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Innovation in School: How Rare Is It?

January 9, 2012

Tinkering Builds Curiosity Which Leads to Innovation

I just finished the book, Innovators’ DNA, by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen.  The comprehensive interviews the authors completed told an interesting story about the qualities that innovative people and companies exhibit. One of the first questions the authors pose is: where do disruptive innovations come from?  In part, they answer the question by looking at what Innovative people excel at or how they approach their work.  What they discovered is that innovative people are able to make connections between ideas that aren’t obviously related. They call this talent, associating or associative thinking.  The talent of associating is dependent upon four other discovery skills that innovative people possess in varying degrees.

  • Innovators frequently ask questions.
  • Innovators keenly observe the world around them looking for connections.
  • Innovators network with others because they realize the power in collaboration.
  • Innovators experiment with ideas, try them on for size and see where it takes them.

What Dyer and Gregersen learned from their work is:

one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors.  If we change our behaviors we can improve our creative impact.  (page 3 of Kindle edition)

So one of my questions is: can traditional schools, with a course of study divided into discrete disciplines that rarely overlap, create an environment that is a hotbed for innovative thinking?  What are your thoughts about this question?  While educators teach students how to ask questions, keenly observe, and experiment with ideas, we rarely encourage them to network with other learners and we tend not to teach them how to connect ideas across disciplines, associative thinking.  Since teachers from different disciplines seldom exchange ideas on teaching and learning or collaborate on interdisciplinary lessons, it is clear why schools struggle teaching students the process of innovation.

If we want to create an atmosphere in schools that promotes innovation and creative thinking on the part of students, then we need to redesign our curriculum to allow students more time and space for:

  • asking open-ended questions rather than searching for right answers
  • observing the world around them so that they learn how to look for connections.
  • networking within and outside the school environment so that they see the power of collaborative thinking
  • experimenting with ideas so that they realize that the cycle of inquiry in experimentation can be a source of innovation.

Dyer and Gregersen write,

Innovative people systematically engage in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting behaviors to spark new ideas.

If we extrapolated their views on innovation to schools, we would systematically develop processes that encourage questioning, observing, networking and experimenting on the part of our students.  We would implement strategies that encouraged students to be curious thinkers, helping them to nurture and develop their curiosity in all areas of study.

One of the powerful outcomes of Innovators’ DNA is that:

creativity is not just a genetic endowment and not just a cognitive skill.

Creative or innovative thinking emerges from behavioral skills that each of us possesses.  We all have the potential to be innovative thinkers if we develop or skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

In their discussion of associating or associational thinking, the process by which the brain pulls together different ideas from novel inputs, they point out that:

Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the interaction of diverse disciplines and fields.  (page 22 of Kindle edition)

Through connecting ideas, innovative thinkers create and change the direction in which their organization is headed.  They take risks, but risks that can be the fuel for change.  The authors write about innovators risk-taking in this way.

As we examined what motivates innovators, we discovered two themes.  First, they actively desire to change the status quo.  Second, they regularly take smart risks to make that change happen.  (page 25 of Kindle edition)

Does traditional schooling encourage students to connect ideas across disciplines or connect ideas from their areas of study to real world problems or challenges?  Does traditional schooling encourage students to take risks?  Think of a typical day in a college-preparatory school.

  • 7:50 am     Arrive and go to homeroom to check in, talk with an advisor and friends
  • 8:10 am     English for a 50-minute class on writing, reading and discussing poetry, literature, etc.
  • 9:05 am     Math for a 50-minute class on learning a new concept, seeing sample problems solved, solving problems like the samples.
  • 10:00 am   Maybe a break for 15 minutes
  • 10:20 am   History for a 50-minute class composed of lecturing, note-taking, discussion, and maybe a project on a historical period.
  • 11:15 am   Art for a 50-minute class that might challenge my limitations and expose me to the creative process
  • 12:10 pm   Lunch for 30 minutes
  • 12:50 pm   Science for a 50-minute class (maybe I will have an extended lab period) composed of lecturing, note-taking, problem-solving (very much like math if a chemistry or physics class).  Maybe some demonstrations or lab experiments.
  • 1:40 pm     Spanish for a 50-minute class of vocabulary, grammar, application to the spoken word, and maybe some cultural activities.

Now I realize that I might be over reaching a little bit, but my guess is that this would be a pretty typical school day for most students in the United States.

Notice in the typical day that students have almost no time to connect ideas from their different learning experiences.  There is almost no time set aside in the day to reflect on what they are learning and ask questions, observe, network, and experiment with the ideas they are learning. There is no time set aside for associational thinking.   How can we expect students who graduate from secondary schools to be innovative thinkers if we don’t give them time to do what innovative thinkers need to do?

  • What about “tinkering labs” that students go to throughout the day to explore and connect?
  • What about schools that are not subdivided by disciplines or departments and encourage students to use all their knowledge to problem solve?
  • What about schools were the curriculum is built around important ideas, questions, or challenge problems we face in our society?

With regard to taking risks, schools do not promote risk-taking on the part of their students.  Given the overwhelming amount of time spent on grading and assessment, as much as 20% of school time, students learn to be risk averse for fear of the impact “failure” might have on their grades in a course.  While this is somewhat oversimplified, many teachers I work with are concerned about this very issue.  In Alfie Kohn’s article, The Case Against Grades, that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership, he makes the case that grades:

  • tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning;
  • create a  preference for the easiest possible task (risk adverse);
  • tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

Dyer and Gregersen quote Steve Jobs as saying: “Creativity is connecting things.”  If we want our students to be creative thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and ultimately innovative people, we have to give them time to connect things.  We should consider approaching our design of curricula using an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary lens.  The Holistic Education Network writes about the value of “providing more holistic education experiences” for students.  They define transdisciplinary as

focus on an issue such as pollution or hunger both within and beyond discipline boundaries with the possibility of new perspectives.  (from their website, http://www.hent.org/transdisciplinary.htm)

The case could be made that learning in an environment where the disciplines are isolated promotes habitual or unimaginative thinking.  Is that kind of thinking we promote in traditional schools?  Dyer and Gregersen also provide a quote from Einstein, in which he referred to the creative process as “combinatorial play and the essential feature in productive thought.”  What if learning was more about combinatorial play?  What would that kind of school look and feel like?  Let’s imagine and create those kind of schools so that all of our students leave with the discovery skills they need to be innovative thinkers and doers.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2012 3:15 pm

    Great article. You hit a good balance between summarizing the book and giving your perspective (great for those of us interested in the material, but who may not read it ourselves).

    Your discussion about cross-pollination between subjects made me think of Ken Robinson’s work. In his book The Element, he talks about school systems that are designed around collaborative learning, as an alternative to the discreet separation of topics. One such school in the UK set up its own “town” in which students came together to act as citizens and business owners, working to make their mock-city a success through application of the traditional subjects.

    There are so many interesting possibilities out there. Thanks for the reminder of how important it is to strive for creative, innovative thinking in early education.

    • January 9, 2012 4:49 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts! I appreciate it.

      This work on innovation is important. I love The Element. It definitely relates to this work.

      Bob

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