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By Allison Bemiss
From national media reports to political stump speeches, innovation is the new buzzword in education. Everyone who is anyone is talking about innovation. Curriculum is marketed as innovative. Blogs for educators and top universities are discussing the need for more innovation. Education professionals everywhere are charged with the task of INNOVATION- that’s a good thing...right?
Two years ago my team teacher, David Baxter, and I were asked to consider teaching our third through sixth grade students to become innovative thinkers. We entered this task bright eyed and bushy tailed. “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” was our motto. We set out to find a way to teach our little thinkers to become innovators. However, after quite a bit of research we noticed that while everyone was talking about innovation, there were no examples of students working towards innovative thinking. While talking about a million dollars will not add one penny to your bank account; talking about innovation will not make your student's learning innovative. As August drew near we realized we weren't going to be able to put our hope in any one curriculum to lead our students to a new way of thinking.
While we could not find any education examples, we did notice there were examples of Innovation Models all over the business world. Which got our gears turning... If there were business models for creating innovative thinking, shouldn't there be an educational model? We sat down one day along side Dr. Julia Roberts and Dr. Tracy Inman, our mentors from The Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University, and began collective wondering. What is innovation? What does it look like? How might you teach that process to young children?
We decided that creativity and innovation were closely tied. By the time school started, we still had more questions than answers. But we jumped into teaching through innovative thinking with both feet. On the first days of school we asked our young thinkers, “What does innovation/creativity look like at school?” Almost always they replied that it looked like art class or music class. Even recess came in among the top ten answers! A few students did mention creative writing but quickly stated they didn't get that opportunity very often.
Throughout our conversations, not once did we hear the words math or science. By the end of the week we began soliciting answers from our students, specifically asking them if it was possible to be innovative in math or science. We were disheartened at their response. We were met with a resounding "No." Even worse was the face of a child who looked at us like we’d lost our marbles. According to their schema, there was no creativity in math or science.
For the first time since beginning our inquiry into teaching innovation, we actually understood what we needed to do. If our young thinkers could not see the importance of innovation and creativity across the curriculum, we needed to find a way to show them it was possible. Creativity and innovation are processes that stimulate thinking and generate new ideas in all disciplines. We just needed to develop a model to help our students visualize the innovative process.
One feature of our heuristic is the presence of certain “soft” words. To be useful for students and teachers, the model could must not be cluttered with jargon. Relate. Wonder. Imagine. Reflect. Respond. Share. Those are all weighty ideas, equally appropriate for the writer, the historian, the sculptor, or the chemist.
The Innovation Model is purposefully non-linear. Innovators do not proceed around this model as if going from one o’clock, two o’clock to three o’clock. Rather, think of the bold verbs (i.e. connect, inquire, analyze, enhance) as portals through which one might enter the process of innovation. We all have different strengths, and you may find that you tend to favor a particular point of entry. But there is no set beginning point, nor is there a definite end to the process.
For example, a student might notice similarities between the rhythms of rap music and the writings of Dr. Seuss. Sharing this observation with a friend could lead the duo to re-vision The Cat in the Hat as a rap song, and a public performance of that song could lead to audience feedback that promotes further refinement. Contemplating a “failed” attempt to design a solar powered car might ultimately lead the engineer to a successful modification or enhancement. She must then market her idea to her peers and to the public.
Feel free to share the Innovation Model with your colleagues, introduce it to your students, and begin using the vocabulary of innovation in your lessons. You will find that this language naturally supplements your current curriculum and elevates class discussions to a new level. It also helps children master the Speaking and Listening portion of the English, Language Arts Common Core. The open-ended nature of this type of instruction lends itself to natural differentiation for a wide spectrum of learners, including those who are gifted and talented.
Allison Bemiss creates teacher resources to help stimulate innovative thinking in young learners. Please see her blog, Young Thinkers, Big Ideas for more information.
David Baxter and Jennifer Smith are currently using the Innovation Model at GEMS Academy (Gifted Education in Math and Science) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. GEMS Academy is a partnership between Warren County Public Schools and Western Kentucky University. Please check out their website at www.projectgems.org.