How Do I Teach Innovation?

Foster creative problem-solving, perseverance, and grit in the classroom.

January 12, 2015
Steve Kellett
School district administrator
Dubai American Academy
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

My school, like many others, is pushing to become more innovative. Parents, teachers, principals, and students have all agreed that innovation is a key component of our future success. This commitment is a key part of our new mission statement -- it is proudly referenced on our school website and plastered on teacher blogs. Yet despite such widespread acceptance of this vision, we lack a clear definition of what we mean by innovation or how to bring that about. Many of our teachers still equate innovation as simply introducing technology into their otherwise unchanged lessons. Unsurprisingly, such an approach hasn't resulted in any demonstrable change in our students' outcomes.

Teaching the same lessons using new tools simply isn't enough. If we really want to promote change in our students, we need to accept that innovation is not something we do, but an attitude we foster. To me, our goal is to help learners gain the skills required to create. Creativity isn't brought about by just giving a student an iPad or through some new lesson, but it is a mindset that we continually promote.

Develop risk-taking by rewarding effort. 
Every class has students coming in at different levels. Students may not have control over their skills right now, but they can control the effort they give toward the learning activities. When we praise students for their effort -- regardless of outcomes -- they will continue to give their best. This idea is the cornerstone of Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset. Dweck demonstrated that students who are praised for their ability to find the right answers are hesitant to innovate or take risks. Innovation might result in "wrong" answers, which damages the student’s chances to receive praise for being "right." 

If we instead aim to praise and highlight learners who take chances and put forth effort, students will learn that it's OK to try things even if they don’t work out at first. This isn't to say that we should ignore the product. Students still need timely and accurate feedback, but praise should focus on effort and not outcomes.

Create opportunities to identify problems and ask questions. 
Innovators identify and understand problems. As educators, we often provide questions or learning situations that lack opportunities for building these skills. Try to give your students a goal or an overarching problem that has many potential barriers and sub-problems. By practicing overcoming these hurdles, our learners will become more comfortable with this vital part of innovation.

Develop resilience through challenge. 
Meaningful innovation isn't easy, and our classes need to replicate an appropriate level of challenge to build the stick-to-it-ness that innovation requires. Any problem that is really worth solving probably isn't going to be done in five minutes, and the first attempts will likely be unsuccessful. Yet all too often, these quick-to-solve problems are what we present to our students as learning activities in class. When students are constantly given bite-sized, sugar-coated challenges, they don’t develop the skills needed to tackle more meaningful issues.

Instead, we need to present our learners with large challenges that don’t work out the first time. We need to coach them on what to do when they get stuck. While practicing on small parts of larger problems is certainly required, we need to ensure that students experience the kinds of large challenges that stump them. The act of working through something once thought to be impossible develops the character needed to be a lifelong innovator.

Changing attitudes is a challenge, but these steps are the building blocks for growing innovative learners.

Photo: "innovation - 3" by hyoin min. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.