Simple Ways to Let Innovation Happen

Often schools mistake the use of public space and time promoting a practice for the real thing. What does real innovation look like?

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Innovation is a tricky goal.  We know what it sounds like and looks like as we promote the behaviors, attitudes, practices and language that we believe will make it happen.  We don't want to feel that our efforts are not worthwhile, so we put time and space into public discourse about how innovative we are and how our ideas are working.  We ask teachers, students and parents to write ideas on walls, post tweets and comments and talk about how everything is working the way we want it to.  But does that mean it's really working?  And how can we tell?  What does real innovation feel like?

Schools have always been places that, when they were successful, masterfully combined public and private thinking, creativity, work and learning to help people learn and grow.  Increasingly we are losing our private spaces (inside our heads as well) to public ones.  In many ways this has been a positive development but real innovation needs some privacy as well.

Scientists, artists, designers, inventors, musicians, (and teachers and students) need time to think. 

How can schools, already so busy and already so public, provide opportunities for private thinking (as opposed to group quiet times like meditation and yoga classes)? How can schools make private space and time available for those who want it?

Some ideas:

1) Take the Silent Reading Idea one step further: Take at least 15 minutes from one day per week for people to do whatever they want (at their workspaces ie. desks).  Maybe it's reading, maybe it's journalling, maybe it's designing.  There is no talking and no sharing (until later).  If people want to nap, they can do that too.  Creativity and innovation are not one-size-fits-all models; different people need different circumstances at different times in their lives.

2) Run a Thinking Lab: Once a year, after school, at lunch, once a month - make an elective.  People can go to a quiet space and think and design and it's not graded and they don't have to share until they are ready.  Pilot it with a small interested group - make people apply to get in - you can put safeguards in so that kids don't use it to hatch sinister plots. Make the labs short (as in a few weeks) at first so that you can see what students (and teachers) come up with in the end.  Sometimes innovation needs a blank slate or at least not the 'problem' or 'challenge' that a school teacher or administrator or business leader has come up with.

3) Provide regular opportunities for everyone to clear their minds.  Whether it's tech free days, mediation, yoga, reading, running, etc. We all need time away from screens and other people to relax and to stop worrying and take a deep breath.  We think too superficially about too many things because we don't have time to think deeply.  We have almost forgotten how to do it.

4) Help students learn to value their privacy by valuing it first.  Don't make them share every journal entry, write reflections on every project, show you every plan for every thing they write or produce.  This kind of thinking has good intentions but it ends up regulating, in time, space and language - HOW students think, create and problem solve.  These routines can lead to the looks like it and sounds like it but isn't really what we want.

5) Be prepared for failure.  Whether this is because the solutions are taking too long, or a student slacked off  - when we trust each other with privacy and with time, sometimes things don't work out.  Failure and mistakes aren't just made when people are working hard to create - they are also made when we make bad choices.  We all do it and if we can learn from them, we are in a better position to think outside the box.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alexandrea Alphonso

Robin, I agree with your first thoughts on innovation. From the ideas you've posted, how would we measure the impact? Would these ideas be for students or geared towards teachers? What resources/support would be needed for a district to embrace these ideas?

Photo of Robin U


You have asked some really important questions that I don't necessarily know the answer to. The ideas need more time and more collaboration and more specificity before we can figure this out.

At this point, here are my thoughts but I am curious to know your ideas as well:

1. Measurement: One thing about innovation and creativity is that it's hard to measure. The first step would be to give at least one of them a reasonable amount of time. The Thinking Lab idea could be time specific with a hoped for result at the end - just making sure to leave people with some private time between the beginning and the end.

I taught an elective a few years ago called Self-Directed Learning. Students chose what they wanted to learn about, chose an outcome that would show what they had learned, how they were going to learn ie. websites, etc. and made schedules for themselves. The Thinking Lab could end up working in the same way. If only interested students and teachers piloted the lab, they would already have an idea - the class or sessions would be limited ie. once a week for twelve weeks or once a day for a week, or whatever. At the end, participants would share their ideas and we would take it from there.

2. These ideas would be mostly geared towards students but also towards interested teachers and other staff. Everyone can benefit from a little time to think and a little less time having to justify and reflect on every second of their time. Facebook and writing reflections in this sense have the same effect; we are constantly living outside of our experiences because we are documenting every second of them. We start in school and we expand into social networking. What if we just had a bit of time to 'experience' and to fully be where we are without having to talk and/or write about it the next minute? What effect would this have on the depth of our ideas?

3. About resources: Time, space and people are always the factors that we need more of in school. If districts and/or schools want to inspire innovation, they either have to make time, spaces and/or more people available or be innovative and creative enough to do a workaround. I think workarounds are awesome but they have to be specific to a school. This would be another fun job - go around to different schools and help them create these spaces and programs with the resources that they already have.

What do you think?

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