Updated: Aug 30, 2019
In 1964 Nico Jacobellis, manager of the Heights Art Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was charged with two counts of possessing and exhibiting the film The Lovers on the grounds that the material was obscene. The court case hinged on the definition of obscenity - an objective term that’s hard to define legally. This prompted Justice Potter Stewart to say "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
This is how many of us think of innovation. It seems difficult to define innovation, or make it happen, but we definitely “know it when we see it.” We’re aware we need to be more innovative in our teaching and that we need to model innovation and encourage it in our students. It's exciting when innovation happens in the classroom, so how can we be more intentional and strategic as we encourage innovative mindsets in our students?
Actually, it’s not that hard. Maybe your Year 1 students won’t create the next radical or disruptive technological breakthrough but you can definitely leverage innovation strategies to achieve better outcomes for students.
There are three types of innovation that are super easy to implement in the classroom. The first type is often referred to as incremental innovation - the gradual, intentional improvement of systems or products over time. In the classroom I call this “cooler if” innovation. “Skateboards are cool, but they would be cooler if…” You’re probably already applying this principle, because it’s what we do as teachers all the time as we support students to improve their work. In literacy, some teachers call it “up-leveling”. Narratives are up-leveled by adding adjectives. We can encourage innovative thinking in children by asking them to think of a favourite toy, activity or product and thinking about ways to improve it. With older students, it may involve critical reflection on a Design and Technology project. "Cooler if" thinking can lead to students exceeding goals they have set for themselves - it's fantastic when the final execution of a project or idea is better than the original vision or concept.
The second kind of innovation learners can apply in the classroom is architectural innovation. This involves taking something from one context, or market, to another. For example, in 1966 NASA created a new kind of foam to improve the safety of air cushions. This technology was adopted by the medical and sporting industries and now “memory foam” is widely used in bed mattresses.
This "transfer" innovation strategy can be used to help students become more creative with technology. They can use skills or concepts they’ve learned in PE, science, or creative arts and bring them into a technical project, or vice versa. There’s a powerful synergy when we link creativity and technology, which is a good argument for teaching both skills well.
I once worked with some Year 4 girls who transferred their knowledge of art and music into a robot performance by syncing the robot’s drawing moves to the beat of the song, drawing a geometric pattern on the floor as the robot moved. It wasn’t very hard to do technically, but the innovative aspect of the performance won them first place in a regional robotics competition. Of course, they then applied incremental innovation which resulted in multiple robots dancing around with different coloured felt pens, syncing with each other via bluetooth. It was such an exciting and empowering experience for these students.
The third type of innovation that is easy to apply in the classroom, even at a young age, I call "ABC" innovation. This is fun to do in the classroom and it's easy to engage students. Simply take two unrelated things (A + B) and combine them to get C, which is your new innovation. This type of thinking gave birth to MTV: music and video was combined, which revolutionised the way we experience music as well as opening up new market and revenue opportunities for the industry.
ABC innovation is a great way to help students generate new ideas, because they are using existing ideas, or products as an inspirational springboard. You can support this process by brainstorming a list of As and Bs, and encouraging students to discuss and combine them to produce a new C. They can then describe their new product, draw diagrams, and discuss monetisation and marketing strategies.
There are other types of innovation as well, and innovative people (like you!) will create new ones, but these are a great place to start. It's as easy as ABC!