Innovation is… : stretching a metaphor and making it work

Innovation is the act of growing an idea. It is the act of growing an idea to all the things you think it can be and all the things never dreamed it could be.

Innovation is a process; a process in which an idea grows into fruition. I like the fact that innovation reminds me of cultivation and fruition of fruit. I also like to stretch metaphors as far as they can go until they break down, so let’s see how far this one takes us.


If I were given a seed, I would have a general idea of how to grow it. A little soil, water, and sunlight should do the trick. This is where the innovation has to kick in. As my seed grows, or doesn’t, I must make many choices along the way. If it is not growing the way I expected, I need to adjust my process. More or less water, different soil, more or less sunlight. If all goes well, I end up with a beautiful flower, a tasty fruit or vegetable, and more seeds to grow in the future. In reality, the success of my seed may not be completely in my control – too much rain, not enough rain; too much heat, not enough heat; poor soil, the wrong minerals in the soil.

As an educator, I will only speak to innovation in this realm as it relates to the metaphor. Every teacher or administrator has an idea, their seed. As we gain more experience, we develop the knowledge of how to grow that idea, so we give it the time, space, and resources we expect that it needs to grow. Along the way, we see that adjustments need to be made, so we make them – asking for help from a colleague, for support from a supervisor, feedback from our students. And we hope that our idea blossoms into a successful lesson, unit, book club, community event, whatever we expected it to be.

In cultivation, however, there are many possibilities, of which two stand out to me. The inevitable failure and the fortunate ________.

The withering flower, or sickly vegetable are inevitable in any garden, particularly if you are growing multiple plants. Among a number of plants, however, a gardener won’t be deterred by a single mishap. They will simply remove the weak plant, add it to the compost and return to their more successful seeds. In contrast, if you only plant one seed, the growth of that seed can make or break its owner. The failure of that seed may mean the owner takes a long break from a similar attempt. The success of that seed may spark a lifetime of cultivation.

I can’t speak to innovation or the cultivation of ideas in other fields, but in education, it can sometimes feel like, instead of growing an entire garden, we are only given the opportunity to cultivate one idea. Our future as innovative educators relies on the success of that one idea. The problem is that novice educators, like novice gardeners, are more likely to fail. And, when that idea inevitably fails, they are more likely to resist the urge to innovate in the future. Without the guidance of others, without the continued support of our colleagues and administrators, budding innovative educators die off like their withering flowers.

The other possibility is that of endless growth. I am reminded of one of my favorite picture books, Weslandia, by Paul Fleischmann (author) and Kevin Hawkes (illustrator). A young boy plants a crop that grows into something he has never seen before. With the success of his unique garden, he creates clothes, tools, games, products to sell, a number system, and a language based on these giant plants. With the slightest encouragement and opportunity, innovation became endless.

Another of my favorite books, The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds (in his amazing Creatrilogy), explores this same concept of encouragement and opportunity leading to unforeseen innovation.

I can’t say that I was as successful as Wesley in Weslandia, maybe closer to Vashti in The Dot, but what makes me continue to feel successful as an educator is that a few of my ideas have come to fruition. I was given support when my ideas failed, encouragement when they showed glimpses of promise, validation when they were successful, and always an opportunity to continue innovating.

This blog and the metaphor started out with a little idea and a sense of what it could be. With a little soil, water, and sunlight, it grew into something more than I thought it could be. It is far from perfect, or probably even that good, but I’m glad that I stretched it out as far as I could. It also gives me the motivation to try this more often in the future.

I started my career as an educator with ideas about what I could be. Because I have been fortunate enough to work in a place that supported and encouraged my growth, I have done things in my classroom that didn’t even know were possible. Because I feel positively about so many of my experiences as an educator I am encouraged to keep going, keep stretching further.

Innovation isn’t an individual with an idea. Innovation isn’t prescribed or forced. Innovation often starts with an individual and an idea, but it demands a whole lot more. It demands time and space, support, encouragement, persistence, commitment, and sometimes blind faith in yourself and the idea.

Innovation is a process in which an idea is grown, often from the vision of one person, through the love and care of many, into something that reaches the boundaries of our imagination, and hopefully further.

Innovation needs to be supported in schools, because, as much as we need citizens who know how to read, write, and do arithmetic, our world needs innovators. It always has and it always will. If we want our children to innovate, then they should be surrounded by adults who innovate, children who innovate, a culture of innovation. Creating that culture, of course, will take some innovation.



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