The Educational Buzzword Dilemma: Why “Innovation” is about to Jump the Shark

Don Wettrick
Jul 2, 2016 · 5 min read

Over the past few years I’ve seen a ton of hype for the term “innovation” when it comes to “transforming education.” And while I share a passion for innovation, I am starting to get a little concerned.

How many TED talks and keynotes must we sit through that claims “our schools need to be innovative,” but with some vague generalities? Or worse yet, highlight a tech tool that will “change everything?” This summer a majority of conferences featured the word “innovation” in either their title, or in the description. So we get excited, listen to an inspirational story, or some YouTube clips, then… we leave excited and emotional; just like when we left summer camp. Then the emotion fades.

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Field trip to Silicon Valley

So, lets talk about what we can do now. By no means do I feel like I have all of the answers, but I will say but I will say the students in our Innovation Class at Noblesville High School have turned some heads. We’ve taken the 20% Time (Genius Hour, Passion Time, etc) and made it an entire class. In the past five years we’ve had several patents filed, student businesses launched, and most importantly, shown students that school can be a place to make you better by providing time and tools to personalize YOUR education.

So here are some (deliberately brief) points I feel we should ponder moving forward:

  1. Do something different. Stop Talking about it.

Some teachers might offer a “Genius Hour” project time in an elementary or middle school class. Possibly they open up the boundaries and allow the students to collaborate with experts outside the classroom walls. But word of caution- do not wait around, searching for the perfect set of conditions to try these innovative practices. “Analysis Paralysis” seems to fit the description of many teachers that want to talk about starting a Genius Hour, but get caught up in blogs, professional articles, and break out sessions.

Reading up on the movement is nice, but action and a willingness to adapt is even better.

2. Support one another. Be Transparent/ Showcase

I think sharing your journey toward “innovation” is important because it usually is a rocky road, and that will win over more educators. Admitting what doesn’t work is as powerful as showcasing all the YouTube-worthy projects that will turn heads. On the other hand, if you have amazing projects, pick up the phone! Call your local tv stations, newspapers, or radio stations! I also highly recommend teachers becoming their students’ Public Relations agent and start a YouTube channel so supportive educators can share it. Remember, it’s not bragging… it’s sharing best practices!

3. Get Admin support

I probably should have listed this first. When you want to try something different, that usually means it has risk written all over it. This might cause your admin team some hesitancy, or out right denial of your mission.

Some teachers might want to consider being a “Trojan Horse” and just start (aka: asking for forgiveness rather than permission). Doing this is risky, BUT by showcasing great work, you can win over parents and the community. Doing what’s right for kids will (almost) always prevail over playing it safe.

4. Teach/ Demonstrate the difference between Imagination, Creativity, & Innovation

Every child has a great imagination, but doing something with that imagination is the foundation of creativity. Likewise, the difference between creativity and innovation is a deliberate attempt to use that creativity in completely new ways. Thus doing a poster board at the end of a poetry unit isn’t that creative, nor is putting a QR code on the poster really that innovative. *Tina Seelig has written some wonderful books explaining the differences in better detail, and I encourage you to follow her on Medium and pick up her latest book, Insight Out.

5. Be Reflective and Adjust

This might be the most overlooked ingredient to innovation. The reflection process is a way to recognize pattern recognition. When we process what we have done, we start seeing connections to other solutions and alternatives. I like holding interviews with my students every two weeks so I can hear what they are struggling with, and have them come up with possible solutions. What I’m NOT looking for is a nice essay, telling me that everything is perfect. When we look for improvement in our reflections, I want to know how I can help you adjust. Writing for compliance will NOT lead toward innovation- but rather reinforcing the old habits of trading nice words I want to hear for the “A.”

6. Encourage Entrepreneurialism

If we have pushed our students to be more innovative, the next logical step is to have our student’s take their project/product/design to the public. Shark Tank has done wonders in opening up the dialogue about entrepreneurialism with our youth. With “safe jobs” on the way out, many people are predicting that the “Free Agent Nation” (great Daniel Pink book title, by the way) will rely on people that work for themselves on contract. In fact, I traveled to Ghana last summer (my student was there to specifically work with female entrepreneurs), and found that THE #1 way to economic empowerment was to encourage young adults to go into business for themselves. So, encouraging our students to bring life to real products, or organizations will give them a huge leap ahead.

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Working with students at the School of Compassion in El Mina, Ghana

7. Create a Network

This is something I’m working on right now, in that I believe that many teachers across America are starting to discover what innovation looks like in the classroom. The most common theme I’ve seen is that regulating innovation to 20 or 30 minutes on a Friday isn’t enough. I’ve received great support on Twitter from groups like #GeniusHour & #20Time, but these chats can loose its way through the noise and clutter of Twitter. Thus, you’ll soon be seeing what my team is trying to put together- a network and landing zone of learning and sharing.

I’ve been challenged by fellow teachers, innovators, and entrepreneurs to grow this network so we can start sharing what we are doing, rather than talking about what we should do. While I don’t have all the answers to our problems, I want to start building relationships to get this train rolling. We can truly learn from each other by sharing what we are already doing, and share insights and tips along the way. Our network already includes some A-list entrepreneurs, authors, and teachers that lead by DOING, and just simply using buzzwords. *

If you would like to help out, or want to learn more about what we are starting, please subscribe to our newsletter at (I promise I’m not sharing ANY of your information), or simply email me at: I would be honored to have more teachers that are willing to try, fail, and learn!

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