One overriding challenge is now coming to the fore in public consciousness: We need to reinvent just about everything. Whether scientific advances, technology breakthroughs, new political and economic structures, environmental solutions, or an updated code of ethics for 21st century life, everything is in flux—and everything demands innovative, out of the box thinking.
The burden of reinvention, of course, falls on today’s generation of students. So it follows that education should focus on fostering innovation by putting curiosity, critical thinking, deep understanding, the rules and tools of inquiry, and creative brainstorming at the center of the curriculum.
This is hardly the case, as we know. In fact, innovation and the current classroom model most often operate as antagonists. The system is evolving, but not quickly enough to get young people ready for the new world. But I do believe there are a number of ways that teachers can bypass the system and offer students the tools and experiences that spur an innovative mindset. Here are ten ideas:
Move from projects to Project Based Learning. Most teachers have done projects, but the majority do not use the defined set of methods associated with high-quality PBL. These methods include developing a focused question, using solid, well crafted performance assessments, allowing for multiple solutions, enlisting community resources, and choosing engaging, meaningful themes for projects. PBL offers the best method we have presently for combining inquiry with accountability, and should be part of every teacher’s repertoire. See my website (www.thommarkham.com) or the Buck Institute (www.bie.org) for methods.
Teach concepts, not facts. Concept-based instruction overcomes the fact-based, rote-oriented nature of standardized curriculum. If your curriculum is not organized conceptually, use you own knowledge and resources to teach ideas and deep understanding, not test items.
Distinguish concepts from critical information. Preparing students for tests is part of the job. But they need information for a more important reason: To innovate, they need to know something. The craft precedes the art. Find the right blend between open-ended inquiry and direct instruction.
Make skills as important as knowledge. Innovation and 21st century skills are closely related. Choose several 21st century skills, such as collaboration or critical thinking, to focus on throughout the year. Incorporate them into lessons. Use detailed rubrics to assess and grade the skills.
Form teams, not groups. Innovation now emerges from teams and networks—and we can teach students to work collectively and become better collective thinkers. Group work is common, but team work is rare. Some tips: Use specific methods to form teams; assess teamwork and work ethic; facilitate high quality interaction through protocols and critique; teach the cycle of revision; and expect students to reflect critically on both ongoing work and final products. For peer collaboration rubrics, see the Top Ten Tools, downloadable from my website.
Use thinking tools. Hundreds of interesting, thought provoking tools exist for thinking through problems, sharing insights, finding solutions, and encouraging divergent solutions. Use Big Think tools or the Visible Thinking Routines developed at Harvard’s Project Zero.
Use creativity tools. Industry uses a set of cutting edge tools to stimulate creativity and innovation. As described in books such as Gamestorming or Beyond Words, the tools include playful games and visual exercises that can easily be used in the classroom.
Reward discovery. Innovation is mightily discouraged by our system of assessment, which rewards the mastery of known information. Step up the reward system by using rubrics with a blank column to acknowledge and reward innovation and creativity. I call it the Breakthrough column. See the Top Ten Tools.
Make reflection part of the lesson. Because of the coverage imperative, the tendency is to move on quickly from the last chapter and begin the next chapter. But reflection is necessary to anchor learning and stimulate deeper thinking and understanding. There is no innovation without rumination. If you’re looking for ideas on how to reflect on learning, contact me and I’ll send you what I use.
Be innovative yourself. This is the kicker, because innovation requires the willingness to fail, a focus on fuzzy outcomes rather than standardized measures, and the bravery to resist the system’s emphasis on strict accountability. But the reward is a kind of liberating creativity that makes teaching exciting and fun, engages students, and—most critical—helps students find the passion and resources necessary to design a better life for themselves and others.