Key Advice for Every Educator about How to Encourage Innovation

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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goldfish jumping out of the waterWhen I first read about what Mark Lang was doing to inspire innovation in students, I emailed him immediately to talk about key lessons that he has learned from his work with educators and students. (Full interview is posted in Featured Innovator) The heart of his message?

  • Help students identify problems from their own experience that are meaningful to them. This often takes much time and effort because so many students don’t understand their likes, abilities, and interests.
  • Create a safe environment to try and fail. Give students enough time and chances to pursue a given idea and team, then shift or abandon those choices—sometimes several times—for another. A few students will latch onto something quickly and jump in, but most need several chances because the experience is so new.
  • Provide regular reinforcement. Teachers encourage students and provide feedback. We also invite a variety of successful business and community leaders to sit with individual student teams during class or sometimes at the business location. The business leaders ask students good questions and help the teams identify useful resources. This kind of interaction proves to be a tremendous confidence-building and learning experience for students.
  • Provide tools to frame, without specifying direction, the work that is needed. Most students have never tackled a complex problem that will take months of planning and effort to solve. We provide guidelines and rubrics related to the project and skills, and we are creating tools as we go. We have recently incorporated a tool called the Business Model Canvas (actually used in graduate entrepreneurship classes at Stanford University) that calls attention to all aspects of the project and helps track progress.
  • Constantly nudge students to be innovative, because the challenges and ambiguity will keep driving them to accept a proven answer.
  • Make sure you have a supportive team of instructors who meet periodically to evaluate how best to maintain progress, particularly when students face challenges or setbacks.

The wisdom is powerful for every educator and once again honors the three principles this website. But this also speaks about the school and classroom climate that is necessary in order for students to do this work.

  • Educators collaborate regularly in service to what learners need and how they are making sense of the material.
  • Educators provide general parameters for a task, but do not provide direction. It reminds me of Dan Meyer’s TED talk on making a problem as simple as possible and letting students have at it.
  • Educators encourage students to take risks through creating room for them to play, to problem solve, to fail which requires time.

The setting for the learning is as important as the task itself.


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