Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Innovation, creativity, play and the maker movement

This is the second of my blog posts looking back at what I've been learning and thinking about over the past year.  Today I'm writing about how my thinking has developed in the areas of innovation and creativity.  Earlier in the year ASB's R&D team read The Innovator's DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen.  The first part of this book discusses disruptive innovation and deals with how to become more creative. The books defines several creativity skills that characterize innovative people:  they engage in observing, questioning, experimenting and networking, all of which spark new ideas.  Most important of all, innovative institutions develop processes that encourage this observing, questioning, experimenting and networking by employees. 

In The Innovator's DNA there are many examples given of how most innovators are intense observers.  They observe what works and also become very sensitive to what doesn't work. 
Innovators also network to tap into new ideas by deliberately working with and valuing people who have diverse ideas and perspectives.  They go on to test out ideas through pilots and prototypes are where you really learn - often because the results are unexpected.  

Later in the year I was lucky enough to participate in the Invent to Learn workshop with Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez.  Gary talked about personal fabrication being the next major revolution - with 3D printers for example you have the means of production and also the process skills to be able to design and create.  Gary talked about how the Maker Revolution is giving us the skills we need for the future and likened this to "going up on the down escalator".  Students need to try things out and learn what works and what doesn't work by working through a process of think, make and improve.  In fact, the very skills that we want to develop in students to encourage creativity and innovation are those that are fostered by the maker movement.  In Gary's opinion the most important thing we can do as teachers is to step back and let students learn through their experience.  There needs to be less us and more them.

Gary visited ASB in November and kickstarted our maker movement at school.  Another visitor we had in the same month was Suzie Boss.  In her book Bringing Innovation to School Suzie observed that many students today have problems coming up with new ideas.  She says they lack the confidence to think boldly because schools in general don't reward students for having crazy ideas.  As I read this it made me think of the Design Thinking workshop I'd attended in Detroit in the summer where we were told that during ideation we should brainstorm as many options as possible and to note down all ideas no matter how crazy they might seem.  Suzie Boss writes that "if we're serious about preparing students to be innovators we have some work ahead.  Getting students ready to tackle tomorrow's challenges means helping them develop a new set of skills and fresh ways of thinking." 

This year I've also been thinking about how easy it is (or not) for teachers to be innovators, and how important it is for teachers to be able to model this for their students.  A lot of this is down to the culture of a school and whether it supports risk-taking, which seems to be at the heart of innovation.  Does the school encourage teachers to be thinkers, so that they in turn can model thinking for their students?  Is there a willingness to explore new things, to be involved in research and development?  To be critical thinkers?  To try things out and to fail and to learn from this to try other things or ways that might succeed?

Suzie has developed an "innovation profile" which applies both to individual teachers and to the administrators who either encourage or discourage innovation:

  • Action oriented - Suzie says that "taking action is a hallmark of innovators"  Stanford University's d.school says it's about "doing and making over thinking and meeting".
  • Knowing how to network - Innovators are eager to network, mostly using Web 2.0 tools. Innovative educators are thinking aloud and sharing using blogs, wikis and Twittter.  They don't just share finished or successful projects, they blog or tweet as they go along, writing about what is working and what isn't.  Innovative educators are reflective and are happy for others to build on their experiences.
  • Risk-takers - Sharing projects in public that may or may not work as expected is very risky - but innovators are not afraid of making mistakes and learning from them publicly - and sharing across a network allows input from many others into improvements that can eventually lead to success.  
  • Forward looking - the title of this blog post comes from this statement of Suzie's:  "Because innovation creates a new normal, it's often only in hindsight that we can see the wisdom of breakthrough ideas".  Innovators are not looking backwards, however, they are looking ahead.
  • Overcoming obstacles - Innovation is messy with a lot of failure along the way - this doesn't sit right with many schools that have little tolerance for mess or wrong turnings.  Recently while Bernajean Porter was at ASB I learned a new phrase from her: "Da Um Jeitinho" which means there is always a way to make something happen.  Innovators break down the barriers!
  • Moving ideas forward - innovators spread the word, they share what is working so that others can use it too.  They collaborate and invite the community in.  They celebrate their students achievements and accomplishments openly.  
Are there other things that can help foster innovation and creativity in students?  Well according to Richard Louv natural settings and the integration of informal play with formal learning and multisensory experiences are seen as essential for healthy child development. Natural spaces are seen as similar to "loose-parts" toys (for example Lego) where children can use the parts in many different ways.  The "parts" in a natural play area can include trees, bushes, flowers, long grass, water such as a pond and the creatures that live in water, sand and so on which can fire up a child's imagination and creativity - studies are emerging from many different countries that show that children engage in more creative forms of play in "green areas", in particular more fantasy and make-believe play.  Children also play together in more egalitarian ways than on playgrounds with play equipment and structures - in playgrounds a social hierarchy is established through physical competence in contrast to open grassy areas where students focus less on physical abilities and more on language skills.  In these outdoor spaces it is the more creative children emerge as the leaders.

Would you like to read about these things in more depth?  If so please feel free to read the full blog posts I've written this year about innovation, creativity, play and the maker movement.

The courage to innovate

Observing, networking and experimenting
Invent to learn:  less us, more them
Disruption -v- innovation
Modeling innovation
Creating the new normal
Playing in natural settings

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

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