How Can Educators Nurture Innovators?

By Anne Jolly

Kids are born creative, curious, and imaginative. They like to daydream and ask questions. Children you teach have the potential to make unusual connections, imagine, and come up with multiple ways to do things differently and better. Classrooms are filled with potential pioneers and innovators who can one day make a difference in our world. Our job is to make sure they get the kind of education that nourishes their capabilities.

What drives student innovation?
We generally think of innovative people as those who make amazing and outstanding inventions, like the remarkable teens mentioned in this article, Teen Inventors Who Are Changing the World. When reading about these amazing young people I asked myself what seemed to drive them to try to solve the problems they tackled. One underlying commonality emerged: they all cared deeply about the problem they were solving. Most of those who focused on medical innovations seemed driven by a health need of a family member or a friend. Most of the environmental inventors were captivated by the problems faced by people in specific locations (hunger, lack of electricity), hazards created by products such as plastics, and energy needs.

Several of these teens mentioned that they were inspired and encouraged by adults – particularly by teachers who let them think and work outside the box, who encouraged them to follow their passion, and who believed in them.

Another point common to all – they were genuinely glad that their inventions have real-world implications for people today. They wanted to make a difference in their world and to make it a better place for others. They looked forward to tackling more of the world’s problems head-on.

If you’re thinking in terms of “kid geniuses” when thinking of innovative students, think again. Some students do have an amazing grasp of deep concepts in mathematics and science. Yet, you’ll notice that the student innovators described above include traditional students, former gang members, poor students, and even students who were “uneducated” by customary standards. Their “genius” emerged when they had opportunities to explore their caring, interests, and passion.

How can teachers nurture innovators?
So, here’s the deal – innovative students are everywhere, but they often get trapped in uninspiring learning environments. Let’s turn our classrooms into innovation factories! How do we do that? A few ideas . . .

1) Encourage kids to be inquisitive and curious – to continually try to discover the “why” or “how” behind things.
2) Let kids follow their passions and interests. Embrace their “off the wall” ideas and solutions for problems. Encourage them to connect the dots in new ways.
3) Provide open-ended time. Students need unstructured time to reflect and imagine new possibilities and to let their ideas incubate.
4) Create environments where it’s okay to take risks. Allow plenty of trial and error. Kids need time to discover, to explore, to experiment, to learn from failure, and to adjust and realign their ideas.
5) Encourage kids to actively seek input from others. Promote collaborative teamwork as a way to discover, improve, and change.
6) Foster persistence. Offer emotional support to help kids continue in the face of failure. Model persistence with such remarks as: “I tried it this way but it didn’t work. I think I found my mistake and now I’m going to try again.”

That kind of educational support goes beyond traditional teaching. In fact, it takes some quite innovative pedagogy. What kind of classrooms can best accommodate imaginative, persistent and innovative students?

Think PBL. Think STEM.
Imagine that your school, or classroom, is alive with project-based learning (PBL). It features real-life challenges, collaborative spaces, plentiful light, and access to digital and physical resources. This well-research inquiry-based approach to learning allows your students actually exploring real-world challenges and interests that matter to them. In your PBL classroom, students can work for an extended period of time to investigate, produce, and communicate results. This is the kind of setting where they can approach learning with inventive ideas, passion, empathy, and persistence. In this setting, you can recognize and encourage unexpected (even disruptive) innovation opportunities.

A popular 21st-century approach to Project Based Learning (PBL) involves an integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum. To help kids overcome bumps in the road when they are working to solve problems, STEM teachers generally use an engineering design process – a set of structured strategies that guide kids through the steps of gathering information, generating possible solutions, refining their ideas, testing solutions, and analyzing and improving results. With some variations, depending on the EDP you select, you’ll see steps that resemble the ones in these diagrams.

These are your kids. Can you provide a place where kids can be innovators? You may open a door for a student who has no outlet for creative problem-solving. So, let your young STEM enthusiasts follow their passions. Be flexible and encouraging. Don’t tamp down passion and drive, whether or not it’s in a STEM field. Who knows how many kids you may inspire simply by turning them loose?


About the Author:

Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


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