Ideas and Innovation

Take pause for a moment and consider the vast sea of ideas active in our world right this second…  Can you picture it?  At any given iStock_000006175136XSmalltime, billions of people collectively generate billions of ideas.  Unfortunately, most ideas never leave a person’s head or are only ever shared with a family member, or perhaps one or two close friends.  Ideas die prematurely every day because they are not able to take root in “fertile ground”.  Ideas need to mix with other ideas and they need to encounter support and experience conflict to survive and grow.

In our increasingly digital world, ideas have never had it so good!  When a person chooses to enter in and engage with others in online spaces, it’s like a veil is lifted for them and they see what was hidden from them previously, a connected sea of ideas.  You can see the mixing of ideas take place through Twitter, Blogs, Wikis, Youtube, TED, Google +, Facebook, and hundreds of other interesting spaces.

I’ve just started to read “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson (see TED talk).  He describes how Kleiber’s law involving a pattern of negative quarter-power scaling inimage biological systems such as metabolism, relates to innovation.  In simple terms, “size matters”.  Larger organisms and animals live longer than smaller ones.  Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West applied Kleiber’s law to cities and through research learned that “Kleiber’s negative quarter-power scaling governed the energy and transportation growth of city living” (Kindle 137).  They also discovered that “Every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation—patents, R&D budgets, ‘supercreative’ professions, inventors—also followed a quarter-power law, in a way that was every bit as predictable as Kleiber’s law” (Kindle 142). However, they found that this law “governing innovation was positive, not negative.  A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative” (Kindle 144).  Here’s the clincher (Kindle 147):

“as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip”

And (Kindle 150)…

“the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand”

Size, actually potential connections between people, serves as an amplifier for idea generation, mixing, and innovation.  The real question is, does this map to digital spaces?  Because if it does, the limitations and environmental considerations inherent in a geographic location like a city, would be non-existent. In fact, digital spaces and technology amps up the speed of innovation even further.

“It is one of the great truisms of our time that we live in an age of technological acceleration; the new paradigms keep rolling in, and the intervals between them keep shortening” (Kindle 169)

Steven Johnson writes about “the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience” (Kindle 177).  He refers to the time that elapses between an original idea and mass adoption using examples like color TV, HDTV, AM radio, VCRs, DVDs, Cell phones, PCs, and GPS devices.  It took roughly 10 years for each idea to begin to take root and another 10 to reach mass adoption.  He shares this example of how the web (digital spaces) is a major game changer for innovation:

“YouTube went from idea to mass adoption in less than two years. Something about the Web environment had enabled Hurley, Chen, and Karim to unleash a good idea on the world with astonishing speed. They took the 10/10 rule and made it 1/1” (Kindle 215)

Chris Anderson of Wired and fame confirmed this phenomenon in his TED talk “How web video powers global innovation”.  Things are very different now for innovation and idea mixing in our massively connected digital spaces.  Clearly “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them” (Kindle 278).

So, given the fact (I’ll boldly state it this way) that digital spaces significantly amplify idea generation, mixing, and innovation, what should the K12 education system’s priorities look like?  It seems that we often dance around the importance of technology for teachers and students.  Some people argue that technology is “just a tool” in education, much like any other tool, equal, similar, not better.  Some such as the Association of Waldorf Schools (A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute) advocate for technology free learning environments.  There seems to be fairly compelling evidence that technology and digital spaces are key to maximizing ideas and innovation.  Why then, such debate about the value of technology and digital spaces in schools? 

My own view is that we need to start to break down the barriers to technology and digital space adoption in schools.  If the evidence is believable then technology and digital spaces should be core, essential, and pervasive to learning and teaching, not optional and secondary.  I do acknowledge the issues of cost and equity.  But isn’t it a matter of priority?  Billions of dollars are invested in education every year.  How much of this is invested wisely, in the things, people, and processes that will make the greatest difference for kids?  In case iStock_000006081888XSmallyou’re wondering, I’m not advocating for technology vs teachers, both are essential.  But teachers, or rather teaching and learning, without technology and digital spaces would seem to be inappropriate given the evidence for ideas and innovation.  Given what we know, isn’t our education system doing a disservice to students and our own future by not fully embracing technology and digital spaces?  Isn’t it time to acknowledge that technology for learning is a moral imperative and prioritize and invest accordingly?  Our world has huge problems that no one seems to know how to solve, yet.  We need an acceleration of ideas and innovation more now than ever before because our future depends on it!


  1. Hi Brian. As usual, we're in agreement about the moral imperative....

    Have to laugh about the article about "Why aren't students using e-readers as much as expected?" I want to say "Duh!" but I guess that would be rude. Middle-aged teachers always seemed to be satisfied with my smile when they'd proudly display their Kindles etc. This was "their" leap into technology, but never their students'. Would talking about it have solved anything? Not likely. It's what they were ready for. No more. And what are students ready for? One would need to take the time to find out.

    I currently have a backlog of students wanting to participate in my Immersive Technologies (IMT) program (Yep, the spellchecker catches immersive every time. There's no such word apparently.) Students are already there, learning, interacting, forming learning communities in virtual spaces. But it seems irrelevant to educators. Another 5 years of critical time will fly by as the teaching community struggles to get 3D students to accept the 2D existence their "mentors" are comfortable with. The speed of change means that my program will only be able to handle the number of students applying if I can convince teachers to accept students as their technology "mentors."

    The paradigm of change that you refer to is profound not only in its speed, but the nature of how it is making the 2D technology educators embrace to be redundant, and irrelevant to their students.

    Brian, you know what I'm talking about. I'm surprised that you haven't made more reference to it. Until we raise the roof and insist on REAL change, the funding and support will continue to go into handing out ebook readers rather than novels, and passing out webpages rather than worksheets. What a sad, sad state of affairs in a province where everyone TALKS about adopting 21st century education, but cannot understand that iPads and Smartboards belong to the same old paradigm of passing along information, in a prettier package.

    There you go Brian. Another rant that will have people shaking their heads in either agreement or disagreement, and returning to a pedagogy the next day that is broken. Everyone's too busy to take the time to even ask.... If the Ministry of Education was really serious about bringing about an effectively innovative system of education, that's likely an issue that would need to be addressed. Enough...back to work.

  2. @Gord - good to see that you're not holding back on your thoughts :-)

    I'm of mixed mind on how to fuel the needed shift. I believe we should be focused on helping teachers make the shift first or at the same time as students. Supporting students making a shift to digital without teachers able to be their guides seems risky to me. I know there are some who would disagree but I believe that students need the wisdom on their teachers to help them navigate curriculum, learning experiences, and assessment. Digital spaces and tools are not capable of providing that (yet).

    It can start in very pragmatic ways. Like many other districts, in SD43 we've signaled the importance of all teachers having their own laptop to support their own learning (PD commitment is required), preparation, and their students learning. 450 teachers committed to this, this year. The goal is for all 1850 educators to have a laptop (or maybe it will be some other digital tool) as a core tool for their work.

    I do like the vision the BC Ministry has developed and communicated. I also like that there isn't a prescribed implementation and that this leaves it open to individuals in Districts and schools to figure out. Some would say the Gov't should add funding to realize the vision, perhaps, but I think it's a matter of priority - there's lots of money in the system.

    I think it does begin in stages, eg. your reference to iPads, webpages, SMARTboards replacing old paradigms. These are first steps for many. Not everyone is capable of "the leap". I liken it to a positive slippery slope effect where eventually (depends on readiness) people get to the full digital immersion point we're advocating for.

    As always, I appreciate the frankness and openness in you comments Gord!

  3. I was linked to this post from the @dmlcentral Twitter feed. What a great post. I shared it with my graduate class at Syracuse University, which is focused on training future school librarians to integrate technology into information literacy education. I look forward to reading more!

  4. @Mary: thanks for letting me know. It's an honor to be able to contribute to others learning and thinking!


  5. Hi Brian,

    Was not at all my intention to suggest that students who take the lead in technology should also take the lead in the classroom. In my experience, having students ahead of teachers in the use of technology creates an even GREATER demand for teachers to become involved.

    The analogy is not perfect, but what leaps to my mind is the dogsled team. If the musher only speaks the language of the back two dogs, they will have very little control over where the sled is going. If one is going to have responsibility for a team, you must have a grasp on the commands that will be understood and the terrain being traveled. My fear is that modern learners are becoming increasingly estranged from a classroom where teachers pat themselves on the back for embracing old, tired, and ineffectual technology.

    I'm not sure that the learning curve you speak of is necessary. I listen to stereo music without having to know about "tube" technology. While I did ride a bicycle before learning to drive, making the case that this is necessary doesn't hold water. Sorry, but I think the teaching profession is filled with people who value cursive writing, and would rather read about virtual worlds than participate in one. It's hard to let go of what is familiar. But our students are not familiar with library cards, whiteout, locker room showers, etc., etc. This is foreign to them, and they need it as much as they need a polio vaccine.

    Sorry, but when I led a jazz band, I learned all the instruments and made sure I could show everyone in it how to play the most difficult passages on THEIR instrument. THAT's leadership, and I will always find it hard to accept less from the teaching profession. No excuses. We need to get with the program in order to be relevant and instrumental in giving it guidance. If we must humble ourselves enough to learn what our students can teach us about the technology, then let's be that kind of role model. It's the kind of leadership students will respect and follow. I see teachers doing this with great results. To suggest that this is not reasonable or possible is inconsistent with what is already happening, and what needs to happen more. JMHO.

  6. @Gord: my perspective is defined by my experiences working alongside teachers - many can run quickly while others need a lot of support, with using and applying technology to their classrooms. I do agree with students taking the lead with tech but teachers need to be in a place of comfort in letting go of the control of that aspect. I've seen this in action as well and it's amazing to see patterns emerge in the seeming chaos :-)

    We'll get to the place you're advocating for but I do think that given the range of readiness, and professional autonomy, it may take a crisis to move as quickly as some might want...

    Keep on pushing!

  7. I wonder if the crisis you speak of will be the realization that "it's about the students, not the teachers." The greatest "aha" I've had, that revolutionized my teaching and student results, was for me to not only "get out of the way" but to become proactive about removing the obstacles "education" places in the way of "passionate learners." Who are these students? In my opinion, all of them. We just won't see the passion until we are ready to exploit whatever works to unleash this passion. Hint: It's not usually a blackboard and chalk. lol. When we lead from in front, the pack is limited to the speed of the leader. Time to acknowledge the need for a new leadership model. Time to make learning a collaborative approach where the teacher is a mentor to ALL the leaders in the group.


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