The Constraints of Education Innovation

Writing popular fiction is an interesting constraint exercise. A successful writer of the genre must adhere to its explicit rules and established conventions while, at the same time, finding new ways to arrange or present the genre’s elements.

The same thing is true when it comes to innovation in education these days. Like popular fiction, traditional education in the U.S. — both K-12 and higher education — has an established set of rules and conventions that constrain the designs and actions of its creators/practitioners as they look to innovate.

In fact, there are really just four levers available to pull when it comes to innovating in traditional education — Curriculum, Instruction, Technology, and Community. If you think of textbooks as a kind of technology, we’ve actually been using these same flour levers for more than 200 years.*

Before the advent of student computers and the Internet, the purpose of each of these levers remained fairly static and separated. Core subject matter, or Curriculum, was determined by educational authorities, and instructors (teachers, professors, etc.) were responsible for delivering and measuring student learning. Schools and colleges, through their classrooms and organizations, provided structures for various types of learning communities. Technology was used primarily as an extension of either curriculum (a textbook) or instruction (overhead projectors and PowerPoint presentations).

While traditional education today has the same constraining levers when it comes to learning design and innovation, technological developments and the emergence of online learning have increased the scope of these levers and blurred the lines between them.

Curriculum (learning content) — In the 21st century, Curriculum has expanded to new digital formats and is accessible via a variety of new channels. modes of access. In addition, the scope of Curriculum has expanded to io incorporate many of the activities that were formerly limited to the domain of Instruction.

Instruction — Instruction remains a critical component of the education ecosystem but as important as ever but, like Curriculum, its scope and sub-components have evolved significantly. Instruction in the 21st century is increasingly multi-layered and is no longer the exclusive domain of formal instructors. Today, Instruction includes instructional elements and guidance integrated into the Curriculum and is supported by instructional coaches and tutors (human and AI), and student peers.

Technology — Without a doubt, technology is the component of the education ecosystem that has undergone the most change over the last three or four decades. It has facilitated the emergence of online learning and changed our thinking about effective teaching and learning strategies in face-to-face instruction. In general, it has shifted the “force” of learning from centripetal to centrifugal.

Community — Our notion of learning communities has also changed dramatically in recent decades, supported in part by new technology. Community today is less constrained by physical proximity and is no longer limited to the class cohort. As a result, Community represents a broader and more powerful component within the education ecosystem.

Why It Matters

These four levers are important to remember in any conversation about innovation in education. 

First, they are important because when asked to develop a new innovative product or program, they are the only levers we can manipulate. Innovation is inevitably constrained to these four limited/limiting conventions of the education ecosystem —  Curriculum, Instruction, Technology, and Community.

But these four levers not only comprise the full inventory of conventions/tools we have at our disposal for innovation in education. We are also required to utilize and maximize all four in any product/program innovation. In other words, Curriculum, Instruction, Technology, and Community are all we have to work with and we are further restrained by the requirement to incorporate all of them in our products/programs.

If everyone has access to the same four components and is required to incorporate all four into any program or product, how do/can we innovate and differentiate our work from that of others? 

The answer for innovation in education is the same as it is for writers of popular fiction. While adhering to the explicit rules and established conventions of traditional education, we must find new ways to arrange or present the genre’s elements.

In 2022, this means being less enthusiastic about hyped technologies like blockchain, virtual or augmented reality (VR/AR), and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and thinking more creatively about how to integrate, prioritize, and present all four of the only components available to us in education.

As I look at the GSV EdTech 150 list, it’s not hard to see some educational technology ventures that are valued not on their innovation but rather on marketing hype that has nothing to do with innovating or improving education and learning. My guess is that most of these pretenders have taken advantage of the COVID-19 disruption to promote “innovation” that won’t work in or benefit the education ecosystem. Fortunately (for educators and learners, not investors), these companies will likely cycle out of public consciousness in another year or two.


*Example of early textbooks in the U.S. education system include the New England Primer and, later, McGuffey Readers.