We need not just educational innovation, but education for innovation.   Our problems are too great, and our global competitive challenges too significant, for us to feel successful unless we educate our students to be effective innovators.

We know too that innovation happens in clusters, it happens in open societies which value and affirm innovation and create communities of inquiry, experimentation, and practice.   Let’s help our schools be such places.

Two articles I encountered just today offer valuable insight into what I like to think of as the Ed2In project.

The first came from Harvard University’s Gazette, in an article entitled Innovate/Create: Innovation, Creativity power fresh thinking at Harvard.   What is the formula, simplified?  “Harvard’s combination of questing minds, passionate spirits, and intellectual seekers tackling society’s toughest problems fosters a creativity that has produced a stream of innovations.”

The Harvard article asserts that “As counterintuitive as it may seem, innovation can be taught.”   Confusingly, the very next paragraph backflips in saying that children, being naturally creative, don’t need to be taught.  But let’s set that aside.   Their suggestions:

  • A new emphasis on design-based teaching, Murray said, will give students hands-on experience that teaches in ways that lectures and readings cannot.
  • introductory computer science course that not only teaches basic computer programming, but it forces students to program on their own, with sometimes transformative results.
  • science teaching should be reformed. Much traditional instruction requires students to memorize facts and solve problems, but Mazur believes that problem solving taught in school is unlike problem solving in the real world.
  • classes have to take students out of their comfort zones, Mazur said. He encourages his graduate students to try new approaches without worrying about results — at least at first.

I also encountered today a very much better article in a less distinguished publication, an industry newsletter entitled eSchool news. To its credit, however, eSchool news recruited a distinguished thinker on innovation for its article “How and Why to Teach Innovation in our Schools,” U. Mass professor Alexander Hiam.    The piece is very good, and I fear it may be overlooked: it deserves attention.

Hiam argues for a Five I approach to facilitating the learning of innovation: “Imagination, Inquiry, Invention, Implementation, and Initiative (the latter being a foundational trait that enables the other four).”

Specific suggestions:

Imagination:  Hiam fears that classrooms which demand attention upon the teacher’s priority, always, replace daydreaming with discipline.   Surely there is a place for discipline and focus– students have a great deal to learn, and we need to maximize their opportunity to do so.   But we should do so without creating environments so constricted that imaginative thinking withers.   Block scheduling is a small gesture in this direction, allowing both modes within a single class period; educators can practice zig-zag time plotting where students are asked to focus then wonder in alternatation.

Imagination also requires contrast and combination.

Imagination needs fuel, and the best fuel comes from bridging between apparently diverse or unrelated ideas, skill-sets, or objects… We need to stimulate imagination by encouraging students to master, say, an instrument plus a science, or any other such combination of skills. (And that, by the way, is I believe the strongest argument for why we must bring the arts back into our schools.)

Let’s be sure our schools are places of diverse learning environments where students are broadened, not narrowed, in their interests, and we seek to mash-up disciplines for this “bridging” which builds imagination.

Inquiry: Too great an emphasis on multiple choice testing and textbook/workbook curricula can narrow a student’s mindset to the single right answer rather than the many right questions.

Research and exploration are essential innovative behaviors. Students need to ask their own questions and then poke around in pursuit of possible answers.

Hence the problem with AP Science courses– they offer so little opportunity for or expectation of independent and creative research, privileging instead “canned” labs.  Fortunately, the AP is changing; we need messy studios and laboratories.   Hiam’s piece suggests it is fairly easy to incorporate more inquiry, but I wish he gave more examples and more examination of this important topic; he leaves me hanging.


Invention must be woven into the learning routine. “Can you think of a better way to do this math problem?” and “Can you apply what we’ve just learned about how the ancient Egyptians moved stones to build pyramids in some modern-day invention of your own?” These are two examples of invention challenges that students should be tackling in their weekly learning routine. Most are not.

I am thrilled about our new invention class, Design-Build Innovation, but as Hiam correctly points out, invention must be embedded into every subject.   What stops it?  More than anything else, it is not the lack of interest in the teacher, but the sense of pressure to cover the curricular breadth– there just isn’t time.   Hiam, to me, misses an important point: we need to narrow the breadth of what we seek to “cover,” in order to allow for this kind of depth.

Implementation: To continue with my enthusiasm about our new class, our students are required to do more than dream a new idea, they need to build it.    Innovation is a practice, and what we learn best we learn by doing.

Innovation is creativity, applied. At least, that’s a simple working definition of it, and it reminds us that a good idea doesn’t amount to anything unless it is translated into action. Students get remarkably little practice at implementing ideas. Implementation should be linked to some of the inventing students do (see above) so as to give them hands-on experience in the challenges of making ideas work. Usually ideas don’t work the first time you try. It takes refining the plan, learning from errors, and persisting. These skills, like imagining, inquiring, and inventing, are learned. Or not.

Initiative: Hiam hits his stride here, pushing harder to argue for reinventing school environments so that we prize student initiative rather than compliance.

Initiative may be the hardest of the Five I’s to teach, because it runs against the current of centralized classroom control. Students sit in desks and work on the same learning tasks, while the teacher runs activities from the front of the classroom.

Think of the classroom as a miniature society, and apply the widely-accepted finding that “inventiveness is more likely to occur if a society is less hierarchical since bureaucracy reduces creative activity.”

We must move against bureaucracy; we should seek  non-hierarchical and individualist classrooms.  “Activity based learning” (or what I would have labeled PBL) and research projects are recommended.

Inventive behavior is more common among people who, as adults, exhibit high agency (sometimes called self-efficacy), which means they feel in control of things and able to make a difference. People have maximum agency when they grow up doing difficult things, sometimes successfully but always with support and encouragement from those who believe they can succeed.

I concur with a movement against a tightly controlled classroom environment, and believe we must give more responsibility and more accountability to our students to inculcate their initiative.  But I do wonder about the use of individualistic here: surely there is evidence that innovation is not the work of lonely genius but the lively energy created by minds working together.    I’d hate to draw from Hiam that initiative runs counter to collaboration; both Steven B. Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation and Chris Anderson in his Crowd Accelerated Innovation argue otherwise.

Nevertheless, the five I’s are something to work with, something to share with our colleagues and ask ourselves what we can do more to promote.