Are you a unicorn? Thinking about innovation and improvement.

June 1, 2015 — 11 Comments

There are some ideas that I just keep coming back to.  Innovation is one of those ideas. I hear it everywhere, and I think people confuse it with improvement.  Andy Hargreaves spoke about the tension between innovation and improvement and asks the question:

What kind of horse are you?

I recommend watching from 29:10-35:02

He presents a similar matrix to the one I have here:

If you are not improving or innovating, you’re a dead horse.

If you are only improving, you are a race horse.

If you are only innovating, you are a unicorn or pegasus. You are a mythical creature that does not exist.

If you are improving and innovating, you are the iron horse. You have horsepower, but are no longer a horse. You are something greater and more impressive than any other horse.

Andy goes on to point fingers at which education systems are which horse:

  • The dead horse:  USA (although things are looking up)
  • The race horse: Ontario
  • The Unicorn and Winged Horse: Superficial use of Technology (that’s us #edtech)
  • The iron horse:  We don’t know yet.  Will it be Ontario?

Do you agree? Where would you put Ontario’s education system on the innovation/improvement horse matrix?

Could the Iron Horse of Education Change be here?

I think educators and leaders in education ought to remember that innovation is a priority, even when things are tough.  Innovation is not dessert, that thing you get to have when you are done improving.  It’s essential to do simultaneously alongside of improvement.

And a note to my #edtech friends –  don’t be the unicorn.  Innovate and improve or else you are a magical creature that doesn’t really exist.

Note: This blog was revised thanks to Dr. Marc Joanisse who gave me some great feedback about the graphic.



11 responses to Are you a unicorn? Thinking about innovation and improvement.

  1. Thanks, Michelle, for sharing this.

    Recently I have been thinking a lot about that upper right quadrant. I see “use of tech” that gets attention and praise, but where the learning intentions for the student are hard to identify. Student learning must be at the centre of what we do, and sometimes we fall into the trap of celebrating shiny new ideas that look fun and creative, but really don’t impact student learning.

    I think of the TPCK model and the Technology circle without any content or pedagogy!

    Of course, Andy can share this thinking in such an engaging way.

    The world is waiting to see if Ontario can be the iron horse. We have a solid grasp on our best practice, so what’s our next practice?

    • Donna, thank you for commenting. I like this notion of next practice. I agree that tech should be learning and student centred. The upper right quadrant is the total sweet spot. I wonder, if we ever need to go through a tinkering phase through the unicorn? Are there times where we can prototype in small, thoughtful ways, when we aren’t sure? Where we can just go for it? I think the answer is yes, but I think these should be small and short. If this prototyping action is always the approach, I think that is solid unicorn/pegasus territory…danger danger – that could be the shiny seduction of tech blinding us from our responsibility!

  2. Hi Michelle – great post! Exploring the importance of, and relationship between improvement and innovation certainly resonates with me. In my view, innovation is critical, but I would extend this notion to innovation with purpose. The importance of ‘with purpose’ is the context. With regard to improvement, I would hope the measurement would be reflective of deeper learning and experiences.


    • Thank you, Mark, for pushing my thinking another step forward. Yes, context! What is the reason for the innovation, what is the problem that we are trying to solve. The context should be tied to personal, institutional and provincial goals, no?

  3. In a post I wrote on Hargreave’s 4th Way (linked to my name) I drew an image to help me think through the ideas and I also said:

    We need to be unified and collaborative.

    Not unions, but professional organizations.

    Not corporations, but community leaders.

    Not top-down, but shared leadership.

    Not teachers, but co-learners.

    Not standardization, but a process of inquiry.

    I bring this up because I think the path to the upper right corner is one that can only be attained by developing a learning culture at every level of the school and school district. The relationships need to be fostered in a culture of innovation and tinkering, mixed with rich collaboration and deep reflection… none of which happens without a foundation of responsibility (not accountability) and a culture that allows fearless iterations and prototyping.

    The cookie-cutter era is over. Even if Hargreaves could identify a state, province or district that fit in the top right corner, we would be acting negligently if we tried to emulate in our different contexts.

    Here is a Professor Stephen Heppell quote with respect to new learning spaces:
    “The world is actually filled with great ingredients for learning… reach out to other places, other colleagues, borrow their ingredients and make a great local recipe. Your school is filled with unique students, unique staff, and unique circumstances, in a unique context with a unique culture. Nothing out there will identically work for you. But the challenge is what is your local recipe going to be. All I’m saying is use the ingredients that are tested and tried in 21st Century Schools and build yourself a new local recipe. And then share it with others and then keep the menu fresh.”

    I love the ‘local recipe’ metaphor!

    Thanks for sharing Michelle!

    • Responsbility not accountability! Fearless iterations! Prototyping! Yes.

      Thank you for your comment, Dave. It was a pleasure meeting you and spending some time chatting in Portland last year and I am very glad to reconnect. Thank you for stopping by.

      I love the idea of taking in the ingredients, making a local recipe, and then always striving to keep the menu fresh. Also, you insired me to follow Dr. Heppell and check out some of his work. Thank you for that too. Plus, I will check out the “4th way.”

      As I think about innovation, I am also thinking about the SAMR model that is pretty much religion in the educational technology space. I love the model. However, when I hear people talk about redefinition I start to sweat. I feel like it’s a fabled level of excellence, and I dare say I don’t believe I’ve seen it. Innovation is in the same category. There is a lot of talk that is very moving and feels like a call to action, but I dare say I am not sure I have seen innovation (up close and personal).

      So, if you haven’t seen it, start by naming it. Start by understanding it. I took the same approach with big foot…I’m still on the look out for him too.

      • Michelle and Dave – What a rich conversation! I really admire the work of Stephen Heppell, and I heard him speak years ago at Leading Learning, but the “local recipe” idea is new to me. What a powerful metaphor for learning.

        (It reminds me of another food metaphor – the “teach less, learn more” strategy of Singapore –

        Michelle, I think you would enjoy the keynote Simon Breakspear gave at the Ontario Leadership Congress where he talks about how we use a lot of language around moving forward, but that language does not always lead to action. Just because we say we need to innovate, or purposefully innovate, doesn’t mean we actually do it. He talks about the need to have a very clear picture of what learning looks like, feels like, sounds like going forward. “You cannot lead into a future you cannot see” – not that we are trying to read the future, but that we should have a a clear picture of what our vision actually looks like when it is implemented so that we can determine a clear path forward (while keeping the menu fresh!).

        The video is posted here:

  4. Hi Michelle,
    Really enjoyed the post and feel this is a conversation that many need to have – “how are you improving? Are you innovating as well?”
    It’s something as individual teachers we need to assess in our own practice, but it’s also needed amongst ‘systems’ as well (as you pointed out). I think when we look at the Ongario system as a whole we can easily relate to the Race Horse, and see improvement while maintaining much of the status quo. I think it is important however to understand that not all school boards are equal in this respect; and many are doing some clearly innovative things. I just wish it was more consistent and frequent.
    I guess I just long for the day where a board really stands up, breaks the mold, and goes for something truly innovative. I think one of these ways could be in school design. Until that time I think the race horse will continue around the track.
    Anyway, thanks for the post!

    • Yes, I too long for the day when things start to feel truly innovative. I feel like innovation is sometimes right up there with crazy hat day: it’s something we are encouraged to do on Fridays.

      I think a missing component to the discussion of innovation, which I also left out in the blog post, is creative destruction. If you start doing something a new way, the old way has to come to an end. Or, some old things have to come to an end. Certainly teachers can’t keep adding more and more to our already full plates. The newer ways eat up the old ways. I think this requires leadership that gives permission to say goodbye to some things instead of trying to keep it all. So, perhaps what might stoke the appetite for innovation is starting to think about what we can stop doing or maybe back off of a little bit. By creating space, could we allow for change?

      I would love to hear some examples of boards that you think are doing particularly innovative things. I agree, they are out there. Can you name some examples for me?
      Thank you for your comments and engaging with me.

      • I love your comment on ‘creative destruction’ and agree that with all the demands placed on educators today, we have to be purposeful & focused on what to innovate. Otherwise we don’t do it well.
        As far as boards go, I don’t have a lot of examples but have heard of schools in York & Hamilton region using ‘flex schedules’ with their students; online PD down in Windsor with various courses such as ‘Gamification & game based learning'; and then (acknowledging personal bias) my own with some innovative learning spaces.
        However, as mentioned, I don’t know enough about others, and would love to know if any are designing future-ready schools?

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