The best back to school PD day I ever had didn’t involve administrators, union leadership, or even fellow teachers speaking and presenting. Instead, all of the Stamford Public School teachers gathered in an auditorium and listened to Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium. At this time he wasn’t yet a pop culture icon. He didn’t have over a million Facebook friends or the wildly popular StarTalk radio show, The Cosmos had not been revived and he wasn’t yet a fixture on The Colbert Report. But he was hugely inspiring. In that auditorium he presented us with a clear and powerful challenge, create a culture of innovation. For, as he told SF Gate’s Todd Miller in March of this year, “Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers – poets, actors, journalists – they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture.” As a student and lover of the humanities this idea resonates with me. Isn’t some of the best art, music and literature from periods of great scientific advancement? Think Da Vinci, Stravinsky, and H.G. Wells- all examples of artists whose innovative works mirror the scientific innovation of their respective time periods. As a teacher, isn’t it exciting to think that in our classrooms sit future innovators? So, what kind of community and culture are needed to sow these seeds of innovation? In my research there are four key ideas that show up repeatedly:
- Look Beyond Day-to-Day Survival
Let’s stick with our science/pop-culture hero for just a moment. In the same interview where Tyson lauds innovation he also speaks of the concept of frontiers. He says that “In the absence of the frontier we’re just left with the urges to try and survive from day-to-day.” While he is referencing big frontiers like the universe, we can translate this easily to something much smaller but equally as boundless, our students for whom the day-to-day is grades and the frontier is knowledge. When grades become the focus there really isn’t room for innovation, we have to shift towards a mindset that sees the learning process as something more than a letter on a transcript. Which brings me to the next big idea…
- Our Knowledge and Ability has Limitless Bounds
In a recent piece, New Research: Students Benefit from Learning That Intelligence Is Not Fixed on KQED’s blog, Mind/Shift, the author explores current research on growth mindset. This research echoes a refrain I heard over and over again at High Tech High, if a student is made aware that the power of his brain isn’t fixed then he is willing to take on greater academic challenge and possibility. In other words, students who know of growth mindsets are students who will venture into the frontier of knowledge even if this frontier is ripe with risks.
- Try, Fail, Try Again and Again but Have Fun Doing It
Every student I met at High Tech High got really excited when they spoke about their failed attempts to finish a project. They gleefully recounted false starts and metaphoric speed bumps. It was as if these challenges made their ultimate success sweeter. There is a lot of interesting reading about letting kids fall (sometimes literally) in order for them to really succeed. This goes with the idea of shifting the focus from grades to process and as teachers, it is a reminder that sometimes we need to structure opportunities for our students to struggle, problem solve and feel rewarded by the process rather than defeated by a grade.
- Innovation Requires a Community
In the end it comes down to one big idea, our students need support. They need a community of learners to show them the wild frontier, to replace limits with possibility, and to help them feel comfortable stumbling before succeeding. Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens when students, teachers and other members of the community work along side each other.
The best path to creating a culture of innovation in which future scientists, writers and thinkers can truly learn and grow requires that we, as educators, embrace innovation culture and all that comes with it so we can be models for our students.