We are a society that is addicted to the notion of innovation. Everyone wants to innovate, or be seen as innovative. But what does this really mean? And why would we want to do this? The word innovate comes from the Latin and literally means to bring something new into existence, or to renew or change something in a major way. Today, we often use the word to mean something similar to following the example of someone who truly created something new. For example, we might praise those who adapt to "innovative ways of working" during the current world health crisis. There is nothing wrong with following what others have created, but the true power in innovation is to face a challenge or to recognize when something could be better and then to create some novel approach or mechanism for making the improvements we envision. This is true innovation.
Should we teach students to innovate?
As we have seen in many of our explorations in this blog, the world does not always behave in the ways we expect it to. Our current situation, with a virus that has so quickly been able to spread around the entire world, is a clear example of increasing unpredictability fueled by our modern travel patterns. The age-old models on which we have previously depended in many areas of life do not all serve us as well as they used to. We need skilled problem solvers in order to face the challenges we know will come with increasing speed and frequency. Human beings are natural-born problem solvers, but there are ways we can drive this kind of thinking with our activities at school. And it's never too soon to start.
How does one teach innovation?
"How" is exactly the right question to be asking now. We know there are many important skills and subject areas that can be considered to be “basic knowledge.” In other words, everyone should know these things to be considered educated. However, it is also the case that “knowing things” is not enough. In our students’ future, effective contributors will need not only to know information, but also how to apply knowledge to new situations. We can help them develop these skills today by re-engineering the way we teach. More than ever, students today should be learning to formulate questions for themselves and try out old knowledge in new situations. At ASH, much of our teaching already follows this model. We help students explore the world through a process of inquiry, taking advantage of the natural curiosity we all have. We want students to maintain curiosity even while they know more and more about “how the world works.” And yet, we can’t tell them with any certainty “how the world will work” when they are out of school. This is why the how is just as important as the what in today’s schools.
There is a popular US game show; Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? that appears in various versions around the world. The format of the show pits adults against young children as they answer questions about discrete bits of information such as names of elements in the periodic table, or the order of US Presidents, or the dates of a particular conflict. The youngsters almost always outperform the adults. For me, the show is good fun, but I believe it also reveals something important to consider: perhaps it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be smart. In the “real world,” we know being smart demands far more than quick recall of information, so why should that simple recall be enough to be classified as smart in school? It is a skill, no doubt, but will it help us innovate when necessary?