What is Learning Innovation?: CTL 20th Anniversary Blog Series

By Mr. David Cook: As Director of Innovation for the Kentucky Department of Education, I spend too much of my time responding to the following question: “What is innovation?” My first reaction is to use the phrase from the anti-drug campaign “Just Say No” to defining innovation.

Written By dwalker

On August 8, 2014

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This is one of a series of posts leading up to CTL’s 20th Anniversary forum and celebration, September 9th at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY.

By Mr. David Cook, Director Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, Kentucky Department of Education

Cook1There are days when I don’t particularly like the job title I have.  As Director of Innovation for the Kentucky Department of Education, I spend too much of my time responding to the following question: “What is innovation?”  This question doesn’t just come from local educators trying to wrap their heads around this very ambiguous term, but also from national education leaders who need for everything to fit into a neat little box. My first reaction is to use the phrase from the anti-drug campaign “Just Say No” to defining innovation.

My response is always the same: “You aren’t asking the right question”.  Sure they are a multitude of definitions of innovation in education journals, the dictionary, state and federal laws and other published attempts to define this word.  Finally I say, “If you press me, I believe innovation is any NEW approach to an existing problem.” That’s a very simple definition but it is Cook2about as accurate as any other.  Innovation cannot be universally defined because what is a new approach in one education setting would not be in another.  Learning Innovation must be created inside a learning organization like a school.  It can’t be purchased or brought in from outside.  If it is, then it is a best practice.  Innovation is also not thinking “outside the box,” it is getting rid of the box and creating new approaches that re-imagine the learning system without boxes.

When pushed further, I dive deeper into what I mean by “NEW approaches”.  While the list below is not exhaustive, I believe these new approaches create opportunities for learning through inventive use of time and technology and by broadening instructional pedagogy and assessment, as follows:

  1. Approaches that allow students to progress at a pace best suited for their learning style.
  2. Approaches that allow students to be involved in learning opportunities that occur at places and times outside the school day and school location.
  3. Approaches that actually change teaching practice to use technology in specific ways based on each student’s learning plan and that don’t just deliver the same old lesson plans using technology.
  4. Approaches that personalize activities and assessments to measure learning.  Kids don’t learn the same way and shouldn’t be assessed the same way.

Since innovation in one learning environment will look very different than it will in another, I would argue that the actual innovations are not important; instead, it is creating a “culture of innovation” in which the learning environment supports the risk-taking necessary to transform the learning environment into one that is designed for the future and not the present or past (see Innovation and Schooling posting).

Throughout my experiences working with local districts this culture of innovation has several characteristics:

o   Freedom for anyone (adults and students) to bring forth new approaches to improve learning ,

o   Leadership that supports administrators, teachers, and students by not only allowing them but encouraging them to take risks to find new approaches to existing problems.  Leadership’s sole question for any new idea is “Does this approach align with our goals, objectives and student outcomes, and does it have the potential to improve our likelihood of meeting our goals, objectives and student outcomes?”

o   Superintendents and school boards believe and embrace these risk-taking approaches that empower all involved to make a difference in the learning environment.

o   Technology is not viewed as a crutch for actually having an innovative culture.  If all you see in classrooms is kids using their 1:1 device to do the same assignments in the same ways as they did them before, not much has changed.

o   An ability to abandon initiatives that aren’t working to pursue these new ideas.  While true transformative strategies may cost money, they don’t necessarily mean new money.  A learning environment with a culture of innovation is continuously asking itself what it can stop doing in order to improve the learning of our kids.


Why is it so important to develop this culture first? Every day I see situations where schools have seen an innovative approach in another school or school district and have tried to replicate in their own, only to have it be less than successful.  Why? The school trying to implement the new approach did not  first focus on developing a culture of innovation, so educators saw the new approach as something else they had to do or just the latest fad.  In addition, the needs of the school trying to replicate the idea may not be the same as others that have been successful with the approach.  You must try new approaches based on your needs.

The fact of the matter is that if a learning environment has a culture of innovation, most of the new approaches will come from inside the organization.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to replicate successful new approaches from others, just make sure every new approach you try makes sense for your environment.  In other words, don’t do innovation for the sake of innovation.

Bottom line, don’t spend so much time trying to define innovation and instead work from the inside to create a transformative culture that seeks the best results for all. For more on this idea, see a related blog posting on CTL’s website: Creating a Great School.

Visit our 20th Anniversary event page for other related blogs and information.