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Innovation vs Circulasticity

Why the status quo keeps bouncing back

Why is truly innovative educational change so difficult to achieve? The author coins a word, “circulasticity,” to describe a system’s “elastic” tendency to resist change. Under these conditions, innovation stretches the core environment, but is eventually brought back to the central traditional core and becomes more of an “improvement” than a change catalyst. This is what happens in education, because the education system, designed for uniformity and compliance, has no explicit mechanism for including creativity and innovation. Thus true innovation in education will only become widespread when a new structure, which nurtures critical thinkers, supports risk-takers and encourages ongoing transformation, is created.

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Let me begin this article with a word I invented: Circulasticity. A combination of the words circular and elasticity, it is an organizational condition that generates contexts or situations in which high levels of activity are noted, but any discernible long-term change is not.

Circulasticity permeates much of the work currently going on in the world of education, especially when we discuss innovation in education. There are multiple examples of how circulasticity asserts itself in environments where innovation is supposedly present. Because of the elasticity of circulasticity, “innovation” stretches the core environment, but is eventually brought back to the central traditional core and becomes more of an “improvement” than a change catalyst.

So what do I mean by innovation? According to Webster, it is:

1) the introduction of something new; 2) a new idea, method, or device. Various Ministries of Education in Canada and internationally have their own definitions. Most interestingly, they could all contain circulasticity.

In my opinion, true innovation in education will only happen when a new structure is created: one that nurtures critical thinkers, supports risk-takers and encourages ongoing transformation, and that places a high value on creative and insightful learning / teaching in classrooms. This new structure is defined by the research that has been studying how successful institutions evolve, compared to those that have difficulty initiating any change, whether it be innovation or simple improvements. As Martin Hays wrote in his analysis of organizational wisdom, “Organizational wisdom transcends organizational learning in its commitment to doing the right things over doing things right.”[1]

At the current time, educational organizations are mired in structures that have significant “blind spots” for innovation or creativity. These blind spots are the structures themselves, since they were designed along an industrial model that favours uniformity and compliance and has no explicit place or mechanism for including creativity and innovation. Hence they simply don’t allow for innovation to be replicated or made systemic.

Have you ever wondered why “alternative high schools for dropouts” have significantly higher success rates than the traditional high schools that feed them? Have you ever asked yourself why such successful models, which are mostly very different from the traditional models, are not made systemic? In our current model of education, economies of scale will trump any widespread innovation. And yet, if we injected actuarial costs to the education system and held it financially accountable for graduates over a 20-30 year period of time, we would quickly realize that investing heavily now greatly reduces societal costs in the future.

It is not that the people working in education are of bad faith. To the contrary, their intentions are noble and deserve our full support and respect. And there is no shortage of creative and imaginative people in education.

Nor is it the vision building that impedes innovation from occurring. To date, I confess I have likely read hundreds, if not thousands, of visions on 21st century curriculum, assessments, schools, classrooms, teachers and students. There is no shortage on the vision front!

Where everything seems to bog down is in the implementation component. As John Kotter eloquently describes in his book Buy-In: Saving your good idea from getting shot down, there are four main change impediments that people use: 1) Fear Mongering, 2) Death by Delay, 3) Confusion, 4) Ridicule.[2] In education, these four elements can be translated into: 1) Need Research, 2) Need Results, 3) Need Support, 4) Need Financing. The irony is that even if all four parts of this requirement are met, it still doesn’t serve to create innovative practices. What we need is a work environment that openly values creativity, risk-taking and courage; its lack remains the single greatest impediment to innovation in education.

The past three or four decades have presented ample opportunities for true innovation to occur in our schools and classrooms. In particular, the ubiquitous presence of technology can be an important enabler; however, the level of quality and transformational integration remains spotty across Canada. Technology has the potential to be a significant catalyst of learning and teaching. Innovation initiatives that include laptop technology, write Weston and Bain, “collectively represent heretofore-unattained scale and disturbance in the equilibrium of classrooms and schools (Dwyer, 2000) and disruption in the educational paradigm (Christensen et al., 2008).”[3]

And so, innovation, as traditionally defined, remains more of an elusive objective in education than an emerging reality. We debate the issue; we define the issue; and we design the issue. But moving the innovation agenda forward is an entirely different issue.

All of this ultimately brings us to a key question, that is, where do we go from here? In the words of Joseph Connor, “The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of the thinking that it provokes.”[4] True transformation will ultimately have to begin with a courageous act from an individual or individuals to enact the deep structural changes that are so needed.

Photo: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, November 2013


EN BREF - Pourquoi est-il si difficile d’apporter des changements vraiment novateurs en éducation? L’auteur a concocté le néologisme « circulasticité » pour décrire la tendance « élastique » de résistance au changement d’un système. La circulasticité fait que l’innovation étire l’environnement central, mais finit par être ramenée au noyau traditionnel, devenant davantage une « amélioration » qu’un catalyseur de changement. Ce phénomène se produit notamment dans le système d’éducation, qui privilégie l’uniformité et la conformité, sans être doté d’un mécanisme explicite intégrant la créativité et l’innovation. Ainsi, l’innovation véritable en éducation ne se généralisera que lorsque sera instaurée une nouvelle structure favorisant l’épanouissement de penseurs critiques, soutenant les preneurs de risque et encourageant la transformation continue.

[1] J. Martin Hays, “Dynamics of Organisational Wisdom,” Business Renaissance Quarterly 2, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 79.

[2] John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead, Buy-In: Saving your good idea from getting shot down (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2010).

[3] Mark E. Weston and Alan Bain, “The End of Techno-Critique: The naked truth about 1:1 laptop initiatives and educational change,” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment 9, no. 6 (Jan. 2010): 9.

[4] Quoted by Laurence Raw in a guest post on the allthingslearning blog, Nov. 8 2012: http://allthingslearning.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/questions-questions-questions-guest-post-by-laurence-raw/