When I work to distill my view of 21st c. education into a word, I most often find myself zeroing in on “problem-solving:” real-world, complex, problem solving.  I’d like to see every syllabus open with a list of the problems we seek to solve with the learning we will acquire in the course, and every class open with a problem to confront and tackle.   (Essential questions works well too, and is not, as I see it, very different from my notion of genuine, real world problems).   Problem-solving is, paired with critical thinking, the first of Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills for Teens Today in his incredibly important Global Achievement Gap.

But increasingly I am finding that another single word is competing for top honors: innovation.   Let’s develop our schools to teach ever more for innovation in our students, for their ability to critically assess problems, and then envision and yes imagine solutions for them which are original and creative.   Wagner doesn’t list innovation itself among his seven, but he does pair Curiosity and Imagination as the last of his seven., and together they capture most of what I see in the word innovation.

These are great words, and great concepts, but  I worry that creativity and imagination are a bit too open-ended in the interpretations and connotations they offer: sometimes an education of creativity and imagination isn’t going to be effective in generating intellectual focus and discipline.   Innovation though, it is my hope, brings creativity and imagination back to the real world of problems and solutions, and broadens the learning from art studio to science laboratory.  (Not to abandon the art studio– it is essential in this work– but creativity creates a connotation that we might remain there, and I want to make sure our conceptualization of this kind of education includes the science lab just as much).

Tom Friedman, always an influence here, made this point, (again), in a recent column.

the country that uses this crisis to make its population smarter and more innovative — and endows its people with more tools and basic research to invent new goods and services — is the one that will not just survive but thrive down the road…Lately, there has been way too much talk about minting dollars and too little about minting our next Thomas Edison, Bob Noyce, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Vint Cerf, Jerry Yang, Marc Andreessen, Sergey Brin, Bill Joy and Larry Page.

What does education for innovation look like in practice?   Problem-solving education is well demonstrated at schools like New Technology High School and High Tech High, but I am not aware of schools with programs as detailed for the work educating for innovation (E4I).  Weaving into every curriculum the work of scrutinizing the status quo, envisioning alternatives, generating creative solutions, and developing ever more real and sophisticated propositions will be a start.   The arts, performing and fine, take on a new importance in E4I as we come to better understand them not as after-thoughts to English, Math and Science, but as essential to generating a creative mindset.   Science Labs need to move from follow the recipe experiments to more open-ended experiences of students designing the experiments that test their original hypotheses.   (The IB Science lab curricula, btw, do a better job at this than the AP).

I am curious too about measurement– how will we measure the success we have had at E4I?  Can we devise a simple assessment that we give entering ninth graders and departing twelfth graders, wherein they are posed a relatively easy to understand problem, and asked to generate two alternative approaches to resolving it, and then compare the results?

Here at St. Gregory, it is my intention to foster and carry forward a conversation about E4I, and we may consider it as a broad framing tool for defining the vision of unique and value-add education that our school is committed to providing our students.