Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Let's Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Innovation seems to be on everyone's lips lately: President Obama has called for what he calls "a new generation of innovation." Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aims to turn his department into what is in his words an "engine of innovation," with his plan to dole out $650 million in grants to school districts through the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation Fund.

And Chinese-born author Yong Zhao has created a stir with his new book, Catching Up or Leading the Way, in which he extols Americans not to turn away from their proud heritage as innovative thinkers.

It all sounds mighty uplifting -- but also a little vague. What does it mean to encourage innovation, not just in the public education system but also within the classroom? What can teachers do to encourage the next generation of big thinkers?

It's usually business and technology experts who talk up innovation. Success in the corporate world depends on developing breakthrough products and better processes for getting things done. But if you listen carefully to strategies for encouraging workplace innovation, you'll hear plenty of intriguing ideas about teaching and learning.

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with two experts to discuss how innovation works. In the article "How Do Innovators Think?" they shared these nuggets:

  • Make connections. Creative thinkers work across disciplines and "make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas," according to Jeff Dyer, business professor at Brigham Young University. The "Aha!" moment often occurs when ideas connect in new or unexpected ways.
  • Never stop questioning. Good thinkers never stop asking questions. Inquisitiveness is the common denominator of innovative entrepreneurs, concludes Hal Gregorson, of INSEAD, an international business school. Yet school tends to value getting the right answer. This "drums the curiosity out," he cautions, making many students -- and, eventually, adults -- reluctant to ask provocative questions.
  • Learn from failure. One of the hallmarks of expert problem solvers is known as rapid iteration. This term refers to learning from each attempt at solving a challenge and incorporating what worked into the next prototype. What doesn't work on one try becomes a rich learning opportunity -- and the platform for future success.

Can similar ideas work in the K-12 classroom? David Kelley thinks they can -- and should. He is the founder of Ideo, a global design consulting firm, and is helping to bring what he calls design thinking to the education sector. Working with Stanford University's Institute of Design, Kelley teaches a process for problem solving. The result is an increased confidence in creativity, as Kelley explains in this radio interview about a design session with seventh graders from Palo Alto, California.

Once kids develop what Kelley calls creative confidence, they're better prepared to tackle the next challenge that comes along. "When given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before," he explains in this interview in Fast Company.

Today's students don't have to look far to find problems awaiting creative solutions. Will they be prepared to tackle them with the innovator's toolkit of cross-disciplinary thinking, inquisitiveness, and persistence?

How are you preparing your students to solve problems creatively? Where are the opportunities for innovation in your classroom? Please share your stories.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

George Mayo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Suzie,

I have a story I can share about the benefits of allowing students to innovate in the classroom. Last week, a few of of my students were in my after-school stop-motion club working on a new film. We recently were able to get some new stop-motion animation software on our computers, and these students were trying to figure out how to get the green screen effect to work on the program.

For whatever reason, it was not working. They tried everything they could think of. After an hour of messing with it, they left. The next day they were back promptly at the end of the day ready to figure it out. They refused to give up. It was interesting to watch. What they finally figured out, after watching tutorial videos on YouTube, and trying everything they could think of, was that the problem was the computer. They pulled out another laptop, and sure enough, it was a bug with the software on that particular computer.

Their absolute determination impressed me. Giving up was not an option. When you allow students to create and be innovative in the classroom, you also help promote their problem solving skills. Here's the short film they ended up creating, using the green screen effect:

suplementy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi. I like your blog. well done!

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi George,
Thanks for sharing this example. Persistence is something you hear about in nearly every history of a breakthrough idea. Sounds like your students are highly motivated--working after school, following their own interests and passions. And there's no negative consequence for "failure." Instead, they have time and opportunity to pursue solutions when things don't work.
What else helps build these important habits of mind? Are there other strategies you recommend to encourage innovation?

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator, I've often said that the most powerful learning occurs when teachers step back and encourage students to be creative. Our students bring an inherent creativity and even genius to the classroom. However, too often, educators stifle this thinking by teaching too strictly according to a pre-determined lesson plan. Perhaps educational leaders should develop high quality lesson plans that while conveying standardized information also encourage, or perhaps even require, creativity and critical thinking.

Andrew Pass

George Mayo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Suzie and Andrew,

I love this quote from Andrew's comment:
[quote] Our students bring an inherent creativity and even genius to the classroom. [/quote]
An important part of getting kids to be creative in class is getting them to trust their ideas. My favorite thing to hear is when a student says "I have an idea!" You have to let them know that your classroom is a place where their ideas and creativity are valued.

Quick story from my after-school stop-motion club (again). During the first few minutes of our club, students often meet in small groups and quickly brainstorm ideas for new films. Since we only have an hour, this is usually a highly charged brainstorming session. It's fun to watch them as they throw out one crazy idea after another, until something sticks. The moment they agree on an idea, they throw themselves into the project. They don't question it, or doubt it.


diane darrow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very important issue for educators. I completely agree with the above comments and have spent a great deal of time thinking about how we are going to help students become more creative and innovative thinkers. A fantastic book "Global Achievement Gap" by Tony Wagner also addresses this issue. I am looking forward to reading the Yong Zhao book,
I am including my wiki which houses some graduate work I did through the University of Connecticut on creativity with a group of kindergarten students.
This year I aim to continue with these lessons and add more to my teaching repertoire. It's a work in process and a passion of mine. Hope something I said or did helps.

Rob Jacobs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Innovation is a powerful word that elicits all sorts of ideas and reactions. Many believe that innovation is the realm of inventors, research and development departments, technology companies, or lone geniuses. While that may be the image, it is not the reality.

David Neeleman, founder of Jet Blue says, "Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it's ever been done before."

Read that carefully. He didn't say we must do it better, but that we must try to do it better. Innovation in this way is a process, not a destination. Every educator I know is capable of trying to figure out how to do something better than its ever been done before. Most educators are constantly tinkering with their instruction methods, plans, etc. They are innovating. Professional Learning Communities try to do things better. Schools try to do things better. Doing things better provides solutions to problems.

Giving our students opportunities to think creatively and try to do things in new ways is key. Let their imagination have free reign. Let them feel free to share their ideas, their thinking, to combine their ideas with other students. Innovation in the classroom is achievable when the teacher is intentional in looking for opportunities for students to explore what is possible. It's never easy as it sounds, but it is an important and "real world" for students to participate in. Just try to do something that hasn't been done before in your teaching and try to do it better.

Randy Speck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your post and think the whole idea of innovation in education needs some real teeth behind it. This video below is something we made at our school highlighting some of the key concepts in the book Disrupting Class.


Randy Speck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree and also believe that innovation in education needs some teeth behind it. I hope this $650 million can really go toward students.

Below is a video my school made to communicate to our parents the direction we are going. A student centered school working to meet the needs of individual students. This video is based on some of the key concepts in Disrupting Class.


Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks to all who are sharing their good ideas here. I'm especially interested in your strategies for encouraging brainstorming. George, you identify some of the hallmarks of productive brainstorming when you describe how students rapidly generate "one crazy idea after another." Diane, your wiki reminds us that it's never too early to reinforce creative thinking. And Rob, you offer an important reminder that innovation is not limited to R&D departments.
Some of my favorite innovators are working in the social sector, figuring out new and better ways of delivering everything from housing to health care to education. Here's one example that could generate an interesting class discussion about problem-solving strategies: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009966.html
Do you have favorite examples of innovators that you share with students? Where do you look for role models?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.