Innovation is very much on the agenda in Australia and globally. The OECD publishes lists of nations most likely to succeed through innovation and nations seek to encourage increased innovation to maintain their competitive edge. The result of this in Australia is the recent launch of a new ‘Innovation Australia’ policy with wide reaching measures to encourage and foster a culture of innovation. Education has a role to play in this process acting an an enabler of innovation that builds capacity in future generations. 'Our education system, therefore, must equip students to be successful entrepreneurs, hold a diverse number of jobs or work across a number of industries.’ (www.innovation.gov.au)
STEM is one of the key enablers identified by the government and an area to be targeted in efforts to enhance the nation’s capacity for innovation. Along with Digital Literacy and programmes specifically targeting STEM to girls, it is clear that innovation is seen in a somewhat narrow way. What is needed is a broad culture of innovation where diverse skills and dispositions merge to offer the best chance of a unique idea emerging and importantly making it to market. Significantly the definition of innovation very much includes the ability to deliver on the imaginative ideas Australians are known for but are presently handing off to international developers to capitalise on. For schools such a definition is useful as it encourages a shift away from vague conversations about creativity and imagination and looks at how these skills can be used in ways that bring about change. With a shift to innovation we should see students engaged in a process of ideation that results in practical solutions to problems they identify and engage with. A creative process powered by imagination, inquiry, design and a well considered ‘So What’ question that encourages students to do something innovative with their ideas.
But all this talk about innovation in schools brings a new set of challenges to already time poor teachers. What will this look like in the classroom? What skills and dispositions will our students require? What strategies might we employ to foster innovation?
Innovation requires a pedagogy that values a student focused learning processes over teacher directed transfer of knowledge. Teaching for innovation is by nature messy and imprecise. In the short term results on traditional assessments may not be what we would expect from traditional methods but if we desire to produce innovators this needs to be accepted. It is also to be expected that learning to think innovatively will initially unsettle some learners, some who may have thrived under conditions where learning routines and adding to their knowledge bank was the norm. This will need to be accommodated and while challenging for all lets not pretend that traditional methods were providing the conditions necessary for every child to shine.
The key elements to aim for might be something like the list below. These are the elements of effective teaching with an aim to encouraging students to find and solve problems. Innovation is likely to be enabled in classrooms that promote these ways of thinking and learning. Nothing here is new but it is interesting to bring together a set of ideas discussed elsewhere on this site around the theme of innovation.
- Student Choice - Students are not likely to develop innovative ideas in an environment where the ideas and the focus of their thinking is dictated by their teacher. Students need to make choices about what they are learning and how they are learning for at least part of their day. Choice allows students to pursue their passions and that brings a greatly heightened level of engagement. – For more read ‘Learning by Choice: 10 ways choice and differentiation create an engaged learning experience for every student by A.J. Juliani’
- Question Finding & Ideation - Students need opportunities to seek out big meaty questions that matter to them. True innovation comes from finding answers to questions that have not previously been answered, questions that may not have been asked. Encouraging students to find their ‘Beautiful Question’ should be one of our prime goals if we hope to build innovators. – For more visit - 'A More Beautiful Question' or 'The Questions that Matter Most' or 'Questions that Encourage Deeper Thinking'
- Risk Taking and Failing - A Growth Mindset - If the goal is innovation you are unlikely to get it right the first time. Our students need to understand that failing and learning from our mistakes is an important part of the process of innovation. Building a ‘Growth Mindset’ will help build the required resilience and allow students to see their failed attempts as a rewarding part of the learning process. – For more visit ‘Promoting a Growth Mindset’
- Turning Ideas into Reality - Making Mindset and Toolset - Creativity and imagination are wonderful and should be encouraged but innovation is driven by putting an idea into practice. More often than not this process is going to involve making something and it is in this process that we find out if our great idea is going to work or needs some more planning. Students need experience with making to have an understanding of the processes that go into the products we use. Thinking with your hands brings a new way of seeing the world and for innovators that new perspective can lead to the required breakthrough – For more visit ‘Making as Problem Based Learning’
- Creativity & Critical Thinking - Essential elements for innovation and it is not an accident that they are often lumped together. The trick is to know when to let our creativity run the show and when to allow our critical brain to put the brake on. For more visit - 'Creating & Innovating'
- Collaboration - We have a vision of innovators working in isolation. The lone genius who discovers the next big thing. Innovators like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison are largely to blame for this concept but the reality is even they worked as part of a team. Collaboration and the ability to develop ideas in a team is essential and something our students need practice at. For more visit 'Thinking Interdependently'
- Thinking Skills and Metacognition - Thinking in general is something we do not do well but it is a skill that can be improved. Habits of Mind, Making Thinking Visible, Thinkers Hats and Keys are all tools that will allow students to develop their skills for thinking. Metacognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ will help students to analyse their thought process and understand the decisions they are making. – For more visit ‘Encouraging Metacognition for Learning’ or 'Thinking about your Thinking'
- Understanding of Design Cycle and Valuing Process over Product - The design cycle is used by innovators because it works. Having a structure for the process of innovation brings focus and helps us to stay on track. We often say we need to think outside the box but as Ewen McIntosh points out ‘We need the box’ if the box is a structure that helps us develop our ideas from raw imaginings into something useful. – For more visit ‘An Introduction to Design'
- A STEM Foundation - This might not be required for every innovative idea but increasingly it will play a part in many of them. Understanding the fundamentals of STEM, knowing what is and isn’t possible and being able to speak the language of technologists and engineers will ease the process of bringing many ideas into fruition. – For more visit ‘Is STEM the Key?’
- Role Models - If our students are going to think like innovators they need exposure to innovative thinkers. As teachers we need to allow our students to see the innovative thinking we do. Along with this they need to see us make mistakes and engage in a process of evaluating where things went wrong. Reaching out to the community, making connections with universities and industry are other ways of bringing innovators and innovative thinking into the classroom. One easy way towards this is through the CSIROs ‘Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’ programme. For more visit ‘Creativity in Science and Technology: CREST’
- Empathy - Lastly but possibly most importantly our students need empathy. If we are to innovate towards a better world it starts with empathy. For more visit ‘The Cultivation of Empathy’
Developing an innovators mindset takes years of exposure to this way of thinking. After years of teacher led learning in school and then university it is too much to expect a young graduate to suddenly shift gears. We need to allow our students to experience the innovators mindset while they are young and we need to enrich our students' capacity for innovation before they enter High School. Our students start school with the imagination they need for innovation, we need to add the processes that will allow them to turn their ideas into the next big thing.