Source: Pixabay

What Does Innovation Mean to You?

Teachers, designers, administrators & students share their definitions and favorite examples of innovation

Innovation: ( noun ) a new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods. Source: Merriam Webster Dictionary

Is this what innovation means to you? As the term innovation has become an overused buzzword, too often deployed as a marketing catch-phrase, its meaning has become obscured and diluted. As our first design thinking collaboration centers on creating rituals and routines that establish a culture of innovation in our classrooms and schools, we wanted to surface assumptions about innovation — to make explicit our different and often unstated understandings of the term.

We’ve asked teachers, administrators, designers, editors and students to tell us what innovation means to them and to share with us some of their favorite innovations. As you’ll see in their responses below, everyone has a slightly different take on what innovation means, though there certainly are patterns and recurring themes: collaboration, impact, implementation, reframing, positive change.

Read our collection of innovation definitions below and let us know how you define innovation.


Charles Shryock IV

Director of Faculty Development at Bishop McNamara High School

Innovation is about reframing challenges as opportunities. Within organizations, I am drawn to those moments when a team collectively ‘sighs,’ because the number of apparent roadblocks has increased to a point of frustration. It’s easy for teams to stop trying in these moments, and change focus by moving to another problem with an easier solution. But really, this is the worst time to stop trying, because you have done all the work that prepares you for an innovative move.

The solution is there, if you let go of the frustration, question your limitations, and start to play.
Source: Project Loon

You don’t necessarily need to make something new to be innovative. For me, innovation can be repurposing an older tool for a new purpose. I’m really inspired by Project Loon, a project of Google X, which aims to provide balloon-powered Internet for everyone. This is an idea that has the potential to improve life for billions of people, and it arises from the creative combination (and improvement) of existing technologies.

The word “innovation” itself descends from the Latin words in and novare, meaning ‘to make new.’

By adopting an innovative mindset, we make ourselves new.

Dominic Randolph

Head of School, Riverdale Country School

Innovation is connecting broadly while rethinking creatively to live anew.

The concept of push-pull strategy applied more broadly is an example of innovation. Traditional media like newspapers are “pull” media. Pop up ads on websites and in social media are a “push” strategy.

Source: Pixabay

I think we are moving in interesting ways to a pull model with new media and services. The innovative implications for media and services are really interesting. How does one customize and aggregate news effectively? How can one create a customized aggregated education with comprehensive and portable credentialing?

This framework that was used originally for logistics is an innovative way of understanding our world and helps frame the positive uses of digital media.


Tom Sayer

Program Manager, Google For Education

Source: Pixabay

Innovation isn’t just change, it’s change in a positive direction. And it isn’t a single direction, it loops and feeds back on itself. It’s what drives the world forward; what caused people to pick up a stone and start using it to whack things, and what caused companies to build the first car, then make it safe, then make it electric, and possibly make it driverless. Oh, and it isn’t sending the word “Yo” to your friends via an app.


Gavin Cosgrave

High School Senior and Founder of Preflight

Innovation is building a totally new solution to a problem. By definition, innovation is really hard because it is so much easier to make small changes to what already exists. You have to think about the problem in a totally different way than everyone else has before. The only way to sustain a culture of innovation is by empowering the members of a group to be problem solvers.

Most organizations, including schools, take existing products and improve incrementally on them, but truly innovative companies track down unsolved problems and take a new angle.
Source: Space X

I would call Space X one of the most innovative companies in the world right now. They’re trying to make space travel literally 20,000 times cheaper than it has been in the past, and they are building completely new technology and processes in an industry that hasn’t changed much since the 1960's.

In schools specifically:

I started my senior year in high school this week, and I calculated that I’ve now spent about 15,000 hours during the past 12 years at school: about 25% of my waking hours for the past decade. I’ve been lucky enough to mostly have teachers that encouraged me to question and create, but these two vital elements of classrooms are often ignored in favor of memorizing and testing. Innovative classrooms can take inspiration from the business world and experiment to find ways to get students motivated to discover and build solutions to problems they face.

Nothing we teach students will be as valuable as the growth mindset they need to navigate the unknown future.


Brett Brownell

Digital Strategist, The Teachers Guild, IDEO

Innovation to me is when a change or update is made to something that already exists but it dramatically improves its efficiency, productivity, or outcome. Whether it’s an improvement to a system, product, service, curriculum, etc., an innovation, is not just a change but a “game changer”. I often link invention and innovation closely, in that an invention is a new creation of something whereas an innovation is an inventive improvement of something.

Source: Donors Choose

An example of innovation in education that comes to mind is the concept of Donors Choose — in that a standard funding system for teachers and their classrooms was already in place. But allowing anyone to contribute directly to a specific classroom project dramatically improved teachers’ ability to fund ideas for learning.


Elysa Fenenbock

Educator at Stanford d.school and Designer-in-Residence at Google

Simply put, innovation occurs when you solve a problem in a new way, but impactful innovation occurs when you solve the problem in the right way.

These solutions can be entirely new products or services, but are just as often, existing solutions brought to new industries.

Source: Pixabay

For instance, the knots sailors use have been around for hundreds of years, and probably won’t need to change much. They have knots that slip, that tie objects or ropes together, tension knots…the list goes on. There is probably not much need for innovation in knot-tying on a sailboat. However, if you borrowed the sailor’s knots to tie sutures in surgery, or create a new jewelry clasp, that would be ‘innovation.’

One of my favorite innovations, is definitely the thumb hole in a long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt. Elegantly simple, incredibly functional, and recently fashionable.


Todd Groves

Trustee at West Contra Costa Unified School District

Source: West Contra Costa Unified School District
I see innovation essentially as an invitation to collaboratively think differently about something.

Not seeking collaboration often puts the NO in innovation. Example: The curb ramp.


Annette Diefenthaler

Portfolio Director at IDEO’s Design for Learning Studio

Source: The Teachers Guild
Innovation? It’s recognizing a need and creating a solution for it.

It’s good when that’s a true need — not one that was created by the solution.

Favorite innovation: The Teachers Guild.


Carolyn Wendell

Program Manager, Google For Education

The Innovation Poem:

An inspiration → a revelation → a bold creation → determination → implementation→ consternation, appreciation → iteration → celebration.

Source: Pixabay

An example of innovation, for me, would be “New Coke” because it was an example of a failed innovation that after intense consternation resulted in a massive iteration (a reversion to old coke) which resulted in tremendous celebration. But it shows that innovation really needs to go through all those steps, and I think New Coke exemplifies that well.


Emma Scripps

Program Designer, The Teachers Guild, IDEO

Source: Pixabay

A friend and I were recently discussing innovation and he mentioned the concept of “wicked problems” to me. He described a wicked problem as one for which the solutions are not well understood. They are the result of a system of layered, and intertwined causes. And by definition, there is no single right answer. Understanding what a wicked problem is helps me better frame what innovation means:

Innovation addresses needs that are entrenched and multi-faceted, and require an iterative approach to the development of solutions. [It’s] not just about being NEW and DIFFERENT — it’s about tackling issues that are complex and not so well understood.

When I was a teacher, I had never heard of the concept of a wicked problem. But reflecting back, so many of the challenges I faced in my classroom were wicked ones. They were reflections of a tangled system within the ever-changing environment of my classroom.

Source: Pixabay

Extending upon my own experience, I believe many educators are developing innovations on the daily — whether they coin their ideas as innovative or not. For example, I recently read about a school that designed a system and philosophy for creating pop-up MakerSpaces as a way to enable more ad hoc creativity and hands-on learning throughout the school. This is a solution that addresses challenges of space and time, and also pushes on our understanding of the way creativity is taught and learned. Each day and each school year, educators are working to address these deeply complicated issues that span across learning theory, space and systems design — and are creating innovative solutions in the process.


Sarika Bansal

Editor of Bright

Source: Bright

I’m a relative newcomer to education. When I started interviewing education experts to prepare for my role as Bright editor, I was honestly surprised by how much people emphasized technology. I hadn’t heard the term “blended learning” before (I thought it had something to do with a smoothie), and grew immediately skeptical of people who talked about how technology can help low-income learners.

I immediately thought of my own experiences with technology in school — which were largely limited to math games on floppy disks, Mavis Beacon typing programs, and watching movies on TVs wheeled into class at the end of the school year. These were all new things that my parents didn’t have when they were in school, but they didn’t feel particularly necessary for my education.

When I think back to my favorite teachers, the thing they have in common is how much they seemed to care about me, let me develop creative projects, and allowed me to ask a million questions (“How did everyone hear about the Defenestration of Prague? Why did they start a war over it? Would the war have happened without it?”). I’d say that the best “innovators” I encountered during my schooling were teachers trained to do their job well and help me find answers for myself.


Molly McMahon

Program Lead, The Teachers Guild, IDEO

For me, innovation does not mean new ideas. That’s too easy. I define innovation as coming up with something new, or making something old even better, and then executing on it. It’s not an innovation unless it has actually been created, prototyped, and rolled out. Implementation can be the hardest part, but it’s also where the magic happens… when solutions are truly brought life.

Source: Pixabay

Space travel is my favorite invention. How in the world we can leave this planet is mind blowing. What man and womankind can dream of and then build is truly awe inspiring. I got to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor fly overhead on its way to LA and I cried. There were mobs of us silently watching, with our necks craned toward the heavens, honoring its final journey home. Endeavor had been to space 25 times, and my heart marveled at what had been accomplished and where it had gone.


What does innovation me to you? What are some of your favorite innovations? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #dare2design.