Four pillars for a culture of innovation in education

This is a brief overview of innovation in education that expands on a single slide in today's presentation. We're going to look at four pillars to build a culture of innovation: Strategy, Structure, Capabilities and Methodologies.


Why innovate?

Innovation in education is crucial because new technologies and societal changes are transforming how we live and learn. Schools face the challenge of incorporating these advancements while maintaining smooth daily operations. The goal is to ensure that students get the best opportunities to succeed in the modern world and that schools remain great places to learn and work. This requires a thoughtful balance between introducing new ideas and staying true to our core educational values and priorities.

By focusing on Strategy, Structure, Capabilities, and Methodologies, we can build a strong foundation for innovation, making it easier to integrate new approaches and technologies in a way that truly benefits students and teachers alike. Let's explore each of these pillars in more detail.


In education, our strategy must always be guided by our mission and values. These foundational elements shape our vision and provide direction for our actions. An effective innovation strategy should balance optimising current processes with exploring new approaches. This dual focus ensures that we maintain excellence in our existing operations while continuously seeking opportunities for improvement and transformation.

Simplified Business R&D Approach

Borrowing from the business R&D model, we can structure our innovation efforts around two main activities:

  1. Optimising Current Processes: Enhancing existing systems and practices to improve efficiency and outcomes. This might involve integrating new technologies into the classroom, refining administrative processes, or improving teacher professional development programs.

  2. Exploring New Approaches: Investigating and experimenting with novel ideas and methods to address emerging challenges and opportunities. This could include piloting new teaching methodologies, developing innovative student engagement strategies, or adopting cutting-edge educational technologies.

Intensity vs. Capabilities Matrix

We can adapt the intensity vs. capabilities matrix to fit the educational context. This matrix helps us assess the level of innovation intensity required against our current capabilities, guiding strategic decisions on where to focus our efforts.

  1. Incremental Innovation: Low intensity, utilising existing capabilities. Examples include minor curriculum adjustments or slight improvements in classroom technology use.

  2. Disruptive Innovation: High intensity, challenging current capabilities. This involves radical changes such as implementing entirely new teaching models or adopting revolutionary technologies like AI-driven personalised learning tools.

  3. Sustaining Innovation: Moderate intensity, building on existing capabilities. This includes initiatives that enhance current practices without fundamentally changing them, such as upgrading digital resources or improving school infrastructure.

  4. Transformative Innovation: High intensity, requiring new capabilities. These are strategic, large-scale changes that transform the educational landscape, like introducing new school governance models or creating comprehensive online learning platforms.

Four Types of Innovation by Greg Satell (Adapted for Education)

Greg Satell's framework identifies four types of innovation, which we can tailor to the educational setting:

  1. Basic Research: Fundamental exploration to gain new knowledge. In education, this could mean academic research into learning sciences or developmental psychology.

  2. Breakthrough Innovation: Novel solutions that address significant challenges. For instance, developing new educational technologies or pioneering inclusive teaching practices.

  3. Sustaining Innovation: Enhancements to existing products or processes. Examples include curriculum revisions to incorporate the latest educational research or iterative improvements in school management systems.

  4. Disruptive Innovation: Innovations that create new markets or value networks. In education, this might involve the adoption of entirely new schooling models, like micro-schools or competency-based education.


  1. Innovator's DNA: Dyer, J. H., Gregersen, H. B., & Christensen, C. M. (2011). The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Harvard Business Review Press.

  2. Greg Satell's Four Types of Innovation: Satell, G. (2017). Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age. McGraw-Hill Education.

  3. Lean Methodology: Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Publishing.

  4. Design Thinking: Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Harper Business.

By aligning our innovation strategy with our mission and values, and by leveraging these frameworks and methodologies, we can create a dynamic and resilient educational environment that continuously adapts and improves to meet the needs of our students and community.


Creating a structure that supports innovation within a schooling system or individual school is crucial. Here are some effective approaches to structuring innovation efforts.

Ambidextrous Innovation

Ambidextrous innovation involves creating two distinct engines within the school system: the operational engine and the innovation engine.

  • Operational Engine: This engine focuses on the day-to-day functioning of the school, ensuring that educational delivery is efficient and effective.
  • Innovation Engine: This separate engine is dedicated to exploring new ideas and implementing innovative practices without disrupting regular operations. It allows for dedicated resources and attention to be given to innovation initiatives.

Line and Staff Approach (Distributed Innovation)

In a distributed innovation model, innovation is not confined to a single department or team. Instead, it occurs across all areas of the school, with teachers and staff sharing the responsibility.

  • Teachers and Staff as Innovators: Everyone within the school is encouraged to innovate within their roles. Teachers experiment with new teaching methods, while administrative staff look for ways to streamline operations.
  • Scaling Successful Innovations: Innovations that prove successful are then shared and scaled across grades, schools, or entire school systems. This approach ensures that good ideas are spread and adopted widely.


While sometimes slower and less impactful, committees can be a viable option for schools with limited resources.

  • Innovation Committees: These groups are formed with representatives from various parts of the school. They meet regularly to discuss, plan, and implement innovative projects.
  • Resource Allocation: Committees help ensure that limited resources are used effectively and that innovation efforts align with the school's overall strategy and priorities.

Practical Implementation

  1. Ambidextrous Innovation: Establish dedicated innovation teams or labs that focus on research and development of new educational approaches. Provide them with the autonomy and resources needed to experiment and innovate without the constraints of everyday operations.
  2. Distributed Innovation: Encourage a culture where all staff members are involved in innovation. Provide professional development and create platforms for sharing best practices. Implement systems for recognising and rewarding innovative contributions from all staff members.
  3. Committees: Form innovation committees that include diverse members from different parts of the school. Ensure these committees have clear goals, timelines, and support from leadership to drive meaningful change.

By adopting a structure that supports innovation through ambidextrous models, distributed efforts, and strategic use of committees, schools can effectively foster a culture of continuous improvement and creativity. This structured approach ensures that innovation is not an isolated effort but a core part of the school's functioning and growth.


To foster a culture of innovation, it's crucial to develop the right capabilities within our educational community. A useful framework for this is the Innovator's DNA model, which identifies five key skills that drive innovative thinking: Associating, Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting.

  1. Associating: The ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas to generate new concepts.
  2. Questioning: The habit of asking probing questions to understand deeper insights.
  3. Observing: Noticing the small details in everyday experiences that can lead to big ideas.
  4. Networking: Interacting with people from different backgrounds to gain new perspectives.
  5. Experimenting: The willingness to try new things and learn from failures.

These discovery behaviours, along with the cognitive process of associational thinking (the fifth discovery skill), are essential for generating creative ideas. These ideas are already embedded throughout our curriculum as we encourage students to think critically, ask questions, observe their environment, collaborate with others, and experiment with new solutions. We teach our students these skills because they are not only vital for their personal development but also for their future success in an ever-changing world.

To apply these skills to leadership at all levels in education—from the classroom to the boardroom—we need to:

  • Encourage Leaders to Model These Behaviours: Leaders should exemplify associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting in their everyday roles. This sets a precedent and creates an environment where innovation is valued and pursued.
  • Provide Professional Development: Regular training and workshops can help educators and administrators develop and refine these skills, enabling them to lead by example and foster an innovative culture.
  • Identify and Empower Innovators: By recognising individuals who excel in these discovery behaviours, we can empower them to take on more responsibility for driving innovation within our organisations. These individuals can serve as champions of change, helping to distribute the workload and inspire others.

By integrating the Innovator's DNA into our leadership practices, we can ensure that the capabilities needed for innovation are not just taught to students but are actively practiced and valued at all levels of our educational system. This approach helps create a dynamic, forward-thinking environment that can effectively respond to the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.

Dyer, J., Gregersen, H.B. and Christensen, C.M. (2011) The innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.


By understanding and applying these methodologies, educational leaders can create a robust framework for innovation. Each approach has its strengths and best use cases, and selecting the right one for a given project can significantly enhance the effectiveness and impact of new initiatives.


Human-Centred Design (Design Thinking)

Design thinking is an excellent starting point for schools and educational organisations. It focuses on understanding the needs of students, teachers, and the broader community to develop effective solutions. Many schools already have individuals trained in this methodology who can guide their colleagues. Design thinking encourages empathy, ideation, prototyping, and testing, ensuring that innovations are practical and user-focused.



Lean methodology is another valuable approach, especially for its emphasis on moving from build to measure to learn. This cycle ensures that new technologies and methods are continuously evaluated and improved. In education, Lean helps us to implement changes more effectively by encouraging constant feedback and adjustment.



The Waterfall model is a linear and sequential approach. It's best used for projects with clearly defined requirements that are unlikely to change. In education, it can be useful for curriculum development or administrative processes where stages must be completed in order.

Scientific Method

The scientific method involves making observations, forming a hypothesis, conducting experiments, and analyzing the results. This methodology is particularly effective for educational research and for piloting new programs or technologies in a controlled, measurable way.


Agile methodology promotes iterative development, collaboration, and flexibility. It’s well-suited for projects that require adaptability and frequent feedback. In education, Agile can be used for developing new learning tools or curriculum updates, allowing for regular adjustments based on teacher and student input.

Reverse Innovation

Reverse innovation involves taking solutions developed in lower-cost or resource-limited settings and adapting them for use in more developed contexts. This approach can bring fresh perspectives and cost-effective solutions to educational challenges. For example, innovative teaching methods developed in under-resourced schools could be adapted to enhance teaching in more affluent areas.

Open Innovation

Open innovation encourages the use of external as well as internal ideas to advance technology and product development. In education, this can mean collaborating with other schools, universities, businesses, and the community to co-create new solutions. This approach leverages diverse expertise and resources, fostering a richer environment for innovation.

Business Model Innovation

Business model innovation involves rethinking how an organisation creates, delivers, and captures value. In the educational context, this could mean developing new ways of delivering education, such as blended learning models or new funding strategies. This approach can help educational institutions remain sustainable and adaptable in changing times.

In conclusion

Creating a culture of innovation in education is essential for preparing students to thrive in a rapidly changing world. By focusing on the four pillars—Strategy, Structure, Capabilities, and Methods—we can build a robust foundation for continuous improvement and transformative change.

By building on these four pillars, we can create a dynamic and forward-thinking educational environment that not only adapts to change but actively drives it. This comprehensive approach ensures that innovation is not just an occasional effort but a continuous, integral part of our educational system, ultimately benefiting students, educators, and the broader community.