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Let's Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Russell Garrison's picture

I am not a teacher but my wife is. She consistently gets results from the classroom by continuing to hammer home basic concepts of grammar, writing skills, reading and problem solving. Every year she hears from teachers with older students how well prepared her former students are compared to students who came from other teachers where different approaches were used. The innovation my wife has to use with lower socio-economic families is getting the parent(s) involved in homework. Casino Online Gratis

Bart Main, MD's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are all innovators and enthused about this characteristic in your students. In my office practice (as a child psychiatrist), I see lots of kids who are struggling in classrooms where innovation isn't valued. While the field in general seems to give lip service to the idea of innovation, there is something fundamental that seems to be blocking the actual achievement of that ideal. I wonder whether it is a conceptual problem in our society about how to motivate people. The courage to innovate, as mentioned above, comes from inner confidence and enthusiasm for the satisfaction of doing something new or well. If we could convince educators to pull students in with intrinsic motivators - novelty, mastery, and socialization (all of which are mentioned above)- then might the atmosphere of classrooms shift from a focus on giving the teacher the "right" answer to a focus on exploring ideas?

Jacqueline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was recently reading an article on Brain Research and Education and came across some previous strategies that were implemented in classrooms..."Teaching machines, Time on Task programs, Epstein's plateaus of adolescent cognition, and Madeline Hunter's Elements of Effective Instruction" were a few that I ran across. I was wondering what new strategies were being implemented and if you think they will work. With so many schools on "academic watch/warning" what strategies do you think will stick around and which ones do you think are a waste of time and money?

pam moran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article really nails the difference between innovation as a contrived versus constructivist model for figuring out what works. We are creating innovation zones in Albemarle County Public Schools (Va) where teachers and students can together experiment with learning technologies. If the innovation work makes sense,then teachers and students will help us figure out how to shift from innovating to strategic work. One example is our new MESA academy which has a cross-section of students. They are working with teachers to figure out how to work in a collaborative, project-based, paperless environment in which science/math/engineering are an integrated curriculum rather than one of silos- our young people are essentially running a design lab for our school division so that we can figure out what works about the model, what we need to do differently, and then whether it is worth taking into all comprehensive high schools. They have 1 to 1 netbooks with all the resources the world has to offer them, use virtual and face-to-face collab tools, and work with a teacher team who co-teach an integrated curricula- kids say they have never had such a learning space anytime in school-

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Pam,
I'm willing to bet your teachers have never experienced a learning space like this, either! Sounds wonderful. I'd love to know more. Will follow up via your website.
I'm curious about gender angle. Is your new approach attracting more girls to STEM?

Hal Portner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Five attributes often identified as innovation are: associating (making connections across unrelated ideas or problems), questioning (especially focused on "what if" or "why not"), observation (especially observing behavior), experimentation (new experiences or exploration) and networking (especially with people from different industries or perspectives).

That being said, technically there is a difference between creativity and innovation. Creativity is largely a process. It generally involves combining seemingly two or more unrelated concepts in new ways in order to create a new concept or idea. Creativity is primarily about ideas; innovation is about the implementation of those ideas.

This may seem like nit-picking, but if we are really preparing students for present and future success, we cannot stop with creativity, as important as is is, but must also provide opportunity for them to innovate and communicate what they create.

John Bennett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

THE major benefit of promoting innovation is building intrinsic motivation for problem solving and effective learning, so important to success in careers AND personal lives.
Because the students will be motivated to learn, the results will be so much better, the "need to nag" level will be negligible, and the happiness level of students, families, and teachers will be high.
Better results in less time with more job - win - win for sure!

robert vieth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read Suzie's post and the related comments, I began to sketch out a concept map with "Intinsic Motivation" more or less at the center. I need to let the related ideas ferment for a while, but in the meantime, has anyone seen such a concept map in the literature?

Joan NE's picture
Joan NE
parent of 2 elementary school students

My impression is that when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and school reformists use the term "innovation," they are referring to charter schools. The reformist view, is it not, is that charter schools are the way to introduce innovation into public education? Non-charter public schools, in the reformist view, are supposed to provide strictly regressive, traditional, back-to-basics education:

- The curriculum is uniform throughout the district and is narrowly-focused on the knowledge and skills that are tested on the high stakes tests

- teachers teach to the test, and their pay depends on how well they do this, and how well their students do on high stakes tests.

- principals (as Instructional Leaders), instructional coaches, and "teacher mentors" will conduct "Learning Walks" (google it) to make sure that teachers are adhering to the teaching of core curriculum with utmost fidelity.

In the reformist view, school choice, and innovations are great and highly desirable, as long as these elements of public education are available only through charter schools. Competition is desirable, but not within the non-charter public system. Charter schools compete against non-charter schools, private schools, and among themselves, but non-charter public schools structured so that they do not compete against each-other.

Here in Seattle, the district has withdrawn all support for non-charter Alternative schools, is aligning curriculum uniformly across the district, and is eliminating the open enrollment system for non-charter public schools (most students will be assigned to their neighborhood school).

Washington State does not yet permit charter schools, but the Seattle district has allowed a single psuedo-charter to start up. The District gives this school lots of support. Why is innovation good in charter (and psuedo-charter) schools, but unacceptable in non-charter public schools?

In conclusion I doubt very much that any of the U.S. DOE funds for innovation will go to expanding and developing WITHIN the non-charter public school systems the GREAT EXAMPLES of innovation that already exist within the non-charter public schools.

We still have some innovative and very successful Alternative schools within SPS, despite the lack of support from the District. Thornton Creek Elementary school, which follows the Expeditionary/Outward bound model, just received last spring the presigious Imag'nation Award from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Thornton Creek is the first school outside of New York State to receive this award.

Parent activists in Seattle are trying to save the Alternative school system, but it is an uphill battle. Do you have any advice for us?

Mike Games's picture

I like your blog. I couldn't help but notice that much of the thread read like 'why chess should be in school'.

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