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How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

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.


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.)


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!

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.

Inventive behavior is more common among people who, as adults, exhibit high agency (sometimes called self-efficacy), which means they feel in control of things and able to make a difference. Agency is both a personality variable and a context-driven attitude. People have maximum agency when they grow up doing difficult things, sometimes successfully but always with support and encouragement from those who believe they can succeed.

How many inventors do we need?

When President Obama calls for us to be a nation of innovators, does he literally mean we all should rush to our drawing boards and start inventing things? Probably not. Inventiveness is a treasured national trait, and at a basic level, everyone ought to be able to solve problems and try new things without excessive fear of failure or change. However, the reality remains that economically important innovations (as well as socially and artistically important innovations) arise from a small minority of the population. We don’t all need to be Edisons. We do need to produce more Edisons. So, does it make sense to rethink our educational approach just to increase the quality and quantity of future innovators, even if they make up, say, no more than 5 percent of the average classroom today?

There is linkage between society and its innovators. An open-minded, inquiring society encourages and supports its leading innovators, while a closed-minded society shuts them down. There are many elements to this society-innovator linkage, not all of them fully understood, but here are a few that everyone probably can agree on:

  • Somebody’s got to consume the results those brilliant innovators produce. It takes open-minded customers to purchase early-stage innovations, and open-minded investors to fund them. All of society participates in the nurturing and implementation of good ideas. Put another way, no inventor is an island
  • The collective consciousness may be important to the quantity and quality of innovations. Historians often remark on the oddity of breakthroughs coming in clusters. If one person publishes a breakthrough book on evolution, for example, you can be sure that it appears in the letters of some of his contemporaries. Similarly, a perusal of the patent records shows that Edison was not the only person working on electric light bulbs. In fact, another inventor’s patent turns out to be the one most closely related to the form of incandescent light bulb generally in use today. It may be quite important to have many people thinking about a challenge at the same time. In fact, it may be essential.
  • For every inventor who comes up with a great new idea or design, there needs to be a large team of people working to develop and implement it. Whether in economic or other arenas, no idea is implemented without a lot of help. In a truly innovative society, I believe that almost everyone who isn’t a brilliant inventor is helping to refine and implement some good idea. Imagine our society as a baseball team. We need the home-run sluggers, to be sure, but we don’t need or expect them to make up the entire team. The rest of us play our roles in the innovation process, too, and we all need to be good at the game.

For these reasons, I believe it does make sense to raise a nation of innovators. Then there is the added problem of not knowing who will turn out to be our heavy-hitters of the future. So far, nobody has come up with a good way to identify the next Bill Gates from a cohort of third graders. However, we do know some general things about the personalities of innovators. Primarily, we know they rate higher than average on openness to experience, which is a broad personality trait that is made up of a varied mix of inquisitiveness, creativity, adventurousness, and intelligence. It can be measured in children, and remains fairly stable through life.

However, of the, say, 15 percent of elementary school students who measure high on this openness scale, only a handful will contribute major innovations to society in future years (although most will do something innovative, creative, intellectual, adventurous, or artistic). We are playing the numbers when we invest in innovators, rather as venture capital firms do when they invest in business plans, and we cannot expect more than a few percent of creative or innovative people to produce anything that is game-changing for our society. That’s okay; we need small innovations too, but the point is that it’s impractical to single out and educate future innovation leaders separately from everyone else.

We need classrooms that encourage and enable innovation in all students, and then we need the patience to help them mature. They will sort out who will do what in the future, and some of them will rise to the top of the innovation charts, while others will play more quiet, but equally important, roles.

Alexander Hiam designs curricula for workplace leadership training and has provided creative consultation and training to hundreds of workplaces. As a parent and citizen, he is interested in shifting the focus of innovation training to younger learners, instead of only doing remedial work with adults. Hiam has authored more than a dozen books, including Innovation For Dummies (Wiley, 2010) and earlier books such as The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Creativity and Closing the Quality Gap. He currently teaches in the Independent Concentration program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has taught for many years at the Isenberg School of Business there.

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