How to Turn Your Classroom into an Idea Factory

| August 20, 2012 | 21 Comments
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Students building a cafe at Brightworks School in San Francisco.

By Suzie Boss
The following suggestions for turning K-12 classrooms into innovation spaces come from Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World, published in July by Solution Tree.

How can we prepare today’s students to become tomorrow’s innovators? It’s an urgent challenge, repeated by President Obama, corporate CEOs, and global education experts like Yong Zhao and Tony Wagner. Virtually every discussion of 21st-century learning puts innovation and its close cousin, creativity, atop the list of skills students must have for the future.

If we’re serious about preparing students to become innovators, educators have some hard work ahead. Getting students ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges means helping them develop a new set of skills and fresh ways of thinking that they won’t acquire through textbook-driven instruction. Students need opportunities to practice these skills on right-sized projects, with supports in place to scaffold learning. They need to persist and learn from setbacks. That’s how they’ll develop the confidence to tackle difficult problems.

How do we fill the gap between saying we must encourage innovation and teaching students how to actually generate and execute original ideas? The answers are emerging from classrooms across the country where pioneering teachers are making innovation a priority. Their strategies vary widely, from tinkering workshops and design studios to digital gaming and global challenges. By emphasizing problem solving and creativity in the core curriculum, these advance scouts are demonstrating that innovation is both powerful and teachable.

Across disparate fields, from engineering and technology to the social and environmental sectors, innovators use a common problem-solving process. They frame problems carefully, looking at issues from all sides to find opportunity gaps. They may generate many possible solutions before focusing their efforts. They refine solutions through iterative cycles, learning from failure along with success. When they hit on worthy ideas, innovators network with others and share results widely.

In the classroom, this same process corresponds neatly with the stages of project-based learning. In PBL, students investigate intriguing questions that lead them to learn important academic content. They apply their learning to create something new, demonstrate their understanding, or teach others about the issue they have explored. By emphasizing key thinking skills throughout the PBL process, teachers can guide students to operate the same way that innovators do in all kinds of settings.

Here are eight tips to borrow from classrooms where teachers are reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.

1.   WELCOME AUTHENTIC QUESTIONS.

Good projects start with good questions. Listen closely to students to find out what makes them curious. Instead of presenting them with ready-made assignments, invite student feedback when you are designing projects. Make sure your driving questions for projects involve real-world issues that students care about investigating.

2.   ENCOURAGE EFFECTIVE TEAMWORK.

Projects offer an ideal context to develop students’ collaboration skills, but make sure teamwork doesn’t feel contrived. If projects are too big for any one student to manage alone, team members will have a real reason to rely on each other’s contributions. Teach students how to break a big project into manageable pieces and bring out the best ideas from everyone on the team. Offer them examples of innovations (from the Mars rover to the iPad) that wouldn’t have been possible without team efforts.

3.   BE READY TO GO BIG.

Innovators have a tendency to think big. They know how to use social networking tools to make a worthy idea go viral. Encourage students to share their projects with audiences beyond the classroom, using digital tools like YouTube or online publishing sites. Help them build networks to exchange ideas with peers and learn from experts around the globe.

4.   BUILD EMPATHY.

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovators who have empathy can step outside their own perspective and see issues from multiple viewpoints. Approaching a problem this way leads to better solutions. Teach students strategies for making field observations, conducting focus groups or user interviews, or gathering stories that offer insights into others’ perspectives.

5.   UNCOVER PASSION.

Passion is what keeps innovators motivated to persist despite long odds and flawed first efforts. Find out what drives students’ interests during out-of-school time, and look for opportunities to connect these pursuits with school projects. Ask students: When you feel most creative, what are you doing? What tools or technologies are you using? Their answers should set the stage for more engaging projects.

6.   AMPLIFY WORTHY IDEAS.

In today’s flat world, where access to information is ubiquitous, innovation can happen anywhere. Opportunities to support good ideas are also getting flattened. Philanthropy and venture funding, once reserved for the wealthy, have been crowdsourced with online platforms like Kiva (www.kiva.org) and Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com). To participate fully in the culture of innovation, students need to be able to do more than generate their own ideas. They also need to know how to critically evaluate others’ brainstorms and decide which ones are worth supporting. Develop classroom protocols for students to critically evaluate each other’s ideas. They may decide to throw their collective energy behind one promising idea or pull components from multiple teams into a final project.

7.   KNOW WHEN TO SAY NO.

Being a critical thinker also means being able to spot ideas that aren’t ready for prime time. Bold new ideas may have bugs that need to be worked out. An approach that appears to be a game-changer may be too expensive for the benefits it affords or may have unanticipated consequences. Give students opportunities to look for potential pitfalls and know when to say no.

8.   ENCOURAGE BREAKTHROUGHS.

Will students come up with breakthrough ideas in every project? Probably not, but you can encourage them to stretch their thinking by setting ambitious goals. What would students be able to do or demonstrate if they were truly operating as innovators?  Provide them with real-world examples by sharing stories of innovators from many fields, including social innovators who tackle wicked problems like poverty or illiteracy. Share the back stories of breakthroughs to show how much effort went into each inspired idea. Let students know they can’t expect to reach breakthrough solutions to every problem they tackle. Finding out what doesn’t work can be a useful outcome, too. Genuine innovation is indeed rare—but worth recognizing and celebrating when it happens.

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  • GrammieO@grammieknows.com

    What an absolutely wonderful list of ways to encourage our kids. This is something that will work with children whereever they are geographically as well as have them develop some life skills that they will be able to use throughout their entire lives. This is education at its best. Hope lots of teachers and parents read this, and then put the ideas into practice. I would love to add this to a blog I am working on for my site, could I have permission?

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  • barbgiven

    Congratulations on writing a succinct, informative article that ends with practical ideas. Well done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cath.smeeton Cath Smeeton

    Great article I am currently writing a new two year course for senior school business students and found many worthwhile suggestions to help develop an innovative approach to learning.

  • Patricia-EWCOC

    Well done. This is the premise and focus of our our-of-school program. We have seen students change their attitude about their ability to learn because they were not bored and it appealed to their learning style. Thank you.

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  • ymarquez24

    This article
    is a great outline for all teachers (experienced and new) to use in their
    classroom. Students nowadays are very
    dependent therefore do not like to think.
    Structuring our classrooms where they can not only develop their
    thinking skills, but also discover their abilities at all levels. Technology
    plays an important role in aiding students to develop their learning to the 21st
    century. School districts need to
    enforce funding for technology and train their teachers to use technology in
    their classrooms. This will build an environment
    of intrigue and fun. As a Family and Consumer Science teacher, I
    believe all of these points can be displayed in my class because of the
    importance of life skills and range of topics I incorporate into my
    lessons. This was a great article.

  • Careshia Moore

    This article is so timely. I have been having this conversation all this week. Through conversation I realized that the exploration that myspn was afforded in Montessori is what’s missing out of his current educational experience. I believe that just learning from a text book is not what will prepare him for innovation and problem solving in the future. A a former gifted teacher, I did not have a manual and therefore created all of my lessons and experiences. I remember thinking as a new teacher “all kids can learn this way”. This article has hit the mail on the head. I just wonder implementation is feasible with all of the increased responsibility and looming budget cuts in most districts? Perhaps something I will explore on my blog as well. http://www.competetosucceed.com

  • Kate Schoen

    I love this! It’s the kid version of the “Deep Dive”. What an awesome new look for school.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/clements.nicholas Nicholas Clements

    This is a great break down of the essentials to drive creative design projects. Thank you.

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  • http://twitter.com/joey89924 joey

    innovation is both powerful and teachable.
    UC3842

  • Rick Ackerly

    These eight points are the essence of education. Thank you.

  • ana

    Absolutely what education should be.

  • Clyde Gaw

    Thank you for your article. There is a growing movement in art education today that runs parallel to your thesis. Teaching for Artistic Behavior has been in existence since 2001. Once teachers and students experience the magic that occurs when autonomy is granted ( http://clydegaw.blogspot.com/ ) and children become partners in the decision making process central to the learning activities they participate in, the folly of current approaches to standardized forms of education becomes clear.

  • MJBK

    Taking children out of their seats to bring projects to life usually ignites enthusiam and interest in learning. Projects and inquiry are an improtant way to learn that get put on the back burner. Because it takes time and management of the classroom different than children sitting in their seats to learn.

  • deserteacher

    Many teachers fear projects that involve less structure and teacher-control. It sounds like a big mess and discipline nightmare. However, projects can be planned and measured by the structure needed for each individual class. If a middle school teacher has five classes throughout the day, each lesson plan can be modified to meet the needs of the distinct needs of that class–within reason.

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