Welcome 2016: Educating innovators

Welcome 2016: Educating innovators

Welcome 2016!

Educating innovators who are creative and resourceful should be the goal of all educators. President Obama said “innovation is the currency of the 21st century.” But we are devaluing our children’s learning through a currency of knowledge retention, too often at the expense of today’s creativity for tomorrow’s innovation. Students are taught about innovators and innovations, but not how they can become innovators.

How can educators educate future innovators?

Focus on the basics using 21st century definitions of literacy and numeracy. Educators can nurture creativity only when students have a firm foundation of literacy and numeracy. Literacy used to stop at the ability to read simple words and add and subtract. These are necessary skills, but no longer sufficient. When asked about why kids who are struggling to learn basic arithmetic should embrace coding, Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) replied: “I think that in the next few decades, at least having a strong familiarity with software and what programming can accomplish is pretty powerful.”

Today literacy is the capacity to understand, use, and reflect critically on written information; numeracy is the capacity to reason mathematically and use mathematical concepts, procedures, and tools to explain and predict situations. Students possessing basic literacy and numeracy skills have essential tools to develop curiosity, self-reliance, agency, and resilience. Complex ideas rest on simple principles. Teaching students how to think is essential.

Girl with baguette

Basic literacy and numeracy are the nutrients innovation.

Integrate social and emotional learning into the curriculum. It’s not only academics. Teachers must lead the way in convincing administrators and policymakers of this reality. Research shows that young students who learn how to recognize, communicate and manage their emotions are more successful both in school and in life.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State and Duke universities published a study that looked at what had happened to students one and two decades after kindergarten who were exposed to social and emotional learning in school. Children able to navigate the social world were more likely to graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time jobs as young adults, and avoid juvenile detention and adult imprisonment than their less socially adept peers.

Take time to reflect. Our educational system, and society in general, seem to fear the prospect of letting kids do nothing — to be bored. Writer Maria Popova sees boredom not only as an adaptive emotion but a vital one.

It is essential for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, for art and science in equal measure. When Jane Goodall set out to turn her childhood dream into reality, she spent three years squatting in the dirt to patiently perform repetitive work that required an enormous capacity for boredom — something at the root of the art of observation upon which all science rests. A capacity for boredom is equally central to the arts. Without boredom, there would be no daydreaming and no room for reflection. Without “positive constructive daydreaming,”there is no creativity; without reflection, we are no longer able to respond and instead merely react.

Daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements in educating innovators

Remember that failure IS an option. Sometimes it seems we have forgotten that education is supposed to be fun and engaging.  Too many students march through an uninspired school day, hours of nightly homework, and weekend-long assignments (which bore students and occupy their parents). Take a look at this middle school two-weekend assignment. History Assignment

Is it creative or busy work?  Does it engage the child or destroy precious family time? You decide.

Finished assignment: how much parent, how much student?

Finished assignment: how much parent, how much student?

Each school activity and homework assignment becomes a step on a ladder to a top college and “successful” career. Low-income kids climb the same ladder, usually with far less support than their privileged peers. Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.

If we want today’s kids to be tomorrow’s innovators, they need to be nourished to flourish. Some studies suggest that a linear drive toward success based on conformism can erode children’s health and undermine their potential. “Modern education is actually making them sick,” writes researcher-writer Vicki Abeles.

Kids need not fear failure to learn. As Jules Verne wrote: “Science … is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which are useful to make, because they lead to the truth.” Making mistakes can help all of us build a context for thinking and doing — two essential tools for innovation. Posing questions, working with peers from diverse backgrounds, and making mistakes are crucial steps take by innovators of the past who have stumbled onto new discoveries. These stumbles are the stuff of innovation and can be modeled in our schools. And, yes, measured, through pre-testing, contextualization, and individualized experiences that lead to learning.

Tailor learning not just for college because college is not for everyone. Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, writes about the learning tailored to the interests of individual students as a gateway not only four-year liberal arts colleges, but also to technical schools and apprenticeships.  He writes:

Consider, for example, technician jobs. They don’t require a four-year degree. But they do require mastery over a domain of technical knowledge, which can usually be obtained in two years. Technician jobs are growing in importance. As digital equipment replaces the jobs of routine workers and lower-level professionals, technicians are needed to install, monitor, repair, test, and upgrade all the equipment … [as well as] to repair the digital systems linking us to one another. Technology is changing so fast that knowledge about specifics can quickly become obsolete.

Sometimes you cannot predict who might be a future innovator.

Sometimes you cannot predict who might be a future innovator.

As we embrace the potential for all students in 2016, let’s not forget to focus on the basics, nurture social and emotional learning, take time to reflect, embrace failure, and remember that future innovators will not necessarily be those who march lockstep from kindergarten to college. #educating innovators


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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