Earlier this month, I had the tremendous experience of being part of the Summit for Innovative Education, hosted by McREL.  The event featured two dueling keynote speakers (Stanford’s Eric Hanushek and Oregon’s Yong Zhao), who offered dramatically different visions of what American education should be.  While the contrast in messages and suggested strategies from Hanushek and Zhao is worthy of significant discussion on its own, what struck me most was the tension between the concepts of reliability and innovation in building better school systems.

McREL’s own “Network for Innovative Education” seems to be the embodiment of this tension.  Much of the work of the group focuses on the thinking around  High Reliability Organizations, or systems that are designed to mitigate the possibility of failure to smaller and smaller probabilities through the use of clear procedures and intentional adaptations to changing circumstances.

At a surface review, the core concepts in the high reliability frame are somewhat antithetical to innovation.  The goal with a high reliability approach is to make sure that something works with high quality and low variability. When rigidly applied, there is little room in this high reliability frame for leaps of faith toward untested notions based on possible theories of action.

Innovation, on the other hand, requires such leaps of faith and a willing embrace of failure as an option.  For innovations to take off, organizations and the people in them take risks with no guarantee that things will work as anticipated or work at all.  Innovation calls on us to cast aside convention and the safety of reliability in exchange for the possibility of a breakthrough that can possibly change everything.

Frequently, we talk about “innovation” as the cure-all for our problems in education.  But what does that really mean and how would we go about it? Not all innovative ideas are good ideas and I would argue that it is educationally irresponsible to abandon evidence-based practices in favor of an untested “innovation” when the future of our children is the price of the wager.

As a comparison, do we really want “innovative” surgical procedures when we go under the knife?  How about stepping on an “innovative” aircraft piloted using “unconventional” techniques?  As the costs of failure grow, the choice of an innovative route must be made prudently and thoughtfully with a risk/reward mindset.

But, we also know innovation is so crucially important for continued system growth.   The spirit of innovation fuels our passion and curiosity.  Highly reliable or not, what a joyless existence it would be to spend a lifetime pulling the same handle on the assembly line.  Either in search of a better way or tapping into a very real human need for creativity, innovation is important.

So the answer must be in some kind of balance between these two important concepts of reliability and innovation.  Particularly when the stakes are high, we need established procedures and protocols so that we deliver high quality instruction with low variability and the probability of our system failing students is as low as we can possibly get it.  At the same time, we must intentionally foster  innovation.  We do this by supporting with resources, creating controlled environments where iteration and failure are tolerated so learning occurs, and by protecting the innovation from what can be the crushing and stifling weight of convention.  We also need processes where the new learning is incorporated into the standard operating procedures so that a cycle of learning and improvement takes shape within the context of a high reliability system.

Then there is also the special case of the disruptive innovation – the one that comes out of seemingly nowhere that people ignore, dismiss, or are just too busy running in the gerbil treadmill that they don’t even see it coming at all.  The disruptive innovation is going to take things over all on its own, creating a new paradigm and way of doing things.   On the other side of the disruptive innovation, high reliability concepts will again emerge to put in place standard procedures and protocols to make the new paradigm more stable and deliver with even higher quality and low variability.

So when it comes to the notions of reliability and innovation, it is so important that we not see these concepts as either/or but instead as a balanced set – where both are necessary in an ever progressing evolution toward a better education system.