Innovation, Exploitation, and Instigation (and it still isn’t enough!)

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Last week I was privileged to participate in a special seminar hosted by Stanford University’s SCOPE Center and the Canadian Education Association (CEA) at the University of Toronto. The event, Achieving Equity through Innovation: A Canada-United States Colloquium, featured educators, practitioners, and policymakers from the US and Canada, including Jim Shelton of the US Department of Education, representatives from OECD, and representatives from the ministries of Education from Ontario, Manitoba, and other provinces. It was an extraordinarily interesting group, to say the least.

There were two separate conversations that truly illustrated the policy and practice gap between the United States and Canada. First, to be fair, many Americans attending the event perhaps left Toronto with their tails between their legs, as their Canadian hosts, via PISA data mostly, showcased how superior Canadian education is to its southern partners. And it is. Clearly. Most of the reason for this was pinned on the social support systems in place in Canada compared to the US. Finland, at top of the PISA rankings, was present and is able to boast perhaps the greatest social safety net (read: health, education, welfare) of any country in the 21st Century.

But to me, the most important conversations focused on the philosophies of innovation versus improvement, and the role of government in spurring either.

Regarding innovation, University of Toronto’s Ben Levin, a former Deputy Minister of Education in both Manitoba and Ontario, a fellow Winnipegger, and occasional contributor to this electronic rag, noted in his prepared remarks that we spend too much time thinking about innovation —the act of creating new practices, pilots, and programs—to solve our educational woes. Said Levin in his short paper: “I argue that the prime requirement for greater equity in education is not so much innovation – in the sense of new programs or models of schooling – as wider use of practices we already know to be effective. Indeed, there is probably too much emphasis on innovation in education, not too little.”

To make his case, Levin cited the work of James March’s seminal piece, Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning. In that article, March suggests that we tend to “substitute exploitation of known alternatives for the exploration of unknown ones” (p. 85). His point, like Levin’s, is that we don’t look at what we have already “innovated.” Using more contemporary dialogue, old or known just “isn’t sexy.”

This is a push/pull issue in education. How much more do we need to learn and “innovate,” compared to putting what we know to work? Surely, we don’t know everything.  We are only beginning to uncover brain development and how children and adults truly learn. Regardless, we surely have learned a significant amount about teaching and learning over the decades since John Dewey. We have a pretty good grasp on how kids learn and how teachers should teach. Still, there is a great divide in coming to a collective agreement about what we do in our schools. Regardless of the research, we can’t seem to come to agreement on how to educate our children. We can’t agree on how to harness the technologies. We can’t agree on how to pay teachers. There is so much we can’t agree on. And we watch our children fall through the cracks while all of this happens.

The sexy thing is to innovate; the prudent thing is to instigate. Push current practice to the next level. If we can get “everyone” to the table, perhaps we can finally jump to the next level of education. We have been stuck on the same “type” of education so long: literally decades and decades (meaning about 70 years). We need to push onward.

But the politics of educational change are swarmy. They involve a consortium consensus of governments at the local, state, provincial, and federal levels. But that’s not all. The politics involve the teacher unions, the AFL-CIOs, the parent teacher organizations, and, as we have seen, about every type of political action committee imaginable. This is not easy work.

This is when the conversation really got interesting in Toronto. Jim Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for “innovation and improvement” (I do not lie), and former program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, took the podium to discuss the US version of educational reform. He extolled about the Obama approach via I3 grants and the Race to the Top program, all predicated, to a point, on innovation. In fact, if one looks at the Department’s Institute for Education Science’s (IES) programs, they focus primarily on innovation, not exploitation. We all heard Jim, in his eloquence, talk about the importance of “learning more.”

Following Jim was Gerald Farthing, the Manitoba Deputy Minister of Education. In his remarks, Farthing appropriately pointed that governments “are, by nature, risk adverse, and don’t really drive innovation.”

So there it is. Does government drive innovation or drive exploitation? I can certainly say that the US does the former, but I cannot certainly say that Canada does the latter. I think they are both guilty of not doing enough exploitation, but I would also regress that we will always need to push the envelope of innovation: we need to learn more.

In the end, we witnessed a major contradiction in styles by the US and Canadian systems. One pushes reform; the other stays out of the way and hopes it reforms. Whose to say the Canadians are wrong? It seems to work, at least through PISA. Still, most of the people in the room felt pretty strongly that the Canadian system isn’t nearly as strong as the numbers suggest. In round table conversations, participants from a variety of provinces noted that they still see a lot of students not finishing high school or not knowing what they are going to do after they graduate.

Regardless of geography, we need to do better. We need to harness our old knowledge, our newfound knowledge, and push toward tomorrow’s knowledge. But me must, at some point, push towards better education for ALL students. Everywhere. We simply must do this.

We can do this. Can’t we….?


The Educational Policy Institute is pleased to announce the upcoming book Finding Superman: A Perspective on Public Education in America. The book takes a retrospective view of Davis Guggenheim’s recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” Authors include former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane RavitchArthur Levine (Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation), Dan Domenech(American Association of School Administrators), Ben Levin (UToronto), Dennis Von Roekel (NEA), John Merrow (PBS/NPR), Peter Smith (Kaplan Higher Education and former US Congressman), and EPI’s Watson Scott Swail. Please stay tuned for more information from EPI.

One thought on “Innovation, Exploitation, and Instigation (and it still isn’t enough!)

  1. I’ve spent the last 10 years at the non-profit MIND Research Institute, which develops and deploys math instructional software. This focus on one subject area has allowed us to drill deeply into how best to bring “innovation” in software effectively to bear in the real world of schools. We have grown 950 schools (across the U.S.), and to 260,000 students and 10,000 teachers. And we have learned that we must design our new and innovative technology and processes to “exploit” existing school structure and educator behavior. We believe this is the path to rapid and widespread scale-up, rather than “reform” which requires discontinuous or radical change, or even change-out, of schools or educators. In other words, if innovative technology is to be capable of rapid nation-wide scale-up, reaching the great bulk of schools and educators very quickly, it must fit with and “exploit” the existing standard practice rather than requiring those practices to change. This can be done.

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