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What is innovation in early education and why is it crucial?

February 23, 2018
Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones
Education Dive

The term “innovation” can conjure images of Silicon Valley, product pitches, dramatically new ideas for solving problems, and, ultimately, disrupting the status quo. Today, it’s a buzzword used in meeting after meeting — and in strategic plans to inspire change and improvement. It’s exciting for many reasons.

What can be more challenging, though, is to think about this notion of innovation in the context of fields where advancement largely depends upon building capacity among adults, to improve relationships and interactions among people. Take, for example, the field of early education, where improving teaching and care practices are a linchpin to improving quality. Given that only two in 10 children have access to a high-quality early education setting in the U.S., it is critical that the field acknowledge and address the need for new ideas and refreshing thinking. And yet, for a veteran early education leader, the word “innovation” might generate connotations quite different from inspiration and transformation; it might suggest the need yet again for something new and different — starting over, working harder and considering another set of models. Leaders at all levels can easily be caught between wanting to improve practice while avoiding initiative fatigue among their staff.

In this new era of innovation, however, it’s important not to equate innovation with invention, or something altogether new. The notion of innovation has of course, been around for decades—advancement has long been a function of breakthrough ideas applied to human service systems or practices. In fact, the definition of innovation, is two-fold: (1) to introduce something new; and (2) to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products.

When we look to innovate in sectors like early education, where the challenges and demands are consistent over time, and the systems and structures are hard to shift, we focus especially on this second part of the definition, understanding that innovation can take many forms, in addition to this idea of “out-of-the-box thinking.” For example, when educators and leaders have the time and support to notice, reflect, build knowledge and plan, there is opportunity to innovate in meaningful ways. Instead of invention, this process leads to finding something new within the known. This form of innovation — arising from genuine need and local stakeholders — fosters meaningful change rather than forcing a fad.