Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison [wikiquote.org]
I should probably be writing comments… but my coffee is brewing, my toast is toasting, and my eggs are… wait, I’ll be right back! (…) The point is, when I’m cooking (breakfast or otherwise), that’s one of my times to think and reflect. And I just realized that important discussions in several different parts of my personal learning network (PLN) have converged. Innovation, the theme both of this year’s National Association of Independent Schools conference and of two recent discussions on Twitter, was also woven into a discussion on MiddleTalk (the listserv of the Association of Middle Level Education).
Peter Gow of Beaver Country Day School, in a blog entitled “Now, About Those Men in Their Gray Flannel Suits…,” reminds us that it’s not enough just to think of innovation as a buzzword, we need to do the hard and intentional background work to prepare for it properly. Beyond that, he states, “‘Innovation’ was the theme of the [NAIS] conference, not ‘Innovation except for anyone who wants to opt out.’” With those foundational thoughts in mind, we can turn to an even more foundational question… what the heck is ‘innovation’ anyway?
That was exactly the topic of one recent exchange I had on Twitter when Elizabeth Helfant asked, in the context of a discussion about how to assess innovation, how innovation could be defined in the first place. My response was, “A unique and new way of thinking about and/or doing something that is not simply evolutionary.” That seemed to fit with her working definition at the time, quoting Peter Drucker’s summary of his work: “Change that creates a new dimension of performance.”
Of course, one could back up and ask, why and how would we assess innovation in the first place? Are we even teaching it? More importantly, should we be teaching it? And even more importantly, how? These questions ran through another recent Twitter exchange. Everyone seemed to agree that to find success in our ever-changing world that is ever-changing more and more rapidly, we must be ready not just to adapt and change but also to lead the way, to innovate. So if we are preparing our students for the world, it would seem teaching them to innovate is a necessary part of our curriculum. Which returns us to the stickiest question, how?
On this topic, Mike Muir, a former middle school teacher (and a former member of the AMLE Board of Trustees) currently consulting on the Kindergarten-level iPad program being implemented in Auburn, Maine, has some insight. In a discussion on MiddleTalk about the risks and possible benefits of the Common Core State Standards, he explained how hard and intentional work at the school and district levels was leading to “a viable curriculum, based on the Common Core, that will lend itself to an individualized, customized, standards-based, performance-based approach.” So you’ve got an example of innovative-style thinking producing a framework in which innovation could occur, all the while tying that framework to a national-level common experience.
I don’t – yet! – see how we can guarantee that students will come up with something truly innovative as part of their standard work in school. But I can easily see how we can set them up to be able to innovate. If we give them (and, even better – as Karen is currently doing in her Humanities 8 class – allow them to generate) knotty real-world problems to solve, even if their solutions may have been tried before, they are nonetheless likely to be new and exciting to them.
There are no doubt many ways to create a culture that will do as much as possible to ensure our students are learning to innovate. The Marin Country Day School has recently created a new position, that of Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning (embedded in their job description is an innovative concept on its own – “STEAM,” or “Science-Technology-Engineering-Art-Math.”). Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, in her new book The Connected Educator, writes of taking the concept of a PLN to the next level and thinking of a “Connected Teacher Network” that includes the local Professional Learning Community of students, parents, faculty and staff, and administrators, the larger Communities of Practice that includes special interest groups and other teachers, and the even larger Personal Learning Networks, “the whole world” as she reframes it.
So… when do we start?! Or… have we already?