If all innovations in education are social innovations, is there any such thing as a social innovation in education?

This has nothing to do with the article. I just thought I needed a picture of our remarkable football team on the site.

This has nothing to do with the article. I just thought I needed a picture of our remarkable Icelandic football team on the site.

I’m involved in a European project that has to do with integrating social innovation in higher education so that learners understand how innovations can be made to benefit society (the website is forthcoming). Obviously, one of the things I’ve needed to do is to wrap my head around this concept of social innovation. I know that the basic idea is that an innovation is a social innovation when it provides some sort of benefit to society and not just the innovator. But, being an academic sort, I want a more formal definition; one that provides clear criteria that allow me to discern specifically when an innovation is a social innovation and when not. Also, being an educator, it would help to have examples relating to education. I found both of these on Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation website. But, I also discovered a problem.

When dealing with new concepts, I like to take a Popper-ian approach, i.e. to look for counterexamples that demonstrate the falsifiability of a claim involving the concept in question. So, if I’m trying to understand what a social innovation in education is, it helps to identify an innovation in education that is not a social innovation. What I have found, however, is that there is no such counterexample because, according to definitions of social innovation, all educational innovations are social innovations. Therefore, the concept of a social innovation in education is redundant and not necessary since it has no explanatory value beyond the concept of a simple innovation. In this article I’m going to explain how I have come to this conclusion and why not everyone will agree with me.

Here is an oft quoted definition of social innovation (one of the most commonly quoted as per Google Scholar) that appears on Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation (CSI) and was previously published in their journal, Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). A social innovation is:

“A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

We have some clear criteria here:

  1. The innovation is novel.
  2. The innovation is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions.
  3. The value created accrues primarily to society.

Some of these criteria apply generally to the innovation part. First: an innovation is novel for its context. That is, an innovation is a new process, product or idea for the situation into which it is introduced. This latter part is important because an innovation may be familiar in other contexts, but transferring it into another context is new. Second: an innovation makes something better. If we are worse off with the a new idea than we were before, then it’s not an innovation. The specific values that are stated in the definition above are somewhat tailored to social innovations, especially the last two. These speak to the expectation that a social innovation benefits society in some way. I’ve underlined “or” in the second criteria just to emphasize that an innovation need only meet one of these expectations, but can meet more. The third criteria is specific to social innovation, i.e. that the value created by the innovation accrues primarily to society rather than a business or individual. This does not preclude benefit to businesses or individuals but merely says that the primary intended outcome is some sort of social good.

What prompted me to write this article is that one of the illustrative examples of social innovation described on the CSI website is charter schools. This struck me as rather odd: how does the transfer of public funds to private parties for the purpose of providing educational opportunities qualify as a social innovation? The claim is that charter schools make it possible to address problems with mass education in new ways and thereby create value, i.e. better educated people, that accrues to society. I see a lot of problems with this example that go all the way down to the level of the definition of the problem, but I’m not going to get into that here. My task for now is simply to try to find examples that illustrate both sides of the equation, the non-social innovation in education and the social innovation in education.

Let’s consider an example. Say that I’ve started an innovative high school with a 6.5 year program, and, yes, this is meant to be somewhat problematic. Now, let’s apply the criteria:

  1. Novelty: I don’t know of anyone who has a 6.5 year high school program. The idea is new to my context. So, we’re good here.
  2. Makes something better…: Here, things get a little tricky. My 6.5 year high school program only qualifies as an innovation if it makes something better. In and of itself, the fact that my program is a whole 2.5 years longer than traditional high school programs, which is new as far as I know, does not qualify as an innovation unless it provides benefits that shorter programs do not. In fact, many would likely say that my program is worse than what already exists because it takes much longer and, thus, does not qualify as an innovation, social or not. So, for arguments sake, let’s say that my program provides better learning outcomes and is more flexible, providing easier access for some disadvantaged learners. That gives me a double-whammy: I score on effectiveness and justness.
  3. Social value: Here we have to pause because this depends entirely on how we view the products of an education…

There are two opposing views on the nature of the value of education; education is considered either (and these are mutually exclusive) a private or public good (I’ve described these concepts in previous posts and will not dwell on them here, click on the link for more. And, if you understand Icelandic, you can read my argument regarding education specifically as a private or public good here).

The first, education as a private good, sees education as a personal investment that primarily benefits the learner. According to this view, you (the learner) purchase a product (an education), consume it (attend school), and the outcome (your knowledge) is your’s to do with as you please. You may sell it to the highest bidder (get a good job), toss in a drawer and forget about it (get a lousy job) or give it away. Your choice.

The second, education as a public good, sees education as an investment that society makes for the benefit of the greater good. According to this view, the society as a whole benefits from educating its people, even when it’s not able to education them all to the same level. You benefit from having educated neighbors that are capable of making informed decisions at election time. You also benefit from having educated neighbors that will create and/or provide new services and products that you will consume. And so on…

I tend toward the latter. No, that’s an understatement. Let’s say, instead, that I am convinced that the latter is true. And I’m willing to argue that point with anyone who disagrees in the comment section below.

Now, back to our third criteria: Does my 6.5 year high school program create value that accrues to society? If education is a public good then, yes. My program provides better education for more learners and since any education benefits society as a whole, it is a value that accrues to society. If education is a private good then this will not necessarily be the case. But, as I’ve already mentioned, I am convinced that education is a public good. Therefore, the value created by my 6.5 year high school program does accrue to society. Thus, it is a social innovation, right?

Here is the problem with social innovations in education. To qualify as an innovation in education, a new idea needs to provide some educational benefits. That ultimately means that the innovation makes it possible to educate more people better. If education is, as I believe it to be, a public good, then the value created by education always accrues to society. Thus, any innovation in education qualifies as a social innovation. If all innovations in education are social innovations then there is no counterexample to prove that an innovation is indeed a social innovation nor is there any need for the distinction that the two categories, i.e. innovation vs. social innovation, is intended to make. The only way to make a case for a social innovation in education as being distinct from another type of innovation is if we accept that education is a private good that tends to accrue to the individual rather than society. That would potentially provide us with a counterexample, i.e. an example of an innovation in education that is not a social innovation.

So, why is this a problem? The problem is that there’s something wrong with the way that social innovation is being defined that can lead to at least a couple of things that I find concerning. First, we don’t want the concept of social innovation to become a means of glorifying whatever anyone wants to do, like I think has happened with the concept of corporate social responsibility. Many businesses have used the concept of corporate social responsibility to justify questionable practices. Like, “We’re not passing out free branded bicycle helmets to children for advertising, it’s corporate social responsibility.” If it’s social responsibility, why does it have to be branded? Something similar could happen with social innovation, especially when the innovation has something to do with education because any innovation that has some connection to education can be defined as a social innovation. For example, “Our new high risk, high interest student loans aren’t a moneymaking scheme, they’re a social innovation that can increase education levels in society.” Second, if any innovation in given context is a social innovation, it diminishes the power of the concept to promote positive change. If all innovations are, by definition, social innovations, there’s no incentive to change the way things are done.


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