Inspiring young minds to innovate

Teachers and students can learn how to innovate by following key steps.

A knowledge-based society has replaced the service-based economy that once provided the majority of American jobs, and today’s students must learn to create and innovate if they are to succeed in the global marketplace that now places a premium on information and knowledge. Furthering the challenge, Americans have begun adopting technology at more than double the rate of the past. Rapid change is the norm, and teachers can prepare their students by equipping them with the tools and understanding required to become innovators.

Ask most people what innovation looks like and they describe sudden moments of clarity and flashes of genius—the “aha” moment. But research paints an entirely different picture. Close study reveals that most innovation is actually the result of systematic thinking and processes that lead directly toward creative solutions. As students and society at large demand that the educational system better prepare young minds to innovate in the workplace, it’s useful for students to learn how we think and nurture the development of ideas.

Schools play a critical role in developing these abilities in students, but how does innovation actually happen, and is it something that can be taught?

See also:

How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

Technology development

It takes an understanding of technology and its capabilities in order to innovate beyond the current standard. Start with the big picture and envision the possibilities of any given technology. Then, show teachers and students how to innovate by following some key steps:

  1. Keep track of the technology developments with the potential to impact the organization. For example, in the education sector, digital books are becoming highly interactive and are likely to continue evolving down that path.
  2. Understand that collaboration is the source of most great ideas. Teachers can facilitate this type of learning by initiating class projects that allow students to collaborate.
  3. Forgiving failure is important, because it’s simply part of the innovation process. Each wrong answer gets an innovator closer to the right answer. Encourage students to regard “failures” as a useful step in eliminating solutions on the path to finding better answers.
  4. Explore innovations in unrelated fields to trigger ideas. Whether a great idea originates in energy, transportation or biomedicine, it may have implications in many other arenas. It takes an innovator to recognize and apply the possibilities.
  5. Take time to understand how technology is transforming and how those changes are likely to impact a variety of industries. Engage students in creative discussions to imagine how a given technology could work in a different arena.
  6. Observe the way successful innovators work. They often rely on their staffs to innovate as well, and they set them up for success with the right environment and plenty of opportunities to innovate. Emulate those innovators to create a classroom with the same opportunities.

Innovative thinking systems

Four categories of thinking contribute to successful innovation and technology development. Each model encourages innovation throughout the implementation of any new technology initiative. Schools and students can learn to become true innovators through:

  • Converting data to knowledge
  • Understanding the organizational drivers of innovation
  • Developing the leadership styles for innovation
  • Thinking in ways that result in innovation

Gathering data and presenting information is just the first step in creating innovation. Next comes converting that data into understanding. The ideal environment for developing these skills is a small team of three to seven people, including outside experts in the process (i.e., a teacher), who band together to define projects. The group learns and applies relevant tech tools, like simulators that allow students to gain hands-on experience. They ask the right questions at every stage of the process and spend time thinking about the meaning of what the group is doing. A valuable opportunity for students to understand and articulate each step in the innovation process they followed is presented when a teacher encourages students to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained from a particular project.

Most people begin the process by relying on information. They gather facts and answers, compile reports and build graphs. However, successful leaders and innovators recognize this as simply the first step in innovation. They aren’t satisfied with the preliminary conclusion reached at this stage. Instead, they review their knowledge and push further with additional experience, taking a step back, thinking about things and analyzing the big picture of what everything means. It’s an ideal process that teachers should strive to create for students, who will gain the opportunity to really think and learn at every stage. Create lesson plans to take students from simple data to real knowledge, and inspire them to cultivate the skills and patience involved in becoming innovators.

See also:

How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

As government mandates shove schools toward standardization of learning, schools are hard-pressed to find the time and resources to inspire creativity in both teaching processes and students’ skill development. Organizational drivers of innovation and technology development must:

  • Work toward a clear target. In the educational setting, the target is what the students say they want. With more students saying they desire relevance, teachers must ask how to get there.
  • Incorporate the models proven successful by real innovators.
  • Begin with the strong points. It’s so much easier to build on a foundation of what’s already working than it is to focus on overcoming a weakness that may or may not become a major obstacle.
  • Put some money behind the development. Starting small is fine; all that’s necessary is a modest investment to drive accomplishment one step at a time.
  • Think in broad terms. Not all technology developments originate in the IT department, and they rarely involve a single brilliant expert or a flash of genius. Begin with a question, work as a team and share ideas. As one idea fails, another person can suggest a modification.

Jack Welch (General Electric), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Bill George (Medtronic) have been great business leaders in innovation and technology development, and they demonstrate some of the key characteristics and leadership styles that can inspire innovation from others. The same characteristics and leadership styles apply when it comes to innovation in education. Teachers can identify their own teaching styles and embrace their strengths to empower innovation in the classroom. The people who lead powerfully innovative teams typically demonstrate one of the following leadership styles:

  • Love, honesty
  • Teacher, mentor
  • Servant
  • Example
  • Self-development
  • Commitment
  • Purpose

It’s worth noting that even the most successful leaders don’t embody all of these styles or characteristics. Rather, they exhibit strengths in several areas that allow them to create a climate where innovation thrives. Steve Jobs, for example, shined in the areas of commitment, purpose, and passion, and that, in turn, created an atmosphere where his employees’ creative innovations were nurtured and valued.

Peter Drucker, a well-known educator and business consultant, describes seven sources of systemic innovation for developing solutions to major problems, all of which involve analytical thinking:

  1. The Unexpected: When something performs much better or worse than expected, it’s important to ask why. What benefits could there be in further exploiting an unexpected success? What additional opportunities are now available? Discuss both successes and failures in order to dig for insight.
  2. Incongruity: An incongruity is the difference between what should be and what is. Always challenge assumptions and listen to feedback. Identifying misperceptions provides a jumping-off point for new insights and innovation.
  3. Process Need: This is a task-focused rather than a situation-focused source of innovation. Close examination of processes frequently shines a bright light on inefficiencies and other problems that are often easily addressed with creative solutions.
  4. Industry and Market Structure Change: Any time an industry or sector experiences rapid growth or significant technology advances or merges with another technology, growing pains are inevitable. Careful consideration of the changes is bound to turn up some smart solutions and improvements.
  5. Demographics: Changes in a population’s age distribution, educational level, income, social status and the like are important to notice in most industries. Accommodating a changing audience or market requires being attuned to their particular needs—something worth addressing with innovative ideas.
  6. Changes in Perception, Meaning or Mood: Each generation brings new perspectives that may make longstanding approaches obsolete. Baby Boomers experience food, age, recreation—just about everything—differently than their Depression-era parents did. Each time the torch is passed, new attitudes can topple an organization’s conventional wisdom and require a fresh vision.
  7. New Knowledge: In the Information Age, it’s nearly impossible to keep abreast of every important advance and discovery in any field. But constant exposure to the latest research, the newest technologies and the most creative ideas does more than inform us about the world; it serves as an important source of inspiration for our own innovations.

Innovation occurs when people collaborate and stretch beyond the information-gathering phase of problem-solving. Learning how innovation occurs is a valuable lesson in how to teach young people to become great innovators.

Alan Rudi is Principal Solutions Strategist at Thesys International, an educational service provider that supports schools with a hybrid online/classroom approach to education.

See also:

How—and why—to teach innovation in our schools

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