How schools can become innovation incubators

Educators must recognize innovation to take schools to the next level.
Educators must recognize innovation to take schools to the next level.

In a year of change for NSBA’s annual educational technology conference, T+L, the closing keynote session ended on a note that change can lead to a better future.

Steven Berlin Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and social critic, focused on innovation management. He explained that for schools to become incubators for innovative ideas, educators first must know how innovation happens.

“As a society, we tend to tell these stories of innovation, such as how the source of cholera was found, as a ‘eureka!’ moment. But that’s actually not the case. There are many factors that lead to innovation,” said Johnson.

This theory, the antithesis to “eureka,” is what Johnson calls the slow hunch, meaning that innovative ideas usually take months or years of thought and research.

“Most of these brilliant ideas, such as finding the source of cholera, come from individual side projects or interests that people have, and thanks to a network of people, personal interest, and a fostering environment, these ideas thrive and bloom,” he explained.

For instance, Johnson described how Google allows its employees to devote 20 percent of their work time to whatever side projects or interests they want to develop.

Another factor in fostering innovation is the liquid network, or an informal environment where people of common interests can talk about their passions.

Johnson cited the example of MIT’s now-closed Building 20, which was a building used originally for war manufacturing. The building remained open with plans to be torn down, but in the meantime, students and faculty would meet at the building to talk about their ideas.

“Some of the best ideas were developed in that building, partly because since no one cared what happened to the building, people could come in, hash out their ideas, tear down walls, rearrange space, et cetera. It was a liquid space,” said Johnson.

Yet another aspect of innovation management is something Johnson calls platforms, or the foundation or habitat upon which innovative ideas can take hold.

One such example, he said, is the platform of the internet, which allows ideas to take shape.

Finally, Johnson said, many innovations begin as something else, a term known as exaptation. Exaptation means an idea or object that was created for one purpose can be used for another purpose.

An example of this, said Johnson, is feathers: “Feathers began as a source of heat for animals, but then some of those animals started using feathers to fly, which is why we have birds today. Technology today is like this, and kids are the best at exaptation—they can take something and turn it in to what they want to use it for.”

He continued: “The question, of course, is how schools can become these platforms for innovation. All I can say is that kids are good at connecting ideas and making things their own. If we provide them the supportive environment and tools to foster these connections and ideas, schools are doing their jobs.”



Steven Berlin Johnson

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