Are we allowing the space for innovation in public schools?

A paragraph in a fascinating article about Xerox PARC* has stuck in my head because of the questions it raises indirectly about innovation in public schools. Xerox PARC was where many computer innovations—such as the mouse—were created; some of those innovations were later improved and sold by companies such as Apple. “Starkweather, and his compatriots at Xerox PARC, weren’t the source of disciplined strategic insights. They were wild geysers of creative energy.

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. This is why managing the creative process is so difficult.”

The article is by Malcolm Gladwell; fans of his writing may recognize a theme that is touched on in some of Gladwell’s other work—that “genius” is often a function of effort and quantity of output, and that the “stroke of genius” that appears to come out of nowhere is rarely real.

The question this led me to is what policymakers can do to encourage additional innovation in public schools, and what innovators can do to educate policymakers, the media, and the public that the process of innovation requires room to fail.

I’m sure there are some readers who have been involved in charter schools for years reading this and thinking “yes, we have charter schools; when did you figure out what we’ve known for a decade?”

Charter schools are, of course, the mechanism by which some innovation is supposed to occur in public education, and many of the leading online and blended schools are charters. But charters appear likely to remain a small part of the education landscape, and bringing innovations to the majority of schools and students is the key challenge. Further, as we at Evergreen work increasingly with non-charter schools and districts, we are recognizing the extent to which many elements of the system are not designed to encourage—or in many cases allow—experimentation and the room for failure.

One of the needed developments may simply be that when a school or district tries something new that doesn’t work, that we dedicate time to revising the model and building on the parts that are working, instead of simply faulting the innovators for failing.

*Creation Myth

Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation

The New Yorker, May 16 2011

I found this article via David Brooks’ end of year column on his favorite magazine articles. The Brooks column is well worth a read as a source of several thought-provoking articles. How and why a 2011 New Yorker article got into the list I don’t know, but I’m glad it did.