Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Promoting Innovation, Creativity, and Design in our Schools (Pt 2 of 2)

Part One can be found here, where I went through the two main types of innovation we're working on.

Employers and college registrars are speaking loud and clear when they say they need more creative people, more problem solvers, more critical thinkers, and more innovative ideas. Even beyond all that, we know as educators that these are critical skills and we've always worked to build them in our students.  We don't need mounds of surveys and data to tell us these are important skills, but it is important to note that there is a real uptick in the call for these skills as the world economy becomes more information and innovation driven.

Promoting innovation, creativity, and design in schools is not easy.  Many things work against this effort, most of which are frankly out of our control- increased testing and the pressure it creates, stacked curriculum and pacing guides, bell schedules, limited materials, and the very structure/space we have to work with, to name a few.  This effort is NOT easy, but it IS important.  It's what's right for students.

There's good news and bad news about promoting innovation and creativity in our classrooms.  My daughter always tells me to start with the bad news first, so she can leave in a better mood after hearing the good news we'll start with the bad news!

The bad news is that we, as teachers, do many things throughout our day that squash our student's creativity.  Most of these things happen and we don't even realize it.  They mostly stem from the way we were ourselves taught growing up.  Many of them also originate in classes or PD we've been given in the past about how to manage a classroom, how to present lessons, and how to interact with kids.  So that's the bad news.

Now for the good news!  Unlike the barriers listed above that are out of our control- these actions and strategies are totally within our grasp to change. All we have to do is be mindful of them when we're asking students to do creative work and step back!

The teachers I've been able to work with on this have done a fantastic job of identifying a lot of these actions and behaviors and reflecting on how to change them to allow more creativity and innovative thought to flow in our schools.  Here's the list and our reactions and reflections on each.

Things to be mindful of when doing creative / innovative / design work with students:

Instead of…
Think about…
Providing a model of what you want to build
Letting kids start from scratch
Assigning a task (“Build a paper airplane”)
Generating a goal (“Make something that can fly across the room”)
Making kids work alone
Having kids work in partners or small groups
Limiting Materials
Providing a large range and asking kids what else they could use
Teaching kids how to improve their design
Having kids who have had success share their ideas with the class
Starting with research
“Ending” with research, then letting that research generate more questions and ideas for improvement
Stepping in to help/guide as kids build
Stepping back and letting them figure it out together
Providing rewards
Providing feedback
“Fixing” things for kids
Letting kids troubleshoot

In short, when doing creative work with kids:

  • Less us, more them
  • Be less helpful
  • Be open to surprises and new directions that kids want to take you

Good luck and have fun!!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Promoting Innovation, Creativity, and Design in our Schools (Pt 1 of 2)

This is Part 1, where I'm writing about the two main types of innovation and their importance in schools....Part 2 is here, where I share ways that we as teachers often accidentally squash student innovation and creativity in the classroom- and how to be mindful of this problem!

Working through my county's digital learning transformation process has been and continues to be an exciting time for all involved.  We're truly targeting meaningful use of devices, listening to teachers and students, and have hired an outstanding team of facilitators.

Production labs, entrepreneurship programs, and makerspaces are cropping up within our county.  Some of our media specialists are starting to rethink what a library / media space should be all about.   Teachers are starting to seek digital tools as ways to encourage choice and personalized learning for students.  Along with this process we've been able to see some outstanding principals make a shift in their buildings toward innovation and creativity and away from standardization and rote learning.  

As part of this, I've been asked to come and speak to a few school staffs about innovation, creativity, and how we teachers often inadvertently squash these things in our classrooms.  It's a topic I'm passionate about because I've seen with my own eyes that when we give kids the opportunity to surprise us, they'll rarely disappoint.  

Before talking about innovation, I think it's important to distinguish between the two main types- sustained (incremental) innovation and disruptive innovation.  Both are incredibly important to focus on with kids.  

One way I share with teachers how these two types of innovation play out is through a design process- namely, building paper airplanes!

We follow the simple design process, Think - Make - Improve (credit to Stager/Martinez), where teachers are given an opportunity and materials to continuously improve their airplane designs.  Through this process I give some explicit instructions and strategies to guide their designs.  The task is to build a paper airplane that flies as far as possible.  Some of the planes they come up with are fantastic, some are plainly disastrous at accomplishing the task at hand.  

So we talk about "what is sustained/incremental innovation?" We land on a definition that revolves around "innovation that continuously improves a product, idea, or process, but does not fundamentally change it."  No matter what we add to our paper airplanes, they're still essentially a paper airplane.  Another example of sustained innovation would be pencil sharpeners.  We can make them electronic, we can make them last a lot longer, we can make them compatible with different sizes of pencils, we can add ways for the shavings to automatically trashed- but at the end of the day, we're still sharpening pencils.

Sustained/Incremental Innovation is extremely important- it's the bread and butter of design and is something we should be actively practicing with all students, in all areas of design (not just building and making, but in how we approach the arts, reading, math, social sciences, and all other subjects).

Disruptive Innovation
We then shift and talk about disruptive innovation.  We kick that conversation off with this video:

So, disruptive innovation is when a product, process, or idea is fundamentally changed so that it looks completely different than what it was before.  Many times, disruptive innovations are scaleable so they have a huge impact on the world.  Some of history's most impressive inventions are great examples of disruptive innovation:
  • The telephone fundamentally changed the way we communicate.
  • Ford's assembly line fundamentally changed manufacturing (and in turn, our education system, for the worse....but I digress).
  • The printing press fundamentally changed the nature of literacy.
  • The idea of democracy fundamentally changed the role and function of government.
  • The World Wide Web fundamentally changed the way we send and receive information.
And on and on....disruptive innovation can happen in a burst of insight or through hard, determined work.  It can often change the world, and quickly.  Or it can also fly under the radar.  But one thing is certain- it takes creativity, imagination, opportunity, and empowerment to happen.  And these are things that we as teachers often accidentally squash- sometimes in very well-meaning ways.

Tomorrow, I'll follow up with part two- how we inadvertently take creativity and innovation out of our classrooms, how to remain mindful of this, and how to approach things a bit differently to stoke these important flames in students!

Books I've been reading that greatly shape my understanding and thinking:
Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner
Invent to Learn, Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez
Making Learning Whole, David Perkins