— July 7, 2017
How many classes have you had regarding how to innovate? Regardless of the level of schooling you have achieved, for even those of us who have a PhD, the answer is most likely none. Most of our schooling involves teaching us the fundamentals of a given subject, the things that artificial intelligence (A.I.) is getting very good at as every day passes by.
At this point it time, we should ask the question: Can innovation be taught in school?
Important but Ignored
For a topic that’s generally absent from most schools’ curricula, innovation is a critical topic in today’s environment. As exploding technology drives change that is becoming exponentially faster all the time, innovation is an absolute imperative for all sorts of companies and organizations. The reality is stark: Either you innovate or you continue to fall further and further behind (or even worse).
Given that ominous environment, it’s sensible to conclude that, rather than waiting for the sink-or-swim environment that on-the-job education can often be, it would be far more advantageous to both learn and sharpen innovation skills at every level of education.
That rarely takes place. An article on the website EdTech refers to the book Academically Adrift in reporting that, on average, college students spend 1,800 hours in class to earn a typical 120-credit bachelor’s degree—a full 75 days in a classroom. And, most of that time is taken up with passive learning and factual recall—in effect, the monotonous drill of memorizing facts and figures and being ready to spit them back on command. In other words, we are teaching at the lowest level of the cognitive domain. The higher levels of the cognitive domain such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating are usually not covered.
Why that environment rather than one that helps teach innovation? One reason is that because innovation was never covered in school, it is hard to describe and quantify. As an article in Forbes notes, being innovative means pursuing unreliable leads, often with no single “right” answer in sight—exactly the opposite from the conventional pattern of structured learning and demonstrated recall of information that is clearly either correct or incorrect.
How Innovation Can Be Taught
Despite an education system that seems stacked against it, innovation isn’t necessarily doomed to remain outside the classroom forever. But it will require something of a seismic shift in what’s taught and how. That starts with creating “safe” conditions for risk taking—rewarding curiosity and different thinking and letting students know that it’s not merely OK but often optimal to make mistakes (akin to my anticipatory principle of “failing fast” to learn from the misstep and to move forward as quickly as possible).
Teaching innovation will also mandate changes in the nuts and bolts of education as well. For instance, further use of group projects and other exercises that emphasize exploration and intellectual give-and-take can help students identify avenues with which they can innovate. New forms of collaborative technology can further strengthen these sorts of options.
Innovation can also be taught by taking students outside of the classroom more frequently. For instance, students can spend more of their academic time exploring real job settings, working on projects that put textbook theories into practice and real responsibility in their hands rather than just passively absorbing information.
Lastly, means of evaluating student performance will also have to evolve and change. As the Forbes piece notes: “It also requires new conceptions for evaluation that measure individual personal growth, not unified performance against a set target.”
Looked at through a very black and white lens, how innovation is taught today, if at all, might be likened to placing a person in the cockpit of a flying airplane and hoping he or she has enough intellectual wherewithal to figure out how to land safely. That may occur on occasion, but wouldn’t it be wiser to learn that essential skill beforehand in the safety of flight school? The same might be said for teaching innovation in the classroom—better to get a jump on acquiring those skills in advance before they become a matter of organizational survival.