s a lot of [unnecessary] pressure. Even more so, I have a problem with Bushnell’s quote above. Do we seriously think it’s a good idea to treat a classroom as a startup? After all, 90% of startups fail.

I think if we are going to talk about innovation in the classroom or library or school, we need to talk about it as evidence-based innovation. Not a free for all, experimental pursuit based on fads, or one that has no particular valid basis at all, other than “what we’re currently doing isn’t working.” Or, this has never been tried before, so let’s try it out!

That’s where the WIN-WIN Approach to Innovation in Education comes in (I came up with the acronym). WIN-WIN means:

What Is kNown. Why It’s Needed.

The WIN-WIN approach is an evidence-based one, where innovation is purposeful, targeted, and based on both a needs assessment of the situation, as well as a grounding in educational research (theories, frameworks, validated studies). In other words, it requires an instructional design mindset. And like instructional design, the WIN-WIN approach should generally be a collaborative, team-based effort, rather than an individual pursuit. I see librarians as having a particularly important role in this approach, as they have the research skills to find the evidence needed to justify the innovation.

  • To illustrate the WIN-WIN approach in action, I’ll use library space design as an example. Let’s say that it has been suggested that the library could use more space for collaboration. This suggestion was based on the fact that a lot of other libraries are creating that kind of space, and that collaboration is a 21st century skill. Sounds good, right? Except that it may not be needed in your school library at the present time (and maybe the money earmarked for it would be put to better use elsewhere). With the WIN-WIN approach, your job is to prove or disprove the need for that space.
    • What Is kNown.
      • Are students using the library for group projects / group study?
      • How often are teachers assigning group projects or requiring group study?
      • Are teachers that assign group projects sending their students to the library?
      • What does the educational research say about collaborative / cooperative learning (specifically for the age group the library serves, and looking at literature reviews or meta-analyses, not pointing to a single study)?
      • Are cooperative group skills being intentionally taught at the school?
    • Why It’s Needed.
      • If all indicators from the assessment and research questions outlined above suggest both a need and benefit for more collaborative study space in the library, then reasons why can be articulated based on the findings. Likewise, if the assessment and research suggest a negative benefit to more collaborative study space, that can also be articulated.

In education, it’s not enough to be innovative and willing to try new things. In education, new things are tried all the time, often with great failure or lukewarm success along the way (accountability, charter schools, virtual K-12, MOOCs). And that can be expensive, and sometimes even harmful to students and teachers.

Smart innovation is evidence-based innovation, and evidence-based innovation is more likely to be successful than blind innovation or fad-based innovation. Evidence-based innovation is also more methodical. And evidence-based innovation can give educators a grounding in what they are actually trying to do. The WIN-WIN approach takes elements from instructional design (assessment, design thinking, roots in educational research) to offer guidance on how to be a smart innovator. So, let’s make innovation in education a WIN-WIN situation for everyone!

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