Innovation and Schools

Harvard’s Jill Lepore has written an important piece in the most recent New Yorker on the theory of “disruptive innovation.” It’s important for a variety of reasons. First, because it’s a case study in argument analysis—in the type of critical thinking that we would like all of our students to practice—and to which we should all aspire. (Others may have analyzed Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen’s work as closely, I just haven’t read it.) Second, it’s a solid, straightforward piece of intellectual history—my favorite arena—and does the important work of putting this very popular theory into historical context. In so doing, Lepore demonstrates the power, vitality, and importance of history and historical analysis—of why everyone should learn to think like a historian, even if they don’t want to teach it at Harvard, as Dr. Lepore does. (I would love to be in the Harvard Faculty Club when the two professors meet next. I’m sure it will be cordial but it would still be interesting!)

A third reason Dr. Lepore’s critique is important is that in it she makes a number of points that are important for teachers, school leaders, trustees, and parents, as well as students, to keep in mind as we think about the future of schools and learning. First, we should be aware—and beware—of the gospel of progress. By that I mean the idea of progress in its fullest sense. Here’s Lepore’s summary and the place of “innovation” within it:

The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer…

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

But what can we believe in if not progress?! Well, that’s a story for another time. For now, if it’s news that there are alternatives, please just reflect on it. To put it another way, new isn’t always better. Indeed, full life—human flourishing—may be available through ancient, rather than innovative, sources.

Second (and I’m skipping over large, illuminating, and fun parts of her argument), Lepore’s critique is a helpful caution against conflating business with other areas of human endeavor—education, in our case. She puts it this way:

Disruptive innovation as an explanation for how change happens is everywhere. Ideas that come from business schools are exceptionally well marketed. Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification. Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors. Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.

Schools, teachers, and school leaders are being told constantly that we have to follow the “change or die” paradigm. While it’s valuable for teachers to reflect actively on their practice, learn from colleagues, borrow from other fields, discard things that don’t help students learn (I’ve benefitted significantly as a teacher and leader from ideas in books like The Lean Startup and my early experiences in venture capital and investment banking); while it’s valuable for schools to ask fundamental questions about the purpose and aims of education and whether current practices are achieving those aims; while it’s good for parents and students to ask how a school’s curriculum and teachers are preparing students for the world that awaits them outside the classroom; while all of these should fuel fairly constant reflection and possible change, we must not lose the soul of education in the breathless attempt to follow what Lepore calls the “gospel of innovation.” If schools aren’t teaching students to think critically, to create, to develop arguments, to write, to understand and explore the natural world—and exposing students to, even helping them master parts of, “the best of what’s been thought and said” in the process—then they aren’t doing their jobs. That’s a tall task in and of itself. But as important as all of that is, it is equally important that schools help students develop character in the traditional sense—knowing right from wrong, choosing the former and eschewing the latter, being people of integrity, nobility, fairness, justice, and kindness. That’s a taller task. It’s one that all the talk of innovation ignores completely—either because it takes it for granted or because it just doesn’t value it as highly as “the new, new thing.” It’s easy to say, “Of course it’s both.” But both take time and other resources to develop and we assume that character will just happen at our peril. Reading almost any anecdote of the way that Mr. Gunn approached teaching demonstrates that our school’s founder knew how to hold educating for wisdom and character in balance and Lepore’s article points to why hewing to his example remains relevant in the 21st Century.