Another dot in the blogosphere?

How different is different?

Posted on: November 20, 2014

Ask ten people to define “innovation” and you will likely get ten different definitions. Like creativity, innovation is difficult to define. But you know it when you see it.

I like to define innovation as “creativity in action”, but that does not make the definition any clearer.

Before I gave an interactive talk on educational innovation two days ago, the organizers mentioned how innovation could be defined as “doing different things” or “doing the same things differently”. They preferred the latter stance.

I get what they mean by doing the same things differently if by different they mean better, more efficient, or more effective.

But I wonder if they have considered how doing the same thing, however different, eventually leads back to the same thing.

Take flipped classrooms for example. Most teachers have the impression that flipping their classrooms is different because they must prepare videos (instead of teaching ‘live’) and that their students learn outside class. How exactly is this different?

What if the teachers are still teaching didactically? What if the videos are as long and boring as ‘live’ teaching? What if the videos are worse due to lack of interactivity?

In other words, what if teachers are merely changing the medium, but not the mindset and method?

Kids are already learning outside classrooms when they ask their parents at home, tuition teachers at a centre, or their peers on social media.

Doing things differently is a matter of degree. Just how different is your difference from the status quo? Is it a marginal shift or a paradigm shift? The latter, or doing very different things, are more likely to be attempts at being innovative.


Imagine a satellite orbiting a planet and how it is kept on its path due to the planet’s gravitational pull. As long as it orbits, it is maintaining its path and the status quo. Updating the satellite, adding new bits to it, or even replacing it are not really changing or innovating. There is no change to its purpose.

But imagine how this craft might break from orbit and be sent to intercept an asteroid or to explore space. It has a very different purpose and must be redesigned on the run, refitted to do this, or ideally be redesigned from the ground up.

It is a lot tougher to do the latter, just as it is a lot tougher to really innovate instead of just making marginal improvements. Innovation is a commitment to do something different, not just to do the same thing differently.

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