What Do Automobile Engines and Educational Innovation Have in Common?

Recently, someone recommended that I read “Design Research for Sustained Innovation” by Carl Bereiter. Although, the article was published in 2002, I found it to be very relevant today. The premise of the article is that, “innovative practices seldom win out against those with a long evolutionary history” (p. 321). This is not only true in education, but in all aspects of human life. He makes a thought-provoking comparison between innovation in education and innovation in the automobile engine.

Pontiac Sunbird GT engineThe automobile engine has drawbacks related to the reciprocating piston that were recognized early. Bereiter explains that the a “better engine” called the Wankel engine was invented in the 1920s, but was not produced until 1957 despite being a promising improvement of the standard engine. After unsuccessful initial attempts to make commercial versions of the Wankel engine, the development was essentially scrapped (Hege, 2002 as cited in Bereiter, 2002). The moral of the story here is that it is hard to take down a giant. This does not only apply to automobiles because I can think of countless new and amazing tech innovations that are invented each year that never make their way into our homes and lives.

The giant in education is using a lecture followed by drill and practice. Countless attempts have been made to innovate in teaching and learning, but as with the Wankel engine, these attempts often do not go over well the first, second or even third time. This often leads to scrapping the idea. Bereiter argues that another reason that initially unsuccessful educational innovations are scrapped is because it is hard for society to see the improvements to society and life that could come out of these innovations (p.323). The outputs are not tangible (unlike the outputs of a new automobile engine or a new type of TV). This makes long-term innovation in education even more difficult to maintain.

He argues for educational research to take on a more sustained model. Research needs to follow what is common in medical science, where findings are fed back into further cycles of innovative design. This seems obvious, but often fails to occur. This is what is now referred to as Design-Based Research and is beginning to emerge. He even argues against using early adopters in this research because, “they are the quickest to seize on an innovation, but they are also the quickest to abandon it in favor of the next new thing” (p. 327).

Along with these thoughts there are many other great thought-provokers throughout this article, especially for those of us who work in educational innovation!


Bereiter, C. (2002). Design Research for Sustained Innovation. Cognitive Studies, Bulletin of the Japanese Cognitive Science Society, 9(3), 321-327.

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