What is Innovation? Part 1

Creative thinkers and thought leaders everywhere agree that innovation is important. But what is it? Across fields, industries, and organizations we can see innovation: a new product, a new app, a new way of doing something, an amazing new school (!). In order to harness the true power of innovation ourselves, we need to better understand what defines it and how to practice it in our everyday lives.

In Latin, the word is innovare — to make changes or do something differently. The translation captures the outcome of innovation, but it doesn’t describe how or why innovation happens. Industries and organizations do not make changes just to do something fun or interesting.

For this month’s School of Thought, we are trying innovation on for size by doing things a little differently ourselves. We are breaking our publication into three parts. Today, we move from inquiry to insight by sharing the results of a mini-rapid research pilot project we conducted to further our understanding. Next week, we will acquaint you with a few education rabble-rousers and their innovative models. And in our third installment of the Innovation series, we will move from research to practice with our contributions to a framework for incorporating innovation into everyday actions.

The first step was Inquiry. We virtually gathered and asked more than a dozen leaders across multiple fields their views on the definition, benefits, challenges, and methods behind innovation.

This led to Illumination. The common threads among their responses help us spot innovation before we see the outcome — in the motivation and the actions behind it. Here are a few compelling responses.

Innovation is...

“Seeing around corners, taking your team into the unknown and leading them through the uncertainty, the temporary insanity to dream up something the world has never seen and doing whatever it takes to build and test it, even if it seems impossible or you don’t know what will come of it.” Brendan Conlin, Vice President of Education and Workforce, Congreso de Latinos Unidos

“Innovation is improving or building on something to make it a better version of itself - more efficient, more equitable, more effective. Innovation should focus on the people behind the design process, helping them think differently about a challenge to achieve that "better version." Sarah Singer Quast, Founder, Evaluation and Capacity Building Partner

Innovation is not…

“It is not necessarily doing things in ways that are new in the world, but that they're new to one's context.” Nasha Taylor, Director of Community Engagement, PhillyCam

“Innovation is not all about big impact, it is sometimes small impact, too.” Zach Klehr, Financial Executive & Entrepreneurial Investor

“Innovation is not possible without equity.” Andrew Ravin, Founder, Workshop Independent School in Brooklyn

Innovation requires...

“Innovation itself should not be the goal — we need to focus on solving real problems.”  Andrew Nurkin, Free Library of Philadelphia      

“We shouldn’t ignore history of what works and what matters….but we cannot let old processes impede our ability to innovate.”  Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, CEO, Philadelphia Youth Network

“Rather (counter-intuitively) examine all of your industry’s norms and paradigms. The innovations lie within the cracks of all the myths that everyone in your industry believes but never questions. Yes, sometimes innovation is an epiphany, but most of the time it is finding the design or logic flaws in things your already doing that lead you to the major breakthroughs.”  Brendan Conlin, Vice President of Education and Workforce, Congreso de Latinos Unidos

“Have opportunities to be vulnerable with others, really be honest about the challenges of success rather than having to sell success; how do we stop elevating just "promising" and "best" practices but also "promising" failures; we need a lot of good information about implementation in order to really be able to do this.”  Sarah Singer Quast, Founder, Evaluation and Capacity Building Partner

“Everything you need to know is already right there in front of you, innovation is making the connections that no one else can see.” Andy Stutzman, Project Director, ExCITe Center at Drexel University

“We all need the freedom to take risks.” Andrew Ravin, founder, Workshop Independent School in Brooklyn

From here, we pull Insight. We synthesized the perspectives into themes. We share key takeaways to help us all unlock innovation’s potential.

Through observation of outcome alone, one might conclude there’s some kind of magic behind innovators’ actions. How do they find and implement the great ideas that change industries and institutions — even the world?    

LISTEN.  Give equity to different voices in the forming stage of innovation. Here’s an idea from the Urban Institute.

LEARN.  Seek creative solutions to real-world problems. Here’s a strategy for the classroom and beyond. And here’s a podcast full of such ideas.

RELAX.  Stop trying to be innovative! Here’s an idea for supporting a relaxed culture of creativity, and one that reminds us to listen to what already works.

PERSEVERE. Give space to failure and attention to process. Find perspective in failure as a path to success here.

IMAGINE.  Connect the unconnected dots. Opportunities for innovation are all around us. Support young innovators, listen to this podcast on learning about innovation and BE INSPIRED! 

We are appreciative of everyone who took the time to share their words and wisdom. We would love for YOU to be a part, if you aren’t already! Please click here to answer the five minute survey and add your voice to our evolving understanding.

And… stay tuned for our second issue on innovation next week, which will focus on examples and key themes in educational innovation! 

Revolution Recommends

This month our book recommendation is not a recent bestseller, but one from a few years ago that illustrates a version of innovation that resonates.  

The key messages in Lean Startup by Eric Ries are applicable across contexts. Though conceptualized for business development, fast cycle learning and iteration over perfection resonates in almost all fields and settings. Lean Startup asks us all to focus on people, on understanding challenges and solving real world problems. Do field research, define a problem, build ideas and prototypes quickly (called MVPs, minimum viable products), test things out, and validate models we use and sometimes do not question. Build, measure, and learn — and do it all again. YES!

And check out this article about how our recommended book is changing high school education. You’ll be inspired!

Revolution School is a new high school in Philadelphia where students co-create their unique academic journey. To inspire curiosity and open the world to possibility, we break down the walls between learning and life. We welcome our founding class in September 2019.


Revolution School of Thought started as a project in 2017 and is now the center of our effort to lead with an active voice and shape the outlook for education. School of Thought allows us to innovate through convening, collaboration, and research — in theory and practice!

Founder: Gina Moore
Lead Author: Dr. Jane Shore
Head of Mission/CEO: Thomas McManus
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