Innovation as Behavior

Full disclosure, I’ve spent the past 10 years developing Computer Science, Design and Robotics curriculum. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that those areas of study contribute greatly to one’s ability to innovate today. However, I would argue that schools ability to shape behaviors and habits eclipses the technical skills they will learn in a typical Computer Science class. After all, the purpose of K-12 education should not be that of a trade school. We must look beyond the technical skills in our classes and harness all teachers ability to foster innovative behaviors. In the recently published book The Innovators DNA, Christenson, Dyer and Gregerson explore the topic of innovation by conducting surveys of hundreds of CEO’s from innovative companies. “A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact …When engaged in consistently, these actions- questioning, observing, networking and experimenting- triggered associational thinking.” Quite simply, we need to train ourselves to thrive at these skills and make a conscious effort to associate a diverse set of experiences which help us formulate novel ideas. How can schools develop these behaviors in young learners?

From The Innovators DNA

From this research, we know that innovation in schools can be taught with the following behavioral skills — questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. Schools are generally focused on questioning and experimenting, and sometimes observation (yet usually only for teachers). The challenge in schools becomes connecting established methods for developing innovative thinking skills with newer pedagogies often influenced by technology disruptions. So how can we harness the power of great teachers with developing discovery skills?

Questioning- Many schools already practice Inquiry Based Learning, which poses questions, problems or scenarios to students rather than focusing on content acquisition. Questioning and Inquiry can harness the power of curiosity which according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, those with a higher CQ, or Curiosity Quotient indicate they are more able to deal with ambiguities and complexities than those with lower CQ scores. Arguably CQ is now just as important as IQ in today’s increasingly complex world.

From Theory to Practice: Students should be encouraged to use your school librarian to dive into a research project utilizing your access to online library databases. If you find yourself assigning reading more than you ask students to find their own sources, perhaps update a unit of study in your course to include Inquiry.

Observing- One might argue that students are constantly observing in schools, and I tend to agree that a good student does see school through the lens of observation. However, encouraging students in all academic subjects to observe often is something we should encourage. The act of journaling in all classes, the power of reflection and the low stakes of writing your thoughts allows for the learner to have their own space. Going back, and reflecting on how you thought about a topic after diving into a field of study can also be quite rewarding for students to see where their thinking has led them.

From Theory to Practice: Start every class with a warmup question in Google Classroom to allow students to answer a free form question. Ask questions that encourage them to describe experiences or things they have seen in the past 24 hours.

Networking- Children are natural networkers, busily making new connections with people online and offline. Social Networking has now possibly surpassed our young students understanding of networking as a whole, as they are very adept at meeting a new friend online through another friend and striking up a conversation around a topic of interest. However, students need help with leveraging their networks and forming offline networks. This is where schools need to help students. Every great Independent school has an excellent network of alumni, local community, businesses, non-profits and even other schools close in proximity. Once excellent example for an organization that has leveraged networking, and I believe should influence how schools operate is the Center for Social Innovation. It is vital that we give students the space and resources to build non-profits dedicated to helping tackle the issues of climate, community health, and civil rights just to name a few. Students need to move beyond the classroom to experience the so called “wicked” problems in the world and then unite to help solve those problems. We can’t do that with the students staying in the classroom. We need them to get out there and network.

From Theory to Practice: Leverage your service learning initiative to allow students to apply for access to a coworking environment similar to the Center for Social Innovation. Reward students that wish to help a cause by giving them the space, time and resources.

Experimenting- Your science class and makerspace are very adept at experimenting. This behavior is most likely the most common in schools, which is great! Science experiments that alter one variable at a time and measure the outcomes is an excellent way to innovate. The Scientific Method is perhaps the best known process for this type of learning. So is moving through the Design Thinking method in a school’s makerspace or art classes to design something with purpose.

From Theory to Practice: Take your non-STEM class through the design thinking process to allow the students to experiment. Perhaps allow your English class to experiment with creating memes for your most recent book.

Associational Thinking happens when the brain looks for patterns from novel inputs. According to research, associational thinking will follow if the 4 behaviors above are practiced. We must encourage teaching these behavioral skills in schools. Innovation is often seen as elusive and difficult to teach. Often we beef up Computer Science or Maker education which often does help develop innovation skills. But we can be more innovative if we frame our teaching and learning around these behavioral skills. I would encourage a school to have faculty and students work through these behaviors to generate a more substantial list of best practices. After all, if we get stuck discussing theory we will most likely not update our classes to reflect our philosophies. So I ask, how would you update your class or school to encourage these behaviors?