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What do you mean “innovate”?


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What do you mean “innovate”?

Brian Sowards

“Innovation” is a word we hear often today in education, but what does it actually mean?

Travel back in time with me to the early 1950s, where an eager graduate student is doggedly following around wheat farmers in the state of Iowa. The United States government was facing a significant dilemma for the first time, one that is now familiar to us all:

Researchers at local universities had figured out how to make incredible improvements to farming methods, but farmers weren’t willing to try them.

That grad student was determined to discover the reason. Dr. Everett Rodgers would eventually succeed and become the father of the science of innovation.

His groundbreaking discovery?

People don’t trust you to tell them what will work in their life unless you are living it yourself.

Well, most people. In his words:

What is not well understood is that ideas are not adopted because they are better. They are adopted because of social dynamics…

Diffusions of Innovation

In any group there are always a few experimenters, people will try just about anything. Most of those experiments don’t work. But when they do, these experimenters would show them off to their peers. He named these experimenters “Early Adopters.” Once an Early Adopter proved something worked almost everyone else would adopt it over time.

To Dr. Rodgers the Early Adopters were the Innovators - the people actually changed the behavior of the group. He later revised his theory to define Innovators as the people who tried ideas first.

In education we often talk about improving performance, looking for ideas that are better.

Yet when it comes to trying new ideas in a school, especially if it involves technology, almost everyone is affected: teachers, administrators, leaders, parents and students.

Faculty must think holistically about the school’s curriculum and the tools they use in the classroom. While every school manages this need differently, the culture of academia is one of deference - we don’t want to impose our ideas on someone else’s classroom.

This leads to a dilemma for Innovators. They want to experiment, but the path to implementation is uncertain.

  • Can they just try something on their own?

  • Should everyone else get a vote?

  • What if another faculty member doesn’t feel like it will work in their classroom?

In twenty years of working with educators and technology what I’ve observed is that they typically land on a solution that looks something like this:

  1. Visit with a vendor

  2. Test out a product personally

  3. Bring in leadership for buy-in

  4. Bring together the faculty for a presentation

  5. If everyone is ok with it, bring it into the classroom

Every step here makes good sense, but the process breaks down on step 4.

When we bring the entire faculty in to evaluate a new idea they naturally do so from whether or not they would want to use it in their own classroom. Inevitably at least one faculty member will not be sure it is worth their time or meet a need that they have.

While many Innovators persist through this pushback and eventually get a pilot it creates unnecessary friction.

The good news is that there is a proven process for adopting new ideas that removes that friction. Dr. Rodgers put the adoption process into a graph, one we can all recognize today:

His point in making this graph was that you can’t expect the whole group to want to try something upfront. In fact, most of the group won’t try something until someone else has proven it.

That’s why it’s important for school leaders and faculty to make a choice upfront on whether or not they will support Innovators in running experiments - regardless of whether or not it would make sense for the whole school to sign up.

Every vendor has a story about how their product has worked great at another school. Yet most schools have learned that they need to test every product for themselves. Because the reality is that not every experiment will succeed. That’s too much change for an entire school to manage.

When we empower the Innovators at our school to run experiments, we empower everyone, including the faculty who are willing to try a new idea once someone else in the school has proven that it works.

Adopting new ideas takes time. Some find it harder than others to adopt new ideas and that difficulty deserves our respect as a community.

This is perhaps the point I most admire about Dr. Rodgers. While we glorify the Innovators today in education, he was quick to point out that the resistance of the group to change prevents a lot of wasted energy. All of us have a valuable role in the path to discovering and testing new ideas.

By empowering our Innovators to run experiments, we give them the opportunity to demonstrate the leadership potential they possess. We also show the respect every teacher deserves - that changes to their classroom should be made, to the greatest extent possible, when it makes sense to them to do it.