Innovation can’t be tested or graded — but it can be built up
Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. How to create a more interesting, innovative classroom was a theme of many of the top stories this year, perhaps as educators, finally comfortable with technology begin to branch out into ways into using it to strengthen higher-order thinking skills and create projects unthinkable five or ten years ago.
Innovation is a trait that I desperately want to instill in my students, and many teachers I talk to seem to share that goal. In the current climate of high stakes testing, state standards, and prescribed learning outcomes, it can be incredibly difficult to foster an atmosphere of innovation and creativity that inspires students. But rest assured, it is possible.
Here, I outline eight basic principles for the “Innovative Classroom,” around which I designed a middle school course called Physical Computing. Some of the projects and tools are specific to that course, but I think the fundamental ideas could be applied to almost any course at any level.
- Give students a problem that is both interesting and authentic. There is no such thing as a problem that is going to be interesting to every kid. This means that a project has to be flexible enough for students to tailor it to their own interests. It also means that teachers need to take the time to learn about their students’ interests. Authenticity comes from using real tools to tackle problems that don’t have their answers printed at the back of the book. Ideal projects dictate some general parameters and tools, but leave the specific problem definition up to the student. Some examples of interesting, authentic projects with built-in flexibility include:-Design a musical instrument that you can play without using your mouth or hands.
-Choose a challenging terrain and design a vehicle that can conquer it.
-Create a sculpture that incorporates both light and motion.
Next page: How to motivate creative thinking
- Give students the basics, but keep it short. Students will always need some basic knowledge to get some traction on their projects, but the amount of information that the entire class will need is probably less than you would expect. Chunk this general information into organized blocks of 5-10 minutes tops, and deliver these in a mini-lesson at the start of class. If you find that you need more time, ask yourself if they really need the information you are delivering. If they do, ask yourself if the project they are working on is indeed an authentic problem and not your own learning objective disguised as a problem that the students really own.
- Model great research skills. If I have done a good job with the project design, students will get the vast majority of the information they need from their own independent research. For this to work, however, I need to coach them in good research skills, and I sometimes invite the librarians in to help. This research, which often draws from internet message boards, programming language documentation, sample code, and Wikipedia, is a slightly different skillset than the research that students might do for a history research paper.
- Scaffold complex skills. Tools like Makey Makey, Little Bits, Scratch, Tickle, and Tynker make it easier than ever for novice students to create authentic products that solve real problems. If you teach CompSci or electronics and you aren’t familiar with any of these tools, stop reading right now and Google them. My personal favorite is an Arduino compatible board called the Light Blue Bean, which can be programmed from an iPad using the block-based language Tickle.
- Check for understanding always. In a classroom focused on highly individualized projects, it’s critical that the teacher monitor what students are struggling with. Optimal learning occurs when students struggle with a problem that they believe they can find the solution to. If they crossover into frustration and confusion, they are at risk of giving up. Teachers should keep careful track of what students know and what they need to learn in order to successfully complete their projects. Using strategies such as “fisttofive” or “thumbsup” to check the understanding of the entire group after a mini-lesson is also helpful.
- Favor found and recycled objects. In his TED talk, Daniel Pink talks about the connection between creativity and what is know as Functional Fixedness—or people’s tendency to see only a single use for an object. Requiring students to fashion electric switches out of clothes pins, or building a robot torso out of a soda bottle, will help students to flex their creative muscles and think beyond the standard uses for everyday objects.
- Model mental inventory taking. Innovation and problem solving depends on having a great understanding of what you know and what you still need to learn. Build in components of your projects that require students to list the things they understand about their project and also to articulate as specifically as possible the things they still need to understand better.
- Whatever you do, don’t try to grade creativity and innovation. Grades work really well when there is a correct answer you want students to work toward. If you want them to own a problem and to produce a genuinely original solution to it, you cannot motivate that with a grade. In fact, when you assign a grade to something like creativity, students will often perform for the grade and not for the best possible solution. Thus, a grade for creativity, will often become an unintended disincentive.
Innovation isn’t a standard that you can teach to directly and then test for. Innovation is more like a habit of mind that is fostered through consistent attention to classroom culture and expectations. With practice, the eight guidelines above can help teachers cultivate such a culture in any classroom.