Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

— Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


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2 thoughts on “Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

  1. I wonder – how would the parent be able to identify “innovative teaching”? More than that, is innovation in teaching a guarantee of success? (I remember a school system back in the 60s or so, where the method was to let the kids just do whatever they wanted. There may even have been a followup study.)

    By definition, innovation implies “new and different”; “better” is assumed.

    The old style (Middle Ages on) of education was simple: the professor lectured, the students took notes, and that was it. That got us scholars like Erasmus, in spite of the system. Then about the mid-1600s, they discovered experimentation – you learned about the world by observing it. That led to a flowering of science and art.

    Clearly, teaching – education – should be a two-way communication between teacher and student – but also among students.

    It is definitely encouraging to see that innovation can be learned – like creativity. Like all talent, those are distributed unequally – but everyone can get better at it.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I agree that new and different do not equate to better. I also couldn’t agree with you more about communication between teacher/student and student/student. I would also add independent time for the student to observe, gather thoughts, then share, analyze, and evaluate with peers, and finally reflect.

    Innovation and inquiry have to be purposeful, and change should happen only if there is indeed a better way to do something. Throwing novel ideas at a wall in hopes that something sticks like the example you gave is not the way to go about change. However ignoring changes that are inevitable and hanging on to status quo can be quite unfortunate. Kodak and recently R.I.M. are two companies that I think of who have suffered from not adapting and innovating.

    The tricky part is predicting what those inevitable changes are and recognizing where you are in relation to those changes. Some people seem to have a knack for it. Can we teach it?

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