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

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