Innovation and Change

In education, when the words ‘innovation’ and ‘change’ are mentioned, many teachers roll their eyes. These words are almost seen as ‘bad words.’  There are several reasons for this:

1) The words are over used (the way the word ‘epic’ is used these days to describe every summer blockbuster coming…even worse is ‘most epic’).

2) In education, it isn’t easy to change or innovate.

3) The words don’t mean the same thing to different people.

I recently read Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner.

Near the beginning of the book, Wagner writes about a group of leaders at Olin College who were asked to discuss how to create environments that support innovators. A senior executive from IBM said, “It’s a lot easier to name the things that stifle innovation like rigid bureaucratic structures, isolation, and a high-stress work environment.”

Well, that could describe most work environments, especially schools.

Wagner describes innovation as the place where motivation, expertise, and creative thinking skills come together. With motivation being far more important than skill or expertise. In his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner lists essential skills that students are going to need to be successful in the world. While these aren’t new things, and the seem like common sense, they are definitely things that schools do not emphasize enough, if at all. In that book, the 7 survival skills listed were:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

Collaboration by Networks and Leading by Influence

Agility and Adaptability

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Curiosity and Imagination

Anyone looking at this list would say those are great things. They make perfect sense. But sadly, most students across the country are not getting opportunities to engage in learning that require them to use those skills. There’s still a lot of emphasis on getting the one right answer. As Wagner further explored innovation, he found that his list needed a few more skills:


a willingness to experiment

take calculated risks and tolerate failure

have the capacity for ‘design thinking’

According to Wagner, these can all be learned. He makes a strong case about letting kids make mistakes so they can learn from them and develop resilience. He criticizes the “tiger mom” method that doesn’t allow play or have any room for failure, and he criticizes ‘helicopter’ parents that indulge and insulate their children from failure. “Neither kind is likely to produce innovators.”

So how can teachers create environments for innovation when their own working environment doesn’t promote that kind of independence? School change seems to happen at a glacial rate. Most don’t have the capacity for “design thinking.” That’s where you identify a problem, and you set about trying to solve it. First, you experiment. Consider this first experiment a prototype. It may fail at first, but the idea is to keep refining that solution, getting feedback, experimenting further with more trial and error, and eventually end up with something better, more efficient, and often more beautiful. Schools work on yearly calendars. Once the wheels on the bus get going in the fall, heaven forbid that one look at a problem during the school year and try to make it better. The time schools usually take to decide something new is at the end of each year. Why? Because changes during the school year can be too disruptive. But disruption is often the outcome of good innovation.

Innovation, in this sense isn’t simply about trying something new. It’s not about whimsy. Innovation should be purposeful. Being an Innovator requires one to challenge the status quo and constantly ask questions. Innovation is about looking at ways to simplify, make things more efficient, and make them more affordable.

Creating Innovators is a great book, with excellent stories and suggestions for parents and educators. There are many books about innovation, but this one appealed to me as it focused on how to foster these skills in our youth. Hopefully, I’ll write a little more about this book in the near future as Wagner provides ways to help foster innovation, and he also explores school change. Again, ‘change’ isn’t a bad word, if it is done with meaningful intent.

Speaking of change, I’ll leave with this quote:

“To know about change is to know about inertia, which is to say that sometimes the status quo needs a wakeup call. You can’t wait for success, you have to kick start it.”

(Fullan, 2009)


One thought on “Innovation and Change

  1. The 7 skills: I completely agree. (Creativity should be in there somewhere.) The problem is, how do you teach them?

    Curiosity and Imagination: We’re born with that. Just watch a group of up-to-3- or 4-year olds play? (Then there’s the old story of the kid who had a lot more fun with the box it came in than the toy. Calvin (of C. and Hobbes) is the archetype for these kids.) My theory is that those things get drummed out of us during K-12, and we have to put a lot of time and effort into training them back again.

    Effective Oral and Written Communication: Wl, frget that 1. Way 2 hard.

    “… emphasis on getting the one right answer.” I’ve heard stories (most likely 3rd or 4th hand) of teachers (usually in math) who, when a student comes up with a novel – or at least different – solution, marks it :wrong”.

    “… insulate their children from failure.” Cf Thomas Edison and the 3000 or so filaments that didn’t work.

    “Experiment” is something where we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. (We hope for the best, of course.) Where we know how it’s going to turn out (like all those chemistry and physics lab “experiments”), it’s a demonstration. (Of course, when you’re taking the class, you don’t really know how fast the ball is going to drop, or what will happen when you pour beaker A into beaker B.

    I’m looking forward to more of your take on “Creating Innnovators”.

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