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How many classes have you had on how to innovate? Regardless of the level of schooling you have achieved, for even those of us who have a PhD, the answer is most likely none.

A novel educational idea: innovation as a subject

Most of our schooling involves teaching us the fundamentals of a given subject – something that artificial intelligence (A.I.) is getting very good at by the day.

At this point it time, we should ask the question: Can innovation be taught in school?

Important but ignored

For a topic that’s generally absent from most schools’ curricula, innovation is crucial in today’s environment.

As technology drives change incresingly faster all the time, innovation is an absolute imperative for all sorts of companies and organizations.

The reality is stark: either you innovate, or you continue to fall further and further behind (or even worse).

Given that ominous environment, it’s sensible to conclude that, rather than waiting for the sink-or-swim environment that on-the-job education can often be, it would make much more sense to learn and sharpen innovation skills at every level of education.

But that rarely happens. An article on EdTech refers to the book Academically Adrift in reporting that, on average, college students spend 1,800 hours in class to earn a typical 120-credit bachelor’s degree. That’s a full 75 days in a classroom.

And most of that time is taken up by passive learning and factual recall.

We are teaching at the lowest level of the cognitive domain—and skills like analyzing, evaluating, and creating are usually not covered.

So why have we chosen this environment rather than one that helps teach innovation? One reason is that because innovation was never covered in school, it is hard to describe and quantify.

As an article in Forbes notes, being innovative means pursuing unreliable leads, often with no single “right” answer in sight. This is exactly the opposite of the conventional pattern of structured learning and demonstrated recall of information that is either correct or incorrect.

How innovation can be taught

Despite an educational system that seems stacked against it, innovation isn’t necessarily doomed to remain outside the classroom forever. But it will require something of a seismic shift in what’s taught and how.

It all starts with creating “safe” conditions for risk-taking, from rewarding curiosity and different thinking, to letting students know that it’s not just OK but often good to make mistakes – akin to my anticipatory principle of “failing fast” to learn from the misstep and move forward as quickly as possible.

Teaching innovation will also mandate changes in the nuts and bolts of education.

Further use of group projects and other exercises that emphasize intellectual give-and-take can help students identify avenues with which they can innovate. New forms of collaborative technology can further strengthen these sorts of options.

Innovation can also be taught by taking students outside of the classroom more frequently. For instance, they can spend more of their academic time exploring real job settings.

They can work on projects that put textbook theories into practice and real responsibility in their hands.

Lastly, means of evaluating student performance will also have to evolve and change. As the Forbes piece notes: “It also requires new conceptions for evaluation that measure individual personal growth, not unified performance against a set target.”

If you look through a very black-and-white lens at how innovation is taught today, if at all, you might want to compare it to placing a person in the cockpit of a flying airplane, hoping they have enough intellectual wherewithal to figure out how to land safely.

That may occur on occasion, but wouldn’t it be wiser to learn that essential skill beforehand in the safety of flight school?

The same might be said for teaching innovation in the classroom—better to get a jump on acquiring those skills in advance before they become a matter of organizational survival.


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