Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Teaching Innovation- What does it look like?

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I have been reading How - and Why- to Teach Innovation in our Schools by Alexander Hiam. I highly recommend you read this article if you have not already done so. It really helped frame this idea of how to teach innovation in our schools.

Our technology integration curriculum includes a strand on Creativity and Innovation, and Creative Thinking. However, when teachers ask me what does that look like, I don't always feel as though I have a great answer. This article has really helped me frame my answer. I knew it was there, I just couldn't put my finger on it.

First, Hiam breaks innovation down into the Five I's: Imagination, Inquiry, Invention, Implementation, and Initiative. The fuel for imagination is defined as the "bridging between apparently diverse or unrelated ideas, skill sets, or objects." He asserts that many innovations in our lives come from combining two different concepts. Many inventors are skilled in two separate areas. For example, being skilled in science and art may lead to increased comfort with design. There are many examples where combining two or more skills would lead to improved innovations. Yet our schools are increasingly stratified. We study math during math and science during science.

Hiam asks who is doing the most questioning in classrooms. To improve inquiry, we need the students to generate more questions and then have the ability to pursue the answers. Too often our classrooms teach the content without allowing students the time or access to pursue the questions that arise from their learning. We had a discussion recently in our district about scheduling inquiry time into our day. Allow students time each day to research areas of interest to them. It didn't happen, but I am hopeful that we can continue the discussion around student based inquiry projects. I want to be clear that I mean ongoing research, not a one time project. Let's not make inquiry an event, but rather a habit. This is really the point that Hiam makes about invention. Science Fair projects are one time events, the exception. Inventive thinking needs to be integrated into all areas of learning.

As for implementation, I agree with Hiam's point that usually ideas don't work the first time around. We often have students do a project and hand it in, but we rarely ask students to go back to the drawing board. Organizations like Destination Imagination teach kids how to solve complex problems over a long period of time, much like the problems we are asked to tackle in our jobs. Yet, in schools too often, we ask students to solve problems within a short period and move on before revisiting and improving upon our thinking.

Finally, we view initiative as an innate personality trait. While it is more natural in some than others, Hiam shares some research that initiative is more prevalent in organizations that are less hierarchical. While our classrooms are centered around order and control, we stifle the initiative of our students. More regular project-based and research-based learning opportunities would also be a great way to encourage initiative in students. I often hear from teachers that they did a research project and many students ignored deadlines, lacked initiative, or performed poorly. Many use this as an excuse to do more structured assignments and fewer inquiry based projects. My contention is that some of these issues are due to the fact that these projects are one time events. With more practice and experience, students will improve on these skills.

In Hiam's article, he also talks about how many inventors do we need? He contends that we need a relatively small number, but we need more than what we are producing today. While I agree with this, I think he may be missing a key point, that these skills are valuable in the vast majority of jobs. Creative problem solving, inventive thinking, taking initiative, effective implementation of long term projects: What company would not want these skills in their workers?

In our increasingly test-focused society, I hope we don't lose sight of the most important skills our students will need for success. We need to ensure that our students graduate from us capable of taking on the complex problems our society faces in the future. That starts by addressing the Five I's.

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