George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Let’s Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools

October 12, 2009

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.

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