News

How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

By Alexander Hiam
February 1st, 2011

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!