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Innovation Must Be Taught as an Essential Skill

Anyone who has been following my writing the past three plus years, will recognize two dominant themes: curiosity and creativity. These two characteristics are a fundamental embodiment of every student, yes every one, as they enter our public school system. Kids love to figure things out, to satisfy their incessant question: why? Children are born explorers and they possess an innate desire to make things based on their explorations. They come to us so ready, so eager to quench their appetite for understanding. But, instead of embracing these qualities, schools devalue them. Over time, kids are led to believe that what they want to know is less important than the prescribed curriculum. They come to realize that the methods used for learning (dare we even suggest discovery) are dictated by teacher preference. Sadly, children are subtly taught over time, and often explicitly so, that the mainstream system of public education simply doesn’t have time for dabbling in what they wonder about or what they would aspire to create.

Such a shame, a loss of opportunity. All kids suffer in this climate. Even the most compliant rule followers, whose aim is to please their teachers, are short changed. We know these messages can lead to disengagement and a perceived lack of relevance for what is being taught.

Actually, the situation I describe goes well beyond being a loss. It is tragic. Nothing of any consequence in our history has been imagined or developed without curiosity serving as a motivator and creativity fueling the result. These two human traits, the very ones that we too often dismiss while kids experience school, are the engine of innovation. Without innovation, we can’t move forward. Nothing advances. Symphonies don’t get written. Outer space remains unexplored. Electric vehicles don’t exist. Cancer doesn’t get cured. An effective vaccine to address a global pandemic doesn’t get developed in record time. If we’re not innovating, society stagnates. The equation is simple: Curiosity + Creativity = Innovation.

The need to educate students to be innovative is a hot topic among business leaders and the predictions of global think tanks. These experts believe that the ability to be innovative is a cornerstone for success in our rapidly changing global economy. This requires the ability to think critically, to analyze data, to stretch the imagination. It requires the deliberate application of curiosity. And it also requires the bold assumption of creative risk. We are advised that students of the 21st century must be astute regarding concepts, rather than mere repositories of facts. They require (and deserve) an educational experience unlike the expectations placed on previous generations that found comfort in traditional and historical instructional approaches that were fundamentally passive. The overwhelming conclusion from reviewing research and articles representing informed thinking on the topic of 21st century education is that, in addition to knowing basic skills and concepts, students must also acquire and effectively apply, with confidence, the following advanced skills and habits of mind:

  • Become collaborators

  • Develop the skill of collective thinking

  • Be adaptable

  • Become comfortable assuming reasonable risks

  • Become reflective

  • Engage in creative problem-solving

  • Accept ambiguity and change

  • Develop confidence

  • Become effective communicators

  • Become adept questioners

  • Understand their personal passions and their preferred ways of learning

  • Become innovative

I can’t be the only person who sees a disconnect between what is needed and the current state of public education. “I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” (Sir Ken Robinson 2006)

The term “innovation” assumes something new: a new approach, an undiscovered context, a new product or solution to a dilemma that has plagued humankind. In some instances, a refined iteration of something that already exists may be considered innovative. However, operative in the definition is the term “new:” untried, out-of-the-box, with the potential to be transformative.

Given the state and circumstances of our current public education system, while aligned with we believe will be the world its students will inherit, it is time that the concept of innovation is modeled and taught. How? Consider this advise from Thom Markham, in his `1q“10 Ways to Teach Innovation.” Markham’s approach represents a vital, and practical, way to facilitate the development of innovation in our classrooms.

1. Move from projects to project-based learning (inquiry)

2. Teach concepts, not facts.

3. Distinguish concepts from critical facts.

- To be innovative, students need to have acquired knowledge.

- Teachers need to discover for themselves the correct blend of direct instruction and open-ended inquiry.

4. Make skills as important as knowledge.

5. Form teams, not groups. Teams allow students to become collective thinkers through collaboration.

6. Use thinking tools.

7. Use creativity tools.

8. Reward discovery.

9. Make reflection part of the lesson.

- Reflection anchors learning.

- Reflection stimulates deeper thinking and understanding.

- There can be no innovation without rumination.

10. Model innovation. Innovation requires a willingness to fail. (Markham 2013)

In recognizing the power inherent in effective modeling, and letting students experience their teachers as learners, too - learners who are thoughtful and willing to engage fully in the enterprise of teaching and learning even in the face of possible risk, I advocate the use of “what” questions in my book The Education Kids Deserve. These constitute the practice of reflection that Markham promotes. It is my contention that having students and their teachers intentionally, and publicly, use this common set of questions to guide their planning, their thinking and their construction of meaningful connections would be a powerful tool for all.

What? What is it that I am looking at? What is the concept at hand? What is my level of understanding about this? What do I feel about this?

What if? What if it was different then presented or as it appears? What if we make a deliberate alteration? Or, what if we take this concept in a totally different direction? What if we fall flat and are met with failure?

So what? What difference would these changes make. Would they matter in the grand scheme of things? Who would be impacted or even care?

Now what? What is the appropriate next step? Where do we go from here?

What connections can I make? How is this concept, this idea related to other concepts of study or things that I know? How does this, or does it, fit into the big picture?

Can you imagine the wealth of classroom dialogue and discourse that would result from the shared responses of this reflective exercise? That’s what learning looks like. That’s what learning sounds like. That is instructional innovation.

I conclude Chapter 7 of my book with the following example. I’m confident that all of us have participated in full-day professional development or training sessions where the delivery model is lecture (frequently termed “sit and get”) with the requisite handout from the presenter’s PowerPoint as the only opportunity to participate. We leave the session exhausted from being the recipient of one way communication, deposit the handout on the front seat of the car overnight, and get up the next morning to greet a room full of students. Do we create for them, and with them, the opportunity to engage their curiosity and apply their creativity? Do we construct experiences that promote innovation and all of the skills associated with it? Or do we teach them the way we were taught just the day before?

George Couros, in his 2015 book The Innovator’s Mindset, poses an important question, one that I suggest be considered at least daily by every teacher and educational practitioner. “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” And, I would add: would I want to attend the school I manage?

The answers to both had better be “yes.”


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