Chimps and Ants: The Politics of Innovation

Innovation is defined as making changes in something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products. The very definition of innovation allows us to glean what problems an innovator might encounter as they strive to do things differently.

Trying to change the way things have always been done provides would-be innovators first of all with a political challenge, for persuading colleagues that change is both necessary and beneficial is no easy task.

Every single educational institution is governed and shaped by macro- and micro-politics. Innovators will find hurdles in both spheres, but it is the micro-politicking that takes place in the staff room, among colleagues, that worries me the most.

Simon Baddeley and Kim Jones very effectively described political behaviour within organisations using their Owl, Fox, Donkey and Sheep model. It is really difficult to read their evocative descriptions and not come away having mentally ascribed each of your colleagues to one of their zoological categories. You should try it, if only for fun.

However, when it comes to innovation, I would describe just two different categories of people: Chimps and Ants.

I am a Chimp

Woodrow Wilson

Chimps are innovators by nature. Always tinkering with sticks and stones trying figure out new and better ways to get to those tasty termites… figuratively speaking, of course.

Chimps are those teachers committed to their jobs and their schools, permanently striving to develop themselves professionally for the benefit of their pupils. Teaching is their vocation: Chimps live to teach.

Chimps are likely to discuss lesson strategies and outcomes at break with colleagues or online and ask themselves searching questions about the effectiveness of their practice.

Chimps are likely to partner with other teachers and engage in mutually beneficial lesson observations and to actively seek student feedback to inform their future lesson planning.

Chimps are not afraid to try to put new thinking into practice. Chimps are not afraid of failure, they see it as a learning opportunity.

I am an Ant

Walter Lippman

Ants work hard to preserve the status quo react adversely when their single files are disrupted by stick-wielding chimps… again, figuratively speaking.

Ants are those teachers who teach for a living and see professional development as a chore and another hoop to jump through.

Ants are as likely to ridicule and taunt Chimps at break as they are likely to deride and blame their own students for their inability to do well in their subjects.

Ants prefer to do things the old-fashioned way and rely on experience, not as the seed of innovation, but rather as the justification for their own indolence.

Ants loathe innovation because changing the way you do things is too much effort. Ants fear being derided and ridiculed by other Ants, they fear failure.


Think you’re more of a Chimp? Think I don’t like Ants? Think again. We can all be Chimps or Ants at different times, depending on our circumstances. We tend to be Chimp-like when it comes to our own innovative ideas, but Ant-like when considering the ideas of others.

Many thanks to Ryan Berry for his fantastic photo titled New Ideas Are… Encouraged


Submit a Comment
  1. Provocative, as always Jose, and a little frightening to some. I spy some colleagues who would love to be chimps, but are too concerned about the fallout – quite often this applies to some of the SMG! The tired and overused, yet still true, adage is that if you always do what you’ve always done… you’ll always get what you’ve always got. I just know that I love to be virtually surrounded by the #mfltwitterati, forever pushing boundaries and searching for innovative ways to keep students engaged. Thank you.

    1. This post was prompted by the reading of some notes I took in a CPD event a few months ago. It was always meant to be a little provocative – you know me! – but I see it more as a self reflective piece: just a reminder of how easy it is to be an Ant but how rewarding it is to be a Chimp. We have all, at some point, been one or the other.

      Many thanks for your comment.

  2. This seems like a fundamentally silly dichotomy.  Yes, chimps are experimenters and, ooh, look, they evolved into humans, but only because environmental pressures favoured those animals that displayed certain traits.  Ants, on the other hand, have evolved into creatures that are extraordinarily co-operative, and capable of achieving together infinitely more than any single member of the group could ever hope to.  Yes, they may make nice metaphors for Borg drones, et al, but perhaps teachers would do well to learn from ants: experiment, test, and, based on evidence, decide on the most effective course of action.

  3. Jose
    I must have missed this article earlier in the week.  I am a Chimp and I make no bones about it.  Ants don’t always like Chimps but it has never and will never stop me being one.  Whatsomore, it definitely won’t stop me from encouraging my vibrant, talented and super enthusiastic trainee MFL teachers to embrace change and push boundaries and self reflect, and in turn, aspire to be chimps themselves…

    I will be passing the link onto them.
    Great work, as always.

    Suzi Bewell
    PGCE MFL Course Leader, University of York

Your feedback and comments are very welcome