The myth is that if we simply allow for innovation, it happens.
People are naturally creative, right? So if we simply remove constraints, teachers and students will gleefully reveal their creative inner selves and parents will delight to see new ideas in action. And yet, many schools trying this approach find that it results in either chaos or stagnation, with confused children, frustrated teachers and unhappy parents.
Creating a culture of innovation requires much more than “benign neglect.” It requires a purposeful team approach that includes all stakeholders, one that assigns resources, processes and priorities to both short-term and long-term goals that are clear and that promote innovative practices.
Picture caption: THS middle school students win Best Presentation award at the finals of Technovation Challenge HK for their Android app Meetup Cleanup which addresses Hong Kong's problem with trash and waste management. Meetup Cleanup allows its users to geo-tag trash trouble spots, organise clean-ups and locate the closest waste recycling centres via its GPS feature.
Innovation does not occur in a vacuum. An innovative individual is someone who identifies a challenge and reacts to it with a new and productive solution. In that two-part definition, the first part is to identify challenges. That means that within an innovative community of students, teachers and parents, people are taught and encouraged to define a challenge – a job to be done or problem to be solved. It is one thing to solve a problem that has been handed you by a teacher (or, in a teacher’s case, by an administrator). People do that every day, and life does give us plenty of problems to solve that we haven’t previously identified or chosen.
But innovation is much more likely if we are involved in authentic production – authentically trying to solve a problem that we have identified and defined in a way that provides an authentic solution. Whether that is finding a solution to monitoring ocean plastic, building an elegant low-cost solution for public housing, or figuring out how to “code-shift” when talking to people who think differently than you, the innovative results typically stem from a desire to do something that is real.
When an entire community is involved with finding new problems and attempting to solve them, each attempt is an invitation to others to join the effort. No idea is a “failure” because it is a step on the road to solution. If the community’s culture encourages finding problems, not just answers, then the multitude of innovative solutions explodes into areas not even imagined by those who might be planning the curriculum.
Innovation – like freedom – is messy and difficult, and an innovative community is not one that everyone is comfortable with. Sometimes innovation is hard to control or predict. Sometimes innovation is frustrating, and not every innovative idea is an improvement. Sometimes one person’s innovation means that others must adjust.
And yet a culture of innovation inspires and excites, inviting and compelling each person within it to focus on improvement not just of that person but of the community and the world.