Previously I referred to Friedman’s New York Times article on the importance, centrality even, of the skill of innovation for the 21st century.
Friedman pointed readers to this book, by Judy Estrin, which I think is somewhat unfortunately titled Closing the Innovation Gap. The title doesn’t work: first, the word innovation immediately follows closing, and by the time you get to the word gap, you are already processing the wrong message. Second, Estrin acknowledges herself there is no gap yet– Americans are still better innovators than anyone else- the problem is we need to focus on maintaining that edge, not losing it. And third, she also recognizes that innovation is no zero-sum game, such that if everyone else is doing it we will fall behind— it is not such a sharp competition as the word gap would suggest. Everyone on the planet is lifted by everyone’s innovation. But do we need more of it, in the US? YES! Hence my suggested retitling: Widening the Innovation Window. (I realize it might not sell books as well; sometimes you need a message crafted on competition and a bit of edgy fear to sell well in airport bookstores).
I am going to do two entries here– one on the importance of, and methods for, teaching our students to be innovative and creative. That is this piece. Then, I want to use the book to springboard in a different way: how can we make our schools labs of innovation.
First, let’s list her five core values for innovation– values I think I could happily build a school around.
1. Questioning. Like we have seen in the writings of Wiggins and Graff, and as emphasized heavily by Wagner in Global Achievement Gap, questioning is at the heart of good thinking, learning and teaching. Bravo to Estrin for putting this first.
2. Risk-taking. Failure is an inherent part of innovation– and people need to be trusted they will not flop if their experiment does.
3. Openness. Curiosity thrives in open environments, and sharing ideas is the best way to create synergy and gain feedback.
4. Patience. Estrin bashes repeatedly Wall Street for its focus on quarterly earnings, and it is critical we better appreciate patience as a tool for instilling innovation and facilitating its development. Sternberg is a close relation here: his whole notion of creativity it seems is based on resilience– those who are more creative are those who are more patient, more persistent, more resilient. Estrin, in a very Sternbergian vein, writes that “It takes a special kind of resilience to get back again after being knocked down…If failure is a stigma, employees and leaders will not be willing to take the personal or professional risks required for innovation.”
5. Trust. Trust is at the heart of an innovative endeavour– we must give freedom to others to experiment, and support their trials, and welcome questions and challenges.
Some other highlights from this important book:
1. As much we need to embrace data (see my thoughts on testing, for instance), we need to remember that innovation is messy (messiness is one of my favorite metaphors.) To quote: “Organizations have lost tolerance for anything that couldn’t be measured through the metrics dashboard on the executive’s desktop PC. Innovation can be a messy and inefficient process; it’s not one that can be managed through simple metrics.” And later: “if you force operational metrics too early, few projects with the disruptive potential to create future growth will ever pass the tests.”
2. We need to develop ourselves and our kids to be T shaped: “those who have a depth of knowledge in a particular area, but also the breadth to communicate well with people in other disciplines.”
3. So what is called for in K-12 education (in 21-K12) Sounding very Pinkian, she writes “we need to prepare a workforce of innovators who will be employed in the creation of new markets, products, and services, as well as jobs that require a human touch.”
4. Bubble tests won’t cut it– we have to educate to “think outside the bubble.”
5. Technology proficiency is essential, and let’s employ laptops and cell phones in learning. “the next step for educators is to determine how computers can be used to enhance learning through individualized lesson plans, online access to experts and other students, and immersive educational environments.”
6. Math, science and engineering is essential, but they need to be taught and learned in hand-son, less is more, full inquiry methods. Get students into working labs and tackling real world problems. Give kids the thrill of building things, taking things apart, even blowing things up.
7. Finally, again like Pink and others say, we need to engender innovation via the “right brain.” “Learning about literature, history, and the arts encourages curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and communication, all of which are essential skills for potential innovators.”