How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

One fairly simple way to add curious inquiry is to incorporate a question-asking module into existing curricula. For example, after running a science activity, the teacher can pause and ask students to generate questions the activity prompts them to think of. Then the students can pursue answers to their questions.


Students need to be challenged to invent things more than once or twice in their school careers. A science fair or challenge to launch an egg safely from a tall building are great examples of student invention, but they are unusual instances. Invention must be woven into the learning routine. “Can you think of a better way to do this math problem?” and “Can you apply what we’ve just learned about how the ancient Egyptians moved stones to build pyramids in some modern-day invention of your own?” These are two examples of invention challenges that students should be tackling in their weekly learning routine. Most are not.


Innovation is creativity, applied. At least, that’s a simple working definition of it, and it reminds us that a good idea doesn’t amount to anything unless it is translated into action. Students get remarkably little practice at implementing ideas. Implementation should be linked to some of the inventing students do (see above) so as to give them hands-on experience in the challenges of making ideas work. Usually ideas don’t work the first time you try. It takes refining the plan, learning from errors, and persisting. These skills, like imagining, inquiring, and inventing, are learned. Or not.


Initiative may be the hardest of the Five I’s to teach, because it runs against the current of centralized classroom control. Students sit in desks and work on the same learning tasks, while the teacher runs activities from the front of the classroom. Efficient, yes, but is it inventive? No.

Think of the classroom as a miniature society, and apply the widely-accepted finding that “inventiveness is more likely to occur if a society is less hierarchical since bureaucracy reduces creative activity.” This is according to “Why do some societies invent more than others?” by Scott A. Shane of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which appeared in the Journal of Business Venturing, Vol. 7, Issue 1, January 1992, pages 29-46. Using patent filings as a measure, he found that individualistic and non-hierarchical societies were more inventive than other societies.

In individualistic, non-hierarchical contexts, people are more likely to take creative initiative. How can we stimulate and exercise creative initiative in our classrooms? Clearly there are some good answers already. Activity-based learning is a component of most curricula. Research projects are right on target. However, the bulk of the curriculum hours logged in most classrooms do not meet the kind of individualistic inquiry and project pursuit that qualifies as exercising the students’ initiative. The problem, of course, is dual:

  • Instructors need to be coaches and mentors during initiative-based learning, and they may lack the preparation to play these roles
  • The school needs to support the teachers as they guide students through the messy, individualistic process of learning how to be inventors, and this means appreciating the value of guided, enthusiastic decentralization of student work (a challenge to the value systems of many administrators), plus making more resources available to make sure the facilitation is there and students aren’t just fumbling complex projects that don’t get completed at a high level of competence.

Laura Ascione

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