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How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

Call for innovative society raises important questions about education

Classroom practices should change to encourage inquiry and innovation, the author writes.

It’s wonderful to hear President Obama call for a nationwide emphasis on innovation, but it raises an interesting challenge: Where will all those innovators come from? Currently, we are chasing testable competency in academic core skills. It is quite a different thing to try to educate future innovators. We don’t test for that.

An innovation curriculum requires an emphasis on what I am going to call, for lack of a preexisting term, the Five I’s: Imagination, Inquiry, Invention, Implementation, and Initiative (the latter being a foundational trait that enables the other four). Here is my take on how to teach each of the Five I’s of innovation in our schools.

Imagination

Day-dreaming is discouraged in most classrooms. If a student focuses on anything except the assignment or the teacher, it is a problem that needs to be fixed. Enter discipline. Exit imagination. There was, traditionally, a peripheral home for imagination in our schools in the ancillary arts instruction that has now fallen to the budget axe in so many schools. How can we teach imagination and nurture the imaginative and the innovators?

For starters, educators must learn the skills of creative expression. We are talking about a set of practices, not some magical thing that just happens without conscious effort. I spend a lot of time designing training programs and writing how-to guides to help adults engage their imaginations with their work. It’s a relatively simple matter for people like me who work in the field (and there are many of us) to design age-appropriate learning activities aimed at training the imagination. Nobody asks us to help out, so we don’t. It’s probably time to change that tradition. Combining creativity and invention experts with master teachers might produce some rapid breakthroughs in curriculum design.

Imagination needs fuel, and the best fuel comes from bridging between apparently diverse or unrelated ideas, skill-sets, or objects. Many–in fact, most–inventions are actually innovative combinations. To make such innovative combinations, the inventor must know about more than one domain. In fact, I would hazard the claim that all leading innovators share one interesting characteristic: they gained, early in life, a fair amount of mastery in at least two separate domains or fields. This dual focus gave them rich opportunities for creative combinations and fueled them to imagine outside of the two boxes in which they were trained. We need to stimulate imagination by encouraging students to master, say, an instrument plus a science, or any other such combination of skills. (And that, by the way, is I believe the strongest argument for why we must bring the arts back into our schools.)

Inquiry

Who asks the questions in classrooms today? If the teacher asks, or even frames, most of the questions, then our educational approach discourages inquiry and innovators. It’s pretty clear that teaching people to focus on the right answer has the unintended consequence of reducing their tendency to inquire broadly and curiously about things. Research and exploration are essential innovative behaviors. Students need to ask their own questions and then poke around in pursuit of possible answers. There has been a reduction, I think, in the amount of curious research students do, rather than an increase. And no, looking up an answer on Wikipedia does not qualify!

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Comments:

  1. Jessica Reeves

    February 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I most certainly think that the “How” is the most important…we should all realize the “Why” of teaching creatively to lead to innovation. I have been working on a blog on this exact subject for a week…there are things we can do to help in teaching students to innovate.

    One thing I love to do is set out a pile of random material and have groups create something of value out of the material. They then write a summary (I am a Language Arts teacher for goodness sake=) about their journey to innovation. They can market their product, create advertisements, write business plans, etc. (Material can be anything from a few legos and lincoln logs, to ribbon and glue.

    With a little forethought on the part of the teacher, innovation can be taught.

    http://msjessicareeves.edublogs.org

  2. Jessica Reeves

    February 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I most certainly think that the “How” is the most important…we should all realize the “Why” of teaching creatively to lead to innovation. I have been working on a blog on this exact subject for a week…there are things we can do to help in teaching students to innovate.

    One thing I love to do is set out a pile of random material and have groups create something of value out of the material. They then write a summary (I am a Language Arts teacher for goodness sake=) about their journey to innovation. They can market their product, create advertisements, write business plans, etc. (Material can be anything from a few legos and lincoln logs, to ribbon and glue.

    With a little forethought on the part of the teacher, innovation can be taught.

    http://msjessicareeves.edublogs.org

  3. jcbjr

    February 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t believe that you can teach innovation and I’m not even sure you can teach most anything – in terms of education, our efforts are really to facilitate learning.

    In terms of innovation, that has to be developed by the learner with the teacher really important to help provide the environment that will promote innovation. Having lots of open-ended inquiries [mentioned in the article] as well as student-controlled problem definition and follow-through is critical to innovation. Another important characteristic is that the students know that failure is not fatal, that it is a natural occurance when taking risks associating with innovation.

    All the characteristics are important that are listed. It’s the notion of our being able to “teach” innovation that leads I would suggest many fatal approaches to student innovation.

  4. jcbjr

    February 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t believe that you can teach innovation and I’m not even sure you can teach most anything – in terms of education, our efforts are really to facilitate learning.

    In terms of innovation, that has to be developed by the learner with the teacher really important to help provide the environment that will promote innovation. Having lots of open-ended inquiries [mentioned in the article] as well as student-controlled problem definition and follow-through is critical to innovation. Another important characteristic is that the students know that failure is not fatal, that it is a natural occurance when taking risks associating with innovation.

    All the characteristics are important that are listed. It’s the notion of our being able to “teach” innovation that leads I would suggest many fatal approaches to student innovation.

  5. kcorner

    February 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    It seems to me that our present political climate and systems of accountability are directly conflicted with the conceptualization of innovation presented in this article. There is no doubt in my mind that the success of our citizenry in work and life will be dependent on creating possibilities, critically evaluating possibilities, and implementing possibilities with the greatest potential value. Indeed, all of us must be prepared to think as the innovators of the future.

    Our present models of curriculum and instruction are ill equipped to confront this necessity. The educators of the future must be able to design learning that explicitly allows students to take away the patterns of thinking and vital behaviors that will serve them outside the walls of the school and in the world 20 years from today. Promoting innovative thinking by design is one is a powerful strategy provided it can be broken down into doable steps by the teachers of today.

  6. kcorner

    February 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    It seems to me that our present political climate and systems of accountability are directly conflicted with the conceptualization of innovation presented in this article. There is no doubt in my mind that the success of our citizenry in work and life will be dependent on creating possibilities, critically evaluating possibilities, and implementing possibilities with the greatest potential value. Indeed, all of us must be prepared to think as the innovators of the future.

    Our present models of curriculum and instruction are ill equipped to confront this necessity. The educators of the future must be able to design learning that explicitly allows students to take away the patterns of thinking and vital behaviors that will serve them outside the walls of the school and in the world 20 years from today. Promoting innovative thinking by design is one is a powerful strategy provided it can be broken down into doable steps by the teachers of today.

  7. wilkcd

    February 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    As a mathematics teacher, I often teach process, however I also remind students that there are many different ways to solve a problem, not just the way I am demonstrating.

    Outside of, but still associated with, the classroom, I also coach teams that compete in Odyssey of the Mind, a program that encourages students to think creatively to solve problems. OotM has been around for more than 30 years, and leading educators have been concerned about students needing to learn to think creatively for many more. This is not new, but the need has gotten stronger.

    Our current test-driven system of education makes it difficult to schedule additional topics into the classroom. Until we are ready to extend the school year (in my state, students go 174 days and teachers work 180 to 185 days) and pay teachers accordingly, we will not make progress. Otherwise, there is no way that I can fit more into my classes – I need every single minute I have just to cover the basics that are tested on the state tests.

  8. wilkcd

    February 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    As a mathematics teacher, I often teach process, however I also remind students that there are many different ways to solve a problem, not just the way I am demonstrating.

    Outside of, but still associated with, the classroom, I also coach teams that compete in Odyssey of the Mind, a program that encourages students to think creatively to solve problems. OotM has been around for more than 30 years, and leading educators have been concerned about students needing to learn to think creatively for many more. This is not new, but the need has gotten stronger.

    Our current test-driven system of education makes it difficult to schedule additional topics into the classroom. Until we are ready to extend the school year (in my state, students go 174 days and teachers work 180 to 185 days) and pay teachers accordingly, we will not make progress. Otherwise, there is no way that I can fit more into my classes – I need every single minute I have just to cover the basics that are tested on the state tests.

  9. wallace

    February 8, 2011 at 6:44 am

    I understand this cry for teachers to teach innovation and to motivate our students to think outside the box. The issue I have the biggest problem with is how the data is being collected to reveal exactly what and how teachers are teaching in the classroom. I teach Middle School Technology Literacy. I have students for a 9 week period and this is not nearly enough time to teach them everything to be literate in technology as well as having practice in using it. I focus on projects so that everything can be incorporated. Then, the state steps in and lays down mandates for students to be technologically literate by the end of 8th grade. The problem with this is that my district has then decided to use a paper-pencil test with outdated questions to evaluate their understanding of technology. There is a huge dilemna here. How and where is the creativity and innovation being measured? Can it be measured?

  10. wallace

    February 8, 2011 at 6:44 am

    I understand this cry for teachers to teach innovation and to motivate our students to think outside the box. The issue I have the biggest problem with is how the data is being collected to reveal exactly what and how teachers are teaching in the classroom. I teach Middle School Technology Literacy. I have students for a 9 week period and this is not nearly enough time to teach them everything to be literate in technology as well as having practice in using it. I focus on projects so that everything can be incorporated. Then, the state steps in and lays down mandates for students to be technologically literate by the end of 8th grade. The problem with this is that my district has then decided to use a paper-pencil test with outdated questions to evaluate their understanding of technology. There is a huge dilemna here. How and where is the creativity and innovation being measured? Can it be measured?

  11. Brenda

    February 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Great article. Having worked in both education and industry one of the biggest disconnects I see in education today educators understanding why innovation or why technology? There is very little understanding what the real requirements are in industry which is what formal education is preparing the student for. As a technologist I have been working with educators around the world for years from primary to university and I think the digital divide is more of a problem with our teachers than with our students. Most educators still see technology as a separate course instead of an integrated process or way of thinking. Most educators still see the device as the technology instead of a way of thinking. Years ago when I was in the schools systems developing and teaching interactive multimedia programs it used to horrify me when my colleagues would test students on how well they had memorized the menu in individual software apps instead of assessing the journey and how the tools were used and applied. Today I still see teachers and lectures struggling to manage their email accounts while students watch shaking their heads. 

    Over the last couple of years I have been in visualization software companies and working with educators to explore different technologies and engagements in the classroom. A lot of educators hide behind pedagogy and use that word as an excuse to avoid technology or change.

    I know first hand the struggles that manufacturing from Tier 1 to SMEs are having around the world – they need these future employees (students) to come through with different skills and new ways of thinking to help them compete in today’s and tomorrows global markets. 

    We can not afford not to change!

  12. Brenda

    February 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Great article. Having worked in both education and industry one of the biggest disconnects I see in education today educators understanding why innovation or why technology? There is very little understanding what the real requirements are in industry which is what formal education is preparing the student for. As a technologist I have been working with educators around the world for years from primary to university and I think the digital divide is more of a problem with our teachers than with our students. Most educators still see technology as a separate course instead of an integrated process or way of thinking. Most educators still see the device as the technology instead of a way of thinking. Years ago when I was in the schools systems developing and teaching interactive multimedia programs it used to horrify me when my colleagues would test students on how well they had memorized the menu in individual software apps instead of assessing the journey and how the tools were used and applied. Today I still see teachers and lectures struggling to manage their email accounts while students watch shaking their heads. 

    Over the last couple of years I have been in visualization software companies and working with educators to explore different technologies and engagements in the classroom. A lot of educators hide behind pedagogy and use that word as an excuse to avoid technology or change.

    I know first hand the struggles that manufacturing from Tier 1 to SMEs are having around the world – they need these future employees (students) to come through with different skills and new ways of thinking to help them compete in today’s and tomorrows global markets. 

    We can not afford not to change!


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