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Op Eds

Two Myths about Innovation

By Michelle E. Skinner

Ideas are the cornerstone of the American economy. When good ideas prevail, everyone wins. But the market for good ideas is saturated, and it’s hard to compete. There’s even a market of ideas for how to break into the market of ideas. As a new innovator myself, I’m a consumer in this market, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s broken: We constrain innovation by defining it narrowly.

The first constraint on innovation derives from how people think about non-profit versus for-profit enterprises. A few weeks ago, I attended a Harvard Innovation Lab event called “Writing a Great Challenge Proposal: Last Minute Advice from Former Finalists” and designed to help students prepare for the President’s Challenge. During the event, an entrepreneur asked the panel of experts how a non-profit could meet the i-Lab competition’s sustainability and profitability criteria. One panelist responded, “Don’t start a non-profit,” led the all-male panel in a round of laugher, and then added an unconvincing “just kidding.”

This was infuriating to me. I am working with a group of graduate students on a non-profit called CommonLit.org that creates free resources for middle school literacy teachers. The panelist’s comment embodied a perspective we have run into in subtler forms over the past five months (although i-Lab Managing Director Gordon Jones proved wonderfully supportive after we reached out to him). Many people in the innovation sphere think that the business world does innovation best. They also assume that the structures that work in the for-profit arena should be applied to everyone, in every sector. These people seem to believe that for an innovation to be truly innovative, its creators must figure out a way to effect positive change and turn a profit at the same time.

When we started CommonLit, we considered for-profit status, and we probably could have made a great deal of money by selling our product to school districts—the curriculum market is huge. But we decided that because our idea had the potential to dramatically improve education throughout the country, it would be unconscionable to put our product behind a paywall. That’s why we incorporated as a non-profit and made our resource free for everyone.

While I certainly believe that a company can do good and make money at the same time, I don’t believe that IRS filing status says anything about the innovative value of an idea. In fact, some of the most innovative ideas succeed precisely because their benefits are widely dispersed within society, rather than concentrated (think of the internet). The whole point of having tax-exempt non-profits is that some worthwhile endeavors can never pay for themselves, but we want them to exist anyway. Non-profits aren’t hobbled shadows of their profit-making counterparts; they’re a different animal altogether. The basis for starting a non-profit is the judgment that consumers can’t or shouldn’t pay for the product.

The second constraint on innovation derives from the assumption that “innovation” means “technological innovation.” This misconception leads to thinking that an idea is not innovative unless it incorporates new technology. In the education sector in which I work, such a notion encourages innovators to churn out mobile apps and e-learning software. To be clear, this technology can provide a wonderful resource for some purposes, like helping struggling students learn vocabulary or assisting teachers in tracking grades. But the education sector seems to be falling into the trap of viewing technology as a panacea for a flailing school system, and substituting technological capability for serious judgments about what is best for children.

This technological triumphalism too often masks the pernicious effects of the profitable commoditization of the minds of children. When innovators design products to appeal to a market of pre-teen consumers, the result is FlappyBird, not “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Gamification may be the future of the iTunes app store; it shouldn’t be the future of the American education system. Would you want Clippy from Microsoft Word teaching your child to read Shakespeare?

Innovations in the education sector should help teachers, not replace them. Technology now allows us to create learning software in which every piece of information students see is tailored to their individual interests by advanced algorithms. This is a good system for Netflix, because in my spare time I do want to watch foreign romantic dramas featuring strong female leads. But a great education does the opposite: It pushes learners toward challenging, novel, and sometimes uncomfortable concepts and encourages students to develop shared understandings with their classmates. Children in schools aren’t consumers—they need to be shaped. Teachers become teachers because they are interested in building communities and shaping minds. This is an awesome responsibility, and one innovators must shoulder as well.

My experience has taught me that by failing to recognize the limits of the profit motive and of technology, we steer innovators down a narrow path. This speaks to a larger problem: When we create a set of rules about how to change the world, we push innovators away from the truly creative ideas that challenge the status quo on a deep level.

Michelle E. Skinner, a masters candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the co-founder of education non-profit CommonLit.org.

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